Ethnic Divisions Are Central to Crisis in Burundi

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Burundi’s ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party’s nomination of President Pierre Nkurunziza as their presidential candidate for the June elections has triggered massive protests, resulting in lethal clashes between Burundian security and opposition forces.

Nkurunziza has been in power since 2005, when he was picked by parliament to be president after 12 years of a brutal civil war that killed about 300,000 people. The Burundian Constitution and the peace accord that ended the fighting both limit the president’s incumbency to two five-year terms.

CNDD-FDD and other Nkurunziza supporters, however, claim that since Burundi’s leader was initially chosen rather than elected, his first term should not count towards the legal limitation. Opponents argue that seeking a third term in office is unconstitutional and an abuse of power threatening the country’s democracy.

While on the surface the situation in Burundi is defined in terms of political tensions and divisions, it cannot be fully understood without examining ethnic issues. Underlying the current chaos is the historical conflict between Hutus and Tutsis – the two dominant ethnic groups in Burundi – and its relevant role today.

Historically, the Tutsis have been a minority in Burundi but controlled the country’s elite institutions, including the military. The Hutus, while constituting about 85% of the population, generally held little power, leading to feelings of resentment. This fact largely caused some Hutus intent on eliminating the Tutsis to carryout violence in 1972, leading to brutal reprisals by the Tutsis. After the Burundian Genocide ended, it is said that over 100,000 people were killed and as many refugees fled the country.

On October 21, 1993, after 21 years of instability, Melchior Ndadaye became Burundi’s first democratically elected Hutu president. Tutsi extremists then proceeded to assassinate him, leading to massive violence between the two ethnic groups. The civil war eventually ended after several political complications and international attempts at peace, which resulted in the current government.

The primary Hutu rebel group during the civil war was the CNDD-FDD, Burundi’s current ruling political party, and Nkurunziza joined the movement as a soldier during the war before rising through the ranks to lead the group. While there has not been large-scale ethnic conflict in the past few years, Nkurunziza and CNDD-FDD are inevitable reminders of past fighting.

Given this background, current rhetoric from both the government and opposition is troubling. CNDD-FDD’s vice president Joseph Ntakirutimana, for example, compared one radio station that authorities shut down to a former Rwandan broadcaster accused of contributing to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide – a conflict where Hutus slaughtered Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The opposition rejects any notion of stoking sectarian tensions, with one man claiming, “We are all united, Hutu and Tutsi.” Former President Pierre Buyoya, however, warned that Burundi could revert back to war if the crisis does not end, obviously referencing the civil war and therefore Hutu-Tutsi tensions.

The ethnic aspect of the crisis is also evident with the Burundians who have fled the country. This month alone, about 21,000 people have gone to neighboring Rwanda and about 4,000 others to neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The trip from Burundi to DRC is very quick with an easy border crossing into the country. For many near Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital located close to the DRC border, where much of the violence is occurring, Rwanda is a noticeably longer trip. Ethnicity is a major reason why these refugees are making the more physically difficult trip to Rwanda.

Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, is a Tutsi who actually led the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a primarily Tutsi group, to victory over the Hutu-dominated government during the Rwandan Genocide. Many Burundians fleeing the country are Tutsi because CNDD-FDD is Hutu and know they will find safe refuge in Rwanda given Kagame’s beliefs and history.

DRC, on the other hand, might be less friendly to Burundian Tutsis than Rwanda. After the Rwandan Genocide when the Tutsis took power, many Hutus left for eastern DRC out of fear of Tutsi retribution. Overtime many returned, but there remains a Hutu presence in this area, most noticeably the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu militant group partly responsible for the genocide, which has continued to launch attacks.

Furthermore, DRC President Joseph Kabila has not stamped out FDLR despite United Nations Resolution 1804 demanding that the Hutu group immediately cease all violent operations and that certain perpetrators should be brought to justice.

Kabila views FDLR as somewhat of an ally against General Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi who has rebelled against DRC government. Therefore, many Burundi Tutsis fleeing may see Kabila as a hostile actor and fear entering eastern DRC because of FDLR.

With Hutu-Tutsi divisions central to the situation in Burundi, the fear is that it will become more overtly prominent and spread throughout the Great Lakes region in Africa. The Imbonerakure, CNDD-FDD’s militia youth wing, has helped stoke ethnic tension by perpetrating much of the violence, primarily targeting Tutsis. This is the main force driving Burundian Tutsis to leave the country and resembles militia activity throughout the Rwanda Genocide and Burundian civil war.

It is both true that the crisis in Burundi is not solely defined by Hutu-Tutsi identity and that large-scale ethnic fighting will not necessarily breakout, but the current trend is quite troubling. If the government continues to criticize the opposition by referencing Hutu-Tutsi conflicts and the opposition talks about the political situation based to any degree on ethnic terms, then both sides will increasingly view the crisis through such a lens.

With Nkurunziza and CNDD-FDD determined to remain in power and the opposition showing no signs of quitting, the crisis will not end anytime soon. The longer it continues, the more likely that deeply embedded Hutu-Tutsi divisions will rise to the forefront and further chaos. The world must watch Burundi closely, especially as it gets closer to Election Day; the environment is ripe for all-too-common ethnic fighting to occur in Africa. If the international community, led by the United States, does not make Burundi a priority, this crisis may become something far worse.

Please Share: