No 9 June 1995.3
What's happening in Burundi?
A question I am often asked these days. Because I lived in Burundi for 10 years, people have been asking me for my opinion and my views on a solution. Central Africa looks more and more like an erupting volcano. When two ethnic groups live in close quarters, are they doomed to live in confrontation? Whether in Africa (Rwanda and Burundi, with Hutu and Tutsi), in Europe (Belgium, with Flemish and Walloons) or in North America (Quebec, with French and English), it seems that the smaller the soup pot, the hotter the soup.
Do small countries or societies breed small minds? Not necessarily. But peaceful coexistence is difficult in the presence of a close-knit group that has a fear of invasion, whether physical, cultural, social or economic. Furthermore, in countries like Rwanda and Burundi, endemic poverty has pushed people beyond their endurance.
What is the difference between Burundi and its neighbour Rwanda?
These two small countries (each about half the size of Nova Scotia) are almost twins. They have roughly the same population (Rwanda: 7.5 million; Burundi: 5.5 million); they are both known as the land of a thousand hills; both are landlocked; they speak the same language, or close to it (Kinyarwanda and Kirundi are closely related); they have similar customs (they drink the same banana beer in a type of communion called the gusangira umukenke); their ethnic composition is almost identical (Hutu, non-nomadic farmers: 85%; Tutsi, nomadic herders: 14%; Twa, the first inhabitants of the country, from the forests: 1%); religion (most of the population is Christian, and two-thirds Catholic); and hospitality, joie de vivre, courtesy and tact are part of their cultural values. Moreover, their political history over the past 30 years seems to establish them as close relations.
There may have been a million deaths in Rwanda because of political and ethnic conflict, but it must not be forgotten that there have been hundreds of thousands of deaths in Burundi for the same reasons (100,000 in 1972; 5,000 in 1988; 50,000 since 1993). But everyone agrees that the small differences are important, and are what make the two countries fairly distinct from each other. They may be twins, but they are far from being identical ones. To name two examples, the Tutsi of Burundi have wielded more power than in Rwanda, and Rwanda has always been better-off and has received more attention from the West than Burundi.
Why do the ethnic groups hate each other so much?
After Burundi declared its independence in 1962, the Tutsi ethnic minority dominated the Hutu majority until 1993. Denied access to power, forced into submission, the Hutu were filled with frustration, hostility and revenge, while the Tutsi minority lived in constant fear of being overthrown and even exterminated by the Hutu majority. The double victory scored by the Burundi Democratic Front (FRODEBU) in the presidential and the legislative elections of June 1 and 29, 1993 gave the Hutu majority an unhoped-for opportunity to assume power. But everything was thrown into chaos by the attempted coup d'etat of October 21, 1993 which led to the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, the first elected Hutu president.
The upsurge of violence in recent months is reminiscent of Rwanda, isn't it?
Yes, it is. In the past 18 months, clashes within the population suggest that Burundians are living in a state of fear and distrust. The long series of attacks and assassinations calls up the spectre of a bloodbath similar to the one last year in Rwanda. Faced with threats and rumours of a massacre, the Tutsi feel compelled to support the army, whether they want to or not, considering that they do not necessarily share the same political goals. This folly of mutual fear feeds insecurity, in which each ethnic group suspects the other of preparing for genocide.
In general, the feeling of insecurity is related to the presence of arms in residential neighbourhoods. Tensions are heightened by armed groups of extremists intent on disrupting the peace. They attack anyone, civilian or military, and are delaying the return to peaceful coexistence. Most of the people hate and reject the tactics of these guerilla groups, because attacks on the security forces inevitably result in more serious counter-offensives.
Guerilla violence recently prompted an exodus of tens of thousands of Hutu and foreign Africans, especially Zairians. They fled Bujumbura for fear of the army, which is mainly Tutsi. The army had attacked Hutu extremists living in the residential areas of the capital, namely Bwiza, Buyenzi and Kanyosha. The extremists may be linked with Leonard Nyangoma, former Minister of the Interior and head of the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD).
Is there any solution in sight?
Yes. But first the country's leaders must have the political will to settle their problems themselves. The international community is firm on this point. For instance, the authorities must arrest armed groups as quickly as possible and keep militia repression under control. However, the problem with arms proliferation is that the Hutu want weapons out of a legitimate desire for self-protection, considering the Tutsi adequately armed and also protected by the army. The Tutsi, who feel threatened, want everyone with illegal weapons to be disarmed. Prime Minister Antoine Nduwayo, a member of the main Tutsi opposition party, the National Party for Unity and Progress (UPRONA), plans to continue disarming and dismantling the terrorist groups with more strength and determination than in the past.
The problem of impunity must also be settled quickly. Solving the crisis in Burundi will mean reforming the legal system to provide an alternative to violence so that justice is done. The report of the international commission of inquiry on human rights violations in Burundi since October 21, 1993 points out that impunity is part of Burundi's history. The legal system is ethnically unbalanced and is lacking in means as well as traditions of impartiality, courage and independence. An international tribunal should identify and punish those guilty of violence in order to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control.
It is important to appeal to the people as well. Burundians are noted for their tradition of dialogue, led by persons commonly known as abashingantahe, who help people open up to each other. It would be a good idea, and could turn out to be absolutely necessary, for these resource persons in the community to stand up and carry out their task of bringing people together. They are needed in order to heal broken communities. The role of the abashingantahe is generally accepted by all ethnic groups.
Finally, in a country with a Christian majority, it is only to be expected that people would be interested in reconciliation. Let us hope that the members of the small church communities dotting Burundi's thousand and one hills will harken to the voice of their conscience.
Is there anything we can do?
First, we ought to keep abreast of the news and condemn violence whenever we can. Martin Luther King once said that those who do not speak out against injustice help to perpetuate it. In Montreal, information may be obtained from the Table de concertation pour le Burundi, which publishes a bulletin, Info-Burundi. We can also give our support to non-governmental organizations that are working in the field, like Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF and other international cooperation organizations, which have just had their funding cut by CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency.
Finally, it is important to ask our government to continue its policy of prevention with respect to Burundi. For instance, it could help train an independent police force in Burundi, as it has done in Haiti. As citizens of a free country, we can do our part by promoting and sustaining other political systems as they move toward democracy and by making our cooperation contingent on respect for human rights.
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.