Africana Plus

No 17 September 1996.4


Ethnic conflict

Burundi, a small country in the heart of Africa's Great Lakes region (4° south of the equator), has been cut off from the world since July 31. Following a meeting in Arusha, Tanzania, the bordering nations of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zaire decided to impose an economic embargo on Burundi in response to the coup d'état led by Major Pierre Buyoya.

Already Burundi's economy has been hard hit. Ranking among the poorest of the world's poor countries, Burundi is classified as one of the least developed countries, with an annual per capita GNP of $210. Its economy is based on tea and coffee exports, shipped abroad through Rwanda and Tanzania. Landlocked Burundi depends on its neighbours for access to world markets. Furthermore, the country's fuel supplies have fallen to dangerously low levels, since it imports most of its crude oil from Kenya.

What could have prompted Burundi's neighbours to take such an action against the youngest and poorest kid on the block? Why go out of their way to crush a country already in bad shape?

The fact is, the political impasse which is paralyzing Burundi could end up destabilizing the geopolitical equilibrium of Africa's Great Lakes countries. With Bantu societies forming the majority in these countries, it is hard to imagine much political support for the former nomads of Nilotic descent. If they feel any spontaneous affection for this race of shepherds, it is not obvious.

In addition, the presence of another Rwanda in the heart of Africa could result in a regional coronary. Anarchy has been the order of the day in Burundi since the 1993 assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, the first Hutu president -- and first democratically elected president. The bloodbath that began then has gone on ever since. Its death toll has been placed at 100,000, from all ethnicities. Not to mention some 200,000 refugees in neighbouring countries and 200,000 more in internal exile, compelled to change villages and hills within the borders of their own country. All are trying to flee death, which makes no distinction between Hutu and Tutsi. The proposed solution is the equivalent of economic nitroglycerine pills. But an overdose could kill the patient instead of curing it. This has jolted leading humanitarian organizations in the West.

In the meantime, the Burundians suffer and live in fear. Hutu and Tutsi militias alike are killing old people, the sick, women and children. They do not balk at entering hospitals to kill the patients. They kill not only leaders but average people as well, the innocent and the guilty, Burundians and foreigners. That way, they maintain a climate of terror, and hide their crimes under the cloak of ethnicity. The ethnic ideology feeds power struggles and serves the interests of the minority leadership.

In a pastoral letter to all Burundians, dated June 12, the bishops observed that these criminals justified their actions by claiming to be acting to protect their ethnic group and restore the rights of its members. The bishops did not see anything intrinsically bad about wanting to defend family or protect an ethnic group. What they did consider wrong was excluding others, persecuting and exterminating them because they did not belong to the same ethnic group or hold the same political views or other opinions.

This ideology of exclusion is strangely reminiscent of apartheid as it was practised in South Africa. The breakdown of Burundi society seems to be moving toward the creation of little Hutulands and Tutsilands. These may in fact exist already: consider the balkanization of the capital, Bujumbura, where the Tutsi minority reign, and the rest of the country, dominated by the Hutu majority.

Major Buyoya is on his second coup d'état (the first was to topple Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza in 1987). Despite his assurances, racial harmony does not seem to be high on his agenda. And yet this is an essential element for true democracy. Diversity can be a tremendous source of wealth for those who have eyes to see. Striving for uniformity at any price is a recipe for certain disaster.

The ideology of exclusion can be compared to the situation in a forest. The forest has some problems. Not surprisingly, many of them can be traced to people. One day, some technicians who are a little too sure of themselves decide to intervene and restore some order to the forest. They go around planting trees, all the same species, all the same age, in rows like soldiers. A triumph of geometry. Then they wait for the miracle to happen. But the miracle does not happen. Instead, the trees, too much alike, rapidly exhaust the soil. Then disease strikes the trees that are too much alike; then the wind comes and uproots them in their rows, like a fusillade mowing down a battalion.

With less geometry and more finesse, the forest is then returned to a state of apparent disorder. When the planters include a variety of species and ages, a healthy and vigorous forest is the result.

The human race is not so different from a forest. Burundi, like any nation, would do well to come to terms with ethnic diversity and show more tolerance. A suggestion that could be applied equally as well in Canada as a whole and in Quebec. Intolerance, the fruit of pride and human stupidity, has been at the root of war and conflict throughout history. After all, the civil war now raging in the beautiful land of a thousand hills is not something unique only to Burundi.

It is to be hoped that the country's leaders will be able to set aside their self-importance so that all Burundians can once again flourish in the splendid garden that is their home.

Michel Fortin, M.Afr.

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