History will judge us harshly: Stalemate in Burundi

Monument of National Unity in Bujumbura, Burundi
Burundi’s Monument of National Unity (Wikimedia Commons)

Ever since Burundi gained independence in 1962, politicians representing the nation’s two main ethnic groups – the Hutu and the Tutsi – have tried but failed to reach a lasting power-sharing agreement. As a result, the nation has experienced one coup or genocide after another. Ordinary Burundians are caught in the middle, hoping against hope for durable peace and stability.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: February 9, 1995


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “History will judge is harshly – Stalemate in Burundi”. The program is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Fear is the number one enemy. Hutu number one enemy is not Tutsi, but fear. And Tutsi number one enemy is not the Hutu but fear. To say that is profound is a euphemism. It is not only profound. It has unfortunately become part of the character. So fear is fear and more fear.

Fear, according to the Webster’s Dictionary, is an “unpleasant and often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger”. For months now, danger has been right around the corner – both literally and figuratively – for the central African nation of Burundi. Its northern neighbor, Rwanda, where last spring – according to new estimates – 1.5 million people were murdered in the genocide, organized by the ousted Hutu government. Burundi shares more or less the same ethnic makeup as Rwanda: 85% Hutu, 14% Tutsi and the Twa making up the remaining 1 percent. And like Rwanda, Burundi has had its share of massacres and genocides: in 1965, ’69, ’72, ’88 and ’91. The latest massacre occurred in October 1993, following the assassination of Burundi’s first democratically-elected president, Melchior Ndadye, a Hutu. Though less publicised than the genocide in Rwanda, 150.000 Burundians were killed, and hundreds of thousands were displaced within the country. A year and a half later, 3.000 displaced people who took refuge in the town of Bukaye, about 1.5 hour drive from the capital Bujumbura, still live in fear.

We fled the tragedy in October. EB: What happened? People started massacring others and they fled the troubles. EB: And these people are Hutus or Tutsis? The majority are Tutsis. EB: They were being persecuted by Hutus. Yes, they were persecuted by the Hutus. EB: Can he explained a bit what happened? One day the Hutus started to take their machetes and they started killing their neighbors. Those neighbors fled and they came here. EB: How many people were killed? They can’t tell the numbers, but they said the numbers are very high. EB: So they’ve been here since October. How long do they plan to stay here? They have been here since October and they don’t know for how long they are going to stay any more. EB: What are they waiting for to return? They are afraid if they return to their villages, they might be killed again. EB: But then, that means that they want to stay here indefinitely. They’re planning to stay as long as necessary because now they are protected. EB: By whom? They’re protected by the military. EB: And what are the living conditions like here? Are they living in houses? Where are they living? They are living miserably, but they don’t care because at least here they are protected.

…for the time being at least. Like many others, this man is awaiting peace and stability to return home, but ever since the assassination of President Ndadye, Burundi has careened from one crisis to another. Less than a year later, in April 1994, his successor Cyprien Ntarymira was killed in a plane crash that also claimed the life of the Rwanda president Juvénal Habyerimana, the event that sparked off the genocide in Rwanda. In September, Burundi’s former ruling party, the UPRONA, the Party for National Progress, signed a power-sharing pact with the winner of the 1993 elections, the Hutu-dominated FRODEBU, the Burundi Front for Democracy. The accord was supposed to end the political bickering, but nothing has changed. The problem, believes the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to Burundi, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, can be partly traced back to the country’s lack of experience with democracy.

As most people are still under one party system mentality, the democratic process is not digested sufficiently, and most people blame democracy. Most – if they are in one ethny – most of the other claim democracy as the only solution but in a very divided country, it is very important to share power in an organized manner with the help of the Burundese, of course, but also the international community because blaming democracy is not an issue. You know, they had violence in ’65, ’69, ’72, ’88, ’91 and ’93. Most massacres happened before democracy. In Rwanda, April, May, June ’94, you had massacres without democracy. But if you look in Zambia, you had democratic election and no massacre. In Benin, a president for 20 years was thrown out and no massacre. We have also South Africa and Malawi to mention only a few, and up until now, they had no massacre. So to blame democracy for violence is a short view.

But what type of democracy? As in other African countries, Burundi’s fledgling political parties believe that they can attract more voters by appealing to people’s ethnic origins than to concrete measures to restore national unity. Charles Mukasi, the chairman of UPRONA, the former ruling party, believes that’s particularly true of the FRODEBU, the militant Hutu party.

I think you have to tell things the way they are. The FRODEBU emphasizes ethnic differences, and this creates problems in the country. The FRODEBU says it’s Hutu. I think it was primarily a campaign slogan to mobilize as many people as possible. Even though there’s been no census, Burundians have the feeling empirically that there are more Hutus than Tutsis. I see it like this: the FRODEBU won the elections. It’s the country’s largest party, and when you win an election in Burundi, it seems the majority of voters – be they Hutu or Tutsi – voted for change.

But when the majority of the voters are Hutu and they vote for a Hutu party, the result does nothing to create greater stability. In fact, in recent months, yet another crisis broke out in Burundi after the UPRONA party accused the FRODEBU chairman, Jean Minani, of having incited the anti-Tutsi massacres in Burundi in October 1993. But when I asked Dr Minani if his party was dominated by the Hutus, he sputtered:

That’s wrong. Wrong. FRODEBU is the Front for Democracy in Burundi. Everyone who believes in democracy in Burundi joins the front. The fact that the majority of our members is Hutu is perfectly normal. I mean, go to the UPRONA, and I’m sure that you’ll discover that not all its members are Tutsi. I think this caricature is a bad caricature. I believe the UPRONA is behind this. Too bad for them. They can chase the Hutus away if they want, but we are not going to chase Tutsis away from our party.

Dr Minani’s words sound reassuring. Anatole Kanyenkiko, who briefly served as Burundi’s prime minister before being forced to resign in mid-February, also believes that too much is made of the country’s ethnic differences.

This is being exploited by some politicians, who I would call rather irresponsible. Democracy is about sharing power in a rational, fair and equitable way. If we succeed, we will be able to go beyond these ethnic divisions. Even after we became independent from Belgium, when we had what has been described as a Tutsi government, there were divisions, mainly regional and clan-oriented. So Burundi’s problems are not really ethnic. They are all linked to good governance. That means not excluding people because of their ethnic background.

But while politicians try to downplay the ethnic divide, many of them have repeatedly exploited it to increase their power and wealth. No wonder then that many Burundians have become disillusioned or even disgusted. Take the head of Burundi’s national radio and TV station, Charles Ndayizaga.

Our political leaders – and I hate to say this – are gang leaders. We in the media don’t fear orders from the government or government pressure, but they exert immense power over everyone, both Hutu and Tutsi. We have tried to force politicians to see reason. In fact, we even went as far as to describe the government’s silence during the last really serious crisis in October 1993 when thousands were massacred as “contemptible, an insult to human life”.

The media’s scorn seems to be shared by many in Burundian society. At the University of Bujumbura, there is universal condemnation of the entire political class and of their use of the country’s political divisions to increase their power and privileges.

Me, I am a Hutu. I don’t see the difference between me and my friend Tutsi. We pray together, we eat together, we drink together. Everything we do together. But the problems here in Burundi are between politicians. They [don’t] believe that there can be peace here in this country without killing other friends, without killing people of the other ethny.

You should say here in Burundi, small people don’t have problems, only the politicians. Here in this country, there are politicians who tries to create problems here in Burundi. They want to profit from the ignorance of the people because in this country about 19% have not been at school. EB: 90. 90. So politicians should go over their interests to look for the general interests of this country. Here at this university, all students are friends. There is no difference between Hutu and Tutsi.

People, Hutu and Tutsi, was the upcountry. And we students, we have any problems between us. I’ve got friends, my best friend, he is Hutu. Of course, I’m a Tutsi. The main part of the population have not been at school, and they live upcountry. And then, a politician goes in his own village. He gives a beer or perhaps promise something, and they follow him automatically. There’s a certain mechanical following.

The great problem, the great division is between rich and poor men. A great faction of the population, they are poor. They have no money. They have no school. They have no food. They are sitting in Hutu and Tutsi poor. They are everything fighting each other because they have nothing to eat.

These are not just the sentiments of idealistic students. They reflect the views of many, particularly in the urban areas. In places like Bujumbura, a sprawling city of 400.000 on the banks of Lake Tanganyika, ethnic origin is of little importance. In fact, at one of the city’s stadiums, one of the players on Burundi’s junior soccer team bristled when I asked him whether he was Tutsi or Hutu.

Me? He says. You shouldn’t ask me my ethnic origin. Here, we don’t speak about ethnic groups. Never. I’m an athlete. Ethnic groups don’t exist. We don’t think about them. I just play sports.

But then sports is one of the few activities that still unites all Burundians, be they Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. Even political leaders like Charles Mukasi of the UPRONA admit that politicians bear a great deal of responsibility for the violence, ethnic hatred and instability which has been plaguing Burundi.

I hope the people are really sick and tired of these shenanigans. The day they really do have enough, they’ll get rid of us. Politicians here are mediocre, and they are responsible for Burundi’s woes. Politicians are the ones who make choices and when these choices are bad, they affect the entire nation. We are the ones who opt for tribalism and violence and carry that message into the interior of the country. We politicians must say mea culpa, and I have already done it.

Mr Mukasi’s candor is disconcerting. His admission, as the head of one of Burundi’s main political parties, staggering. Mr. Mukasi’s party signed a power-sharing agreement with the majority FRODEBU party last September in an apparent bid to ward off further ethnic unrest and restore stability. As long as political parties put the interests of their own party – and in particular their own ethnic group first – formerprime minister Anatole Kanyenkiko believes it bodes ill for the country.

The problems that often arise in Africa and other regions are the result of bad government. For example, when a government excludes certain groups – be it for ethnic, regional or even political reasons. That’s been the case in Burundi too. Since independence, bad governance has been at the root of our country’s problems. The ex-president Pierre Buyoya was preparing to address these problems. But, unfortunately, he launched Burundi a bit too quickly we think and without enough preparation, into what we today call democracy. But this democracy has been copied from the West, and it doesn’t really reflect the concerns and realities of Burundi. We would like to strengthen the democratic process but also adapt it to the Burundian context.

Nonetheless, some have gone so far as to blame the introduction of multiparty democracy for the last massacre in 1993. The ongoing tension in the country has claimed hundreds of lives in the past three months. In mid-December, after yet another bomb attack – reportedly carried out by what are known in Burundi as “bandits” – a curfew was imposed in the capital. Shortly before 7 p.m., the bars and restaurants empty and only an occasional police or army vehicle disturbs Bujumbura by night.

No matter how mediocre Burundi’s politicians, it would be unfair to place all the blame for the country’s problems at their doorstep, says the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to the country.

You have, of course, the failure of the elite, like in many African countries, therefore it is for political bickering. But it is also a regional problem: south against north or east against center. It is also ethnical, and it is also poverty. And finally, it is over population. It is very difficult to pin down one single element to explain fear, mistrust and cyclic massacre.

And that mistrust stems in part from the domination of certain sectors of society by Tutsis, in particular the judiciary and the armed forces. Hutus have felt that they are unable to get a fair hearing from the authorities and have tended to see both the courts and the army as branches of government. According to Major Mamère Sinarinzi, director general of the National Defense Ministry, people view the armed forces differently, depending on their political affiliations.

Political parties have differing opinions about the armed forces. The ethnic card has been played so frequently in this country that it has affected everyone. So it’s quite normal for people to have strong feels about certain sensitive issues like the armed forces. Ever since the crisis in October 1993, the army’s main goal has been to stabilize the situation. We want to make sure that Burundi does not become another Rwanda. I think there are enough positive forces in this country to ensure that Burundi doesn’t self-destruct. At least, that is what we are all praying for.

Not everyone is sure about the army’s true intentions. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah again.

The army is a very difficult issue. To some people, it is the only guarantee. To others, it is the cause of all their misfortunes. Or to put it differently, most Hutu, most of them see army as oppressive. What I think is that whatever past mistakes, is that we have to work with the security forces. Without the security forces, it is very difficult to maintain a minimum of security in the street and in the countryside. Of course, you might have blunders and army is not immune, especially low level soldiers, and the leadership in the army has to be more strong in instructing these low level soldiers to behave better and to have more respect for innocent civilians.

But the army has already undertaken moves to increase the number of Hutu soldiers and officers and create greater respect for the military in Burundian society. Now, the armed forces are doing their best not to get sucked into the political infighting between the various political parties in Bujumbura.

We demand that the recruits must be Burundian. Period. That’s all. Hutus were excluded or excluded themselves in the past. But now we have gone beyond that. To say that because the army is Tutsi-dominated, that it only acts in the interests of Tutsis, is nothing more, in my opinion, than manipulation on the part of the politicians. It should be seen as part of the policy of mutual recrimination, which seems to have turned into a national pastime here. We live in a sick society, and we are trying to stay as far away as we can from the illness.

One of the few things politicians in Burundi do agree on is the need to solve the issue of the displaced people. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to leave their homes and villages because of interethnic attacks and fear. Acabo Tade is a 15-year-old who took refuge in a camp a year and a half ago.

He lost one of the parents. EB: How? His mother died in the tragedy of last year. EB: What happened? They came at home and killed her, and these young children fled. EB: Her children fled? Yes, her children fled. EB: What about the father? He’s here. EB: How many brothers and sisters? He just has one, and the others were killed. Three were killed. EB: Are you planning to go back home or are you planning to stay here? I don’t think I will return because those who went back home were killed. EB: Are you Hutu or Tutsi?He’s Tutsi. EB: And the people who killed your mother and brothers and sisters were Hutus. Yes, they are Hutus.

This one is coming from a neighboring commune and all those who went to the village were killed. So they are afraid. They won’t go back home. They are all hunting opposition people, the UPRONA members and other opposition people. EB: But if the army is here, and the army is protecting these people here, why can’t the army protect them in their own homes? They live in remote areas. The army cannot protect everyone individually. So that’s why they have to be regrouped. She’s wondering how they will survive. They are now afraid to go back home. Even those who might want to go back and crop the fields, they can’t because they might be killed. EB: Do you think this is going to go on indefinitely or do you have hope that you will be able to return at some point to your home? Yes, she’s afraid that it might continue. EB: She is Tutsi, right? Yes. EB: Is she afraid of all Hutus or only of the people who carried out these massacres? Yes, she’s afraid of the Hutus she lived with because they killed her husband and the other male neighbors. EB: She said that she was only afraid of the Hutus who carried out these killings. Is she afraid of Hutus in general or just those people? Yes, she’s afraid of all the Hutus in her commune because she supposes that everyone took the machete and killed the neighbors. They are all the same. EB: Do you feel that you are Tutsi first or Burundian first? She’s Burundian before being a Tutsi.

It’s a widely held sentiment – national identity is more important to most Burundians than their ethnic origin – but one which politicians have failed to channel into a spirit of national reconciliation. In fact, there are persistent reports that some extremist political parties have distributed arms among their supporters, in other words among members of their own ethnic group, to ensure that the other group doesn’t take over power. But now some politicians – including former prime minister Anatole Kanyenkiko – view the resettling of displaced people as one of the most significant challenges facing the government.

The displaced people crisis has taken on proportions never seen before in this country. The only way to solve this question is to have a government imbued with the ideals of peace, a government that isn’t bent on revenge. Secondly, we must launch a full-fledged battle against illegal arms possession, but we want to avoid innocent casualties.

The UN Secretary General’s special envoy agrees but believes that the conditions for the return of the displaced people do not yet exist.

What we are discussing with Burundians is how first to bring peace in the capital, establish contacts between refugees and displaced and returnees so that they can go back to their hills or small villages because the problem is also the political infighting in the capital, and to fight better or to win. Unfortunately most leaders involve these poor refugees, displaced. We have to do something to stop that.

And, as if the country didn’t have enough problems, says Mr. Abdallah, it is sitting on a time bomb.

The country is overpopulated: 265 persons per kilometre square. The population growth is 3.1%, which means that every 17 years, the country doubles. And it is one of a very few African countries where you have no more wildlife. In Burundi and Rwanda, no more. So the future is frightening.

Burundi’s ever-growing population rate is likely to only exacerbate the problems of this predominantly Roman Catholic country. There simply isn’t enough land, and the country’s exports – like coffee, cotton and tea – are insufficient to provide a livelihood for the entire population. The likelihood of more ethnic tensions in future is great. One of the few bright points, believe many, including Mr. Abdallah, is that Burundi has not descended into Rwandan-style genocide.

I have heard many reports since May, every single month, almost every week, I have reports by prominent leaders or organizations or press editorials that Burundi is a time bomb. Burundi is next and Burundi will collapse and so on. The only conclusion I can draw from these statements and reports and others is that Burundi has not yet collapsed. Thanks God. I think though the situation is unstable in Burundi and in the region, Burundi might not collapse. But people are making this statement are genuinely sincere and most of them have not foreseen what was going on in Rwanda. Most of them are still under the trauma of what happened in Rwanda. So I suppose many of them are tyring to exercise their feeling and saying that Burundi is next to prevent it. Many are also making these dramatic statements to help draw attention on the international community. But on the other hand, I think this attitude of doom’s day could be dangerous because Burundians and Rwandese live on rumors and speculations. If they hear or keep hearing about this danger about imminent collapse, they might think in the north they know much more on our country than we do, and some extremists might just take initiative to attack first their neighbors to be sure that they will not be attacked first.

To ensure that there is no repeat, the UN Secretary General’s special envoy and his small staff have been holding intensive contacts with the main political leaders for months now. Despite persistent tensions and crises, Mr Abdallah has convinced the major political players to begin a national debate in late April or early May to find solutions to the country’s problems.

A lasting solution is first to get people used to each other, to fear them less but also to address power sharing. The problem here is that we don’t share, but we have to adapt democracy till people are better educated. I mean, the leadership is better educated to power sharing.

Others in Burundi are less convinced that democracy is the answer. The type of democracy introduced in Burundi in 1993 – as in other African countries – was based on the Western model, but now people, like this university student, are beginning to question whether a Western-style democracy can actually work in such a highly-polarized society.

We sometimes hold debates among students, between the two ethnic groups. I think multi-party system is a good system if it is well implemented. I think here what we need is not to copy the Western democracy because we don’t have the same mentalities. What we need here is to adapt the Western democracy to our realities. For instance, we may say that each ethnic group is going to have 50% in the government team. And therefore all the groups are going to say we are well represented. Therefore we have no reason to quarrel.

Maybe not, but it still won’t resolve the fundamental problem – the politicians’ inability to put their differences aside and work for the good of the country. All politicians freely proclaim their desire to work together and solve the country’s problems. But they also have a remarkable tendency to forget those good intentions when they’re in the political arena. The chairman of the UPRONA party, Charles Mukasi, for one, has little faith in himself or the rest of the country’s politicians.

The political class’s mediocrity is highlighted by the fact that Burundi’s politicians agreed to enter politics for all the wrong reasons. They aren’t pursuing policies that would benefit the entire nation. Other countries should take advantage of this weakness and perhaps place Burundi under a mandate. Why not? We’re just a few steps away from allowing the international community to re-colonize Rwanda and Burundi. It’s due to the irresponsibility of politicians. History will judge us harshly.

“History will judge us harshly” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Werner van Peppen. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.