The burundi genocide

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René Lemarchand

Burundi has the sad distinction of having experienced the first genocide recorded in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. In the summer and spring of 1972 between 100,000 and 200,000 people were taken to their graves in the wake of a Hutu-led insurrection. Though largely overshadowed in public attention by the far more devastating bloodbath in Rwanda – a total genocide – the ghastly carnage in Burundi undoubtedly qualifies as genocide, or at least a selective genocide. The key difference is that in Burundi the Hutu, not the Tutsi, were targeted for extermination. In both cases, however, the killings were intentional, and deliberately aimed at a specific ethnic community.

The past and present histories of Burundi and Rwanda are inseparable from each other. Both were archaic kingdoms, and shared roughly the same ethnic map, consisting of Hutu agriculturalists (85 per cent of the total population), Tutsi pastoralists, representing the ruling minority, and a numerically and socially marginal group of pygmoid people known as Twa . Both were first colonized by Germany and incorporated into German East Africa. After WW I they were entrusted to Belgium as Mandated Territories, and as United Nations Trust Territories after WW II. Both gained independence in 1962, but in contrast with Rwanda, where a Hutu revolution (1959-1961) overthrew the monarchy and shifted power into Hutu hands, Burundi acceded to self-government as a constitutional monarchy ruled by a mixed assemblage of Hutu and Tutsi. On the eve of the 1972 genocide power was largely the monopoly of Tutsi elites.
Their divergent trajectories are traceable in part to differences in their traditional political organization. Where Burundi differed from Rwanda was in the greater complexity of its social hierarchies. Unlike Rwanda, where power was highly centralized in the hands of a small fraction of the Tutsi minority, in Burundi the real holders of power were a distinct social category, neither Hutu nor Tutsi, but a princely aristocracy known as ganwa, with the king reduced to a primus inter pares. The Tutsi were themselves divided into two groups, the lowly Tutsi-Hima and the more status-conscious Tutsi-Banyaruguru. Thus, because of its greater pluralism and social complexity, the Hutu-Tutsi cleavage did not materialize until after independence, and largely as a result of the demonstration effect of the Rwanda revolution.
The Road to Genocide
Ethnic massacres did not begin in 1972, yet they set the stage for the cataclysm to come. A turning point in the escalation of Hutu-Tutsi tensions came in May 1965 with the first post-independence elections to the national assembly. Although Hutu candidates scored a landslide victory, capturing 23 seats out of a total of 33, their victory proved illusory. Instead of appointing a Hutu as prime minister the king turned to a princely figure and long-time protégé of the Court (Leopold Bihumugani). On October 18, 1965 Hutu anger broke out in an abortive coup directed at the king’s palace, followed by sporadic attacks against Tutsi elements in the countryside. Repression swiftly followed: eighty-six leading Hutu politicians and army officers were immediately arrested and shot. After discovery of an alleged Hutu plot in 1969, seventy Hutu personalities, civilian and military, were arrested; twenty-five were meted out a death sentence and nineteen of them immediately executed. Thus by the late sixties the Hutu were virtually excluded from political participation, leaving them no other option than the use of force.
The polarization of ethnic feelings so soon after independence must be seen in the light of the enormous power of attraction of the Rwanda model among those aspiring Hutu politicians who saw in the republican ideology of their neighbor the promise of a better future. For most Tutsi identified with the ruling party, Union pour le Progrès National (Uprona), however, Rwanda stood as the dreaded symbol of the tyranny of the majority. The nightmarish possibility that Burundi might become another Rwanda seemed real enough to justify the brutality of the repression visited upon the nascent Hutu elites in 1965 and 1969.
But if political exclusion was clearly the key factor behind the rise of Hutu extremism, the timing of the insurrection draws attention to the violent intra-Tutsi squabbles and maneuverings that preceded the Hutu uprising. By late 1971 the long-simmering struggle for power between the Tutsi-Hima from the south and the Tutsi-Banyaruguru from the north was threatening to get out of hand. The country was awash with rumors of plots and counterplots, in turn leading to the arrest and bogus trials of scores of Banyaruguru politicians, many of them accused of working hand in glove with the monarchists to overthrow the regime. The ruling clique, headed by President Michel Micombero, consisting principally of Tutsi-Hima from the Bururi province, saw its legitimacy plummet. The sudden eruption of bitter internecine rivalries among Tutsi is what prompted the insurgents to strike a decisive blow in hopes of capturing power. Instead they triggered a bloodbath on a scale that none had anticipated.
The Anatomy of Mass Murder
On April 29, 1972, Hutu-instigated violence suddenly engulfed the normally peaceful lakeside towns of Rumonge and Nyanza-Lac in the south. In a matter of hours terror was unleashed upon the Tutsi population. Countless atrocities were reported by eyewitnesses, including the evisceration of pregnant women and the hacking off of limbs. In Bururi all military and civilian authorities were slain. After seizing the armories in Rumonge and Nyanza-Lac the insurgents fanned out in several southern localities. In Vyanda, near Bururi, they proclaimed a mysterious “République de Martyazo”. A week later government troops brought the republican experiment to an end. What followed was not so much a repression as a hideous slaughter of Hutu civilians. The carnage went on unabated until August. By then almost every educated Hutu element was either dead or in exile.
Exactly how many died between May and August is impossible to say. Conservative estimates put the total number of Hutu victims somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000, while one Tutsi opponent of the regime (Boniface Kiraranganiya) speaks of 300,000. The same holds for Tutsi victims of the insurrection, estimates ranging from 2,000 to 5,000. Nonetheless, however much one can disagree about the scale of the massacre, that it reflects a planned annihilation is hardly in doubt.
The standard argument advanced by Hutu intellectuals is that the killings were inscribed long before the act in the “plan Simbananiye”, after Artémon Simbananiye, Minister of Foreign Affairs at he time of the slaughter. The aim, presumably, was to provoke the Hutu into staging an uprising so as to justify a devastating repression and thus cleanse the country once and for all of the Hutu peril. Although there is no evidence of such a provocation, there is little doubt that Simbananiye played a key role in organizing the killings. As the social profile of the victims suggests, there was an element of rationality behind the carnage: in killing all educated Hutu elements, including civil servants, university students and school children, this would rule out for the foreseeable future any serious threat of another Hutu rebellion. It is in this sense that once can indeed speak of a Simbananiye plan.
In these circumstances it is easy to see why some of the most gruesome scenes took place on the premises of the University of Bujumbura, and in secondary and technical schools. Scores of Hutu students were physically assaulted by their Tutsi classmates, and many beaten to death. In a scenario that would repeat itself again and again, groups of soldiers and members of the Uprona youth wing, the Jeunesses Révolutionnaires Rwagasore (JRR), would suddenly appear in classrooms, call Hutu students by name and taken them away. Few ever returned. Approximately one third of Hutu students enrolled in the University of Bujumbura disappeared in such circumstances. A missionary source indicated that at least 1,450 secondary school students of Hutu origins were either killed or in hiding. Out of a total of 138 Hutu priests, 18 were massacred. The army was thoroughly purged of all Hutu elements, beginning with 700 troops massacred immediately after the outbreak of the rebellion. A total of 190 Hutu officers were shot and killed between May 22 and May 27. Meanwhile the execution of the young King Ntare, in Gitega, on May 1st, effectively ruled out the resurrection of the monarchy
The cables sent out of the US Embassy to the State Department by Deputy Chief of Mission Michael Hoyt paint a gruesome picture of this hellish climate: “No respite, no letup. What apparently is a genocide continues. Arrests going on around the clock” (May 26); “Tutsi reprisals unabated in the interior but have slackened somewhat in Bujumbura. In the north Hutu take cover upon arrival of any vehicle, reflecting pervasive fear…” (July 11); “In two days following July 14 three new ditches filled with Hutu bodies near Bujumbura airport. Arrests have continued throughout the week in Bujumbura, in the hills around town, in Ngozi region and central Burundi” (July 21); “Repression against Hutu is not simply one of killing. It is also an attempt to remove them from access to employment, property, education and the general chance to improve themselves” (July 25).
Describing what he saw at the time, one Tutsi observer, Boniface Kiraranganiya, wrote: “It is the paroxysm of dementia, the most perfect example of what men are capable of doing when their hold on power allows them to do anything they want, when there is no obligation for him to control his destructive instincts”. That these lines were penned by a Tutsi should disabuse us of the notion that the killings were universally endorsed by the Tutsi community. Many in fact did everything they could to save their Hutu neighbors (as in Rwanda in 1994 when many Tutsi owed their survival to the protection of their Hutu neighbors) but could do little else to stop the carnage. Nonetheless, from this orgy of genocidal violence emerged a state system entirely dominated by Tutsi elements from the south, and would remain so for years to come.
The Indifference of the International Community
In the White Paper issued by the Micombero government in the wake of the killings the argument is made that the Hutu rebels were bent upon committing genocide against the “people of Burundi”; in putting down the rebellion the state prevented the insurgency from taking an even bigger toll. Surprisingly, this inversionary discourse was received with little more than polite indifference the international public opinion. The unwillingness of the international community to see through the humbug of official media is no less astonishing than its extraordinary passivity in the face of mass slaughter.
The most surreal of all international responses came from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) – now he African Union (AU) – on May 22, 1972, during the visit to Bujumbura of Diallo Telli. “The OAU”, said telli, “being essentially an organization based on solidarity, my presence here signifies the total solidarity of the Secretariat with the President of Burundi, with the government and the fraternal people of Burundi”. Hardly more edifying were the comments of the UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who expressed his “fervent hopes that peace, harmony and stability can be brought about successfully and speedily, that Burundi will thereby achieve the goals of social progress, better standards of living and other ideals and principles set forth in the UN Charter”. In 1972 as in 1994 the UN sat on its hands as tens of thousands of human beings were being slaughtered.
The full measure of Western indifference is again captured by the remarkably guarded tone of the collective letter of the diplomatic corps delivered to President Micombero on May 30, at the initiative of the papal nuncio: “As true friends of Burundi we have followed with anguish and concern the events of the last few weeks. We are thus comforted by your appointment of groups of ‘wise men’ to pacify the country, and by the orders that you have given to repress the arbitrary actions of individuals and groups, and acts of private vengeance and excesses of authority”. By then “excesses of authority” had already sent tens of thousands to their graves. Characteristically, the only member of the diplomatic corps who refused to sign the letter, presumably objecting to its offensive wording, was the French Ambassador.
Indifference was no less the hallmark of the US response. In the words of a report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the official stance of the State Department revealed an extraordinary combination of “indifference, inertia and irresponsibility”. The detailed reports sent out by the DCM in Bujumbura, Michael Hoyt, failed to elicit as much as a minimal expression of concern from the Secretary of State. “On May 25, 1972”, according to Roger Morris, “(US Ambassador Thomas Melady routinely left the country for a new assignment. He departed with a decoration from the Burundi government, he and his home office in Foggy Bottom maintaining total silence about the horror”. Again, one cannot fail to notice the parallel with US attitudes during the 1994 genocide.
The Legacy of 1972
The bloodbath was meant to achieve several long-term objectives: (a) to insure the stability of the state by the wholesale destruction of all educated elites and potential elites, (b) to transform the instruments of force – the army, the police and the gendarmerie – into a Tutsi monopoly, (c) to rule out the possibility of a restoration of the monarchy with Hutu assistance (hence the killing of King Ntare on May 1st), (d) to create a new basis of legitimacy for the Hima-dominated state by projecting an image of the state as the benevolent protector of all Barundi against their domestic and external foes.
On each count the government of President Michel Micombero, a Tutsi-Hima, met with considerable success. For the next sixteen years Burundi experienced a period of unprecedented peace under Tutsi hegemony. This surface impression of a country at peace with itself was suddenly shattered by a new outburst of ethnic hatred in August 1988, in the northern communes of Ntega and Marangara. Triggered by the provocations of a local Tutsi notable, Hutu-instigated riots took the lives of hundreds of Tutsi civilians before the army moved in and unleashed another bloody repression resulting in the deaths of an estimated 15,000 Hutu.
In sharp contrast with what happened in 1972, the international community responded to the 1988 killings with a sense of shock. Substantial press coverage of the “events” led to charges of gross human rights violations by the European Community. In the US congressional hearings were held in September 1988, followed by a non-binding resolution urging the Burundi government to conduct an impartial inquiry into the circumstance of the riots. All of which eventually persuaded the Burundi government to introduce major constitutional and political reforms.
A major breakthrough towards liberalization came in 1993 with the organization of multi-party presidential and legislative elections. Twenty-one years after the 1972 genocide, the clear victory scored by the predominantly Hutu Front des Démocrates du Burundi (Frodebu) effectively wrested power away from the Tutsi minority. The Frodebu victory proved short-lived: on October 21, 1993, the newly elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was arrested and killed by units of the Tutsi-dominated army, thus unleashing yet another cycle of ethnic violence, from which the country has yet to recover. An estimated 300,000 people died since 1993, and at least as many joined the 1972 refugees in UNHCR camps in Tanzania.
Ndadaye’s assassination brought into sharp focus the enduring legacy of 1972. Having reaped for decades the benefits of political hegemony, Tutsi extremists within and outside the army were quick to grasp the economic and political implications of a transfer of power to representatives of the Hutu majority. None were more eager to challenge the verdict of the polls than those Tutsi who had taken over the land and houses of the 1972 refugees: to this day the refusal of Tutsi claimants to return their ill-gotten properties to the rightful owners remains a critical issue facing the implementation of the Arusha accords (of which more in a moment).
But perhaps the most threatening of all the problems inherited from 1972 is the enduring vitality of Hutu radicalism. It is worth recalling that it was in the refugee camps of Tanzania that emerged in 1973 the Parti de la Libération du Peuple Hutu (Palipehutu), the principal vehicle of anti-Tutsi radicalism. Today the most vehemently anti-Tutsi of the half-dozen political parties identified with Hutu interests are the Parti pour la Libération du Peuple Hutu-Forces Nationales de Libération (Palipehutu-FNL), led by Agathon Rwasa, and the Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces pour la Defense de la Democratie (CNDD-FDD), headed by Pierre Nkurunziza: both are heirs to the Palipehutist ideology in their uncompromising anti-Tutsi stance and unwillingness to lay down their arms.
With the power-sharing agreement formalized by the Arusha accords of August 28, 2000, a major step forward was made towards restoring a measure of stability to the country. For this much of the credit goes to the mediating efforts of former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, and after his death, of Nelson Mandela. Though often suspected of Hutu sympathies by Tutsi extremists, Mandela was able to achieve a broad consensus on the need to work out a constitutional formula for a genuine sharing of executive and legislative responsibilities between Hutu and Tutsi. Among other things, and pending the holding of multiparty elections in 2004, agreement was reached on a rotating presidency and a fifty-fifty sharing of cabinet positions among Hutu and Tutsi parties. Thus after serving as president from 2000 to 2002, Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi, handed power over to Domitien Ndayizeye, a Hutu, and the Hutu vice-president who served under Buyoya was succeeded in office by a Tutsi.
Much remains to be done, however, to fully implement the Arusha accords, including the restructuring of the army on the basis of parity between Hutu and Tutsi. The country is still wracked by chronic eruptions of violence. To the loss of human lives caused by unprovoked attacks by Palipehutu-FNL and CNDD-FDD guerillas – neither one of which were signatories to the Arusha accords -- must be added the devastating retribution blindly visited by the Tutsi army against civilian populations suspected of harboring Hutu terrorists. Extremism at both ends of the ethnic spectrum poses the greatest threat to the sustainability of Arusha. Despite the presence on the ground of a 2000-strong multinational African military force, under the auspices of the African Union, there is no cease-fire in sight as yet.
If time has yet to dim the memories of 1972, there is reason to wonder -- short of a public acknowledgement of the atrocities committed since then by both Hutu and Tutsi -- whether the power-sharing arrangement so painfully worked out at Arusha can once and for all exorcize the demons Burundi’s genocidal past and pave the way towards peace.

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Hoyt, Michael. (1972). US Embassy Cables from Bujumbura to State Department. Unpublished materials available from the University of Florida Libraries, Gainesville, FL.

Kiraranganiya, Boniface. (1985). La Vérité sur le Burundi. Sherbrook, Canada: Editions Naaman.

Lemarchand, Rene. (2002). “Le génocide de 1972 au Burundi: Les silences de l’histoire”, Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, no. 167, XLII-3,

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Lemarchand, René. (1970). Rwanda and Burundi. London and New York: Pall Mall Press and Frederick Praeger.

Malkki, Liisa. (1995). Purity and Exile: Transformations in Historical-National Consciousness Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Reyntjens, Filip. (1994). L’Afrique des Grands Lacs en Crise: Rwanda and Burundi, 1988-1994. Paris: Karthala

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