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Burundi’s peace hangs by a thread

Nineteen-seventy two was tragic in Burundi. That year, a Hutu-led rebellion erupted in the south, killing thousands of Tutsis. The repression that ensued reached genocidal proportions (the likes of which were only witnessed again in 1993). Six weeks from the start of the rebellion, the Tutsi then-president, Colonel Michel Micombero, admitted in an interview that upwards of 100 000 people had been killed. (Other sources at the time put the figure closer to 150 000.)

A New York Times reporter on assignment in Burundi in June 1972 fired a grim dispatch, “The Hutu elite has been decimated in the government administration, in the commercial world, in the church and in schools down to the secondary school level.” 

The passive voice obfuscates who did the killing. Micombero’s forces were the guilty party.

The world knew Burundi was burning. Then-US national security adviser Henry Kissinger wrote in a memo to former US president Richard Nixon that “Hutu rebels killed every Tutsi that they ran across during their initial rampage which triggered the Tutsi decision to exterminate all Hutus with any semblance of leadership, ie, those who could read or write, or those who wore shoes.” 

That decision was Micombero’s.

Surprisingly, a month into the killings, “a group of diplomats, led by the papal nuncio, applauded [Micombero] for starting what was called his ‘pacification’ programme’,” per the same New York Times reporter. 

Worse, three weeks into the mass massacres, the Organisation of African Unity (the African Union’s predecessor) sent a delegation of three heads of states to Burundi. They met Micombero and expressed their solidarity with him — a shocking statement, as Miles Pendleton, who served as a political-economic officer in the US embassy in Bujumbura at the time, recalled. It only invigorated Micombero’s zeal. 

With solidarity came impunity. Those who were responsible for the atrocities continued mingling unbothered with African and world elites as Burundi struggled to recover while hundreds of thousands of refugees languished in camps. The former president of Somalia, Mohamed Siad Barre, even declared a three-day official mourning period for Micombero when he died in 1983 — more than a decade after 1972. (Micombero had lived in exile in Somalia since 1976, the year his cousin deposed him.) 

To date, no one has been held accountable for those crimes against humanity that Micombero and his lieutenants committed. 

1972 set in motion a series of violent political crises that Burundi is reeling from to this date. Nearly a half-million lives have been lost since.

The Nelson Mandela-brokered 2000 Peace and Reconciliation Agreement (often referenced as the Arusha Accord) provided a decade-long reprieve, but this was only temporary.

The late president Pierre Nkurunziza’s quest for a third term in 2015, in contravention of the peace agreement, sparked the latest conflagration, which, while far from the tolls of 1972 and 1993, left thousands of people dead, while hundreds disappeared, and countless were gang raped and tortured at the hands of Nkurunziza’s forces or militia. 

Like in 1972, the world knows what happened (and is still happening) in Burundi since 2015; only this time with much greater accuracy given the speed of information in an interconnected world. 

Civil war and genocide: In 1972, a Hutu rebellion began killing members of the Tutsi group in Burundi, leading to a backlash led by the Tutsi then-president. In this 1974 photograph, Tutsi troops guard Hutu captives. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in violence that has recurred in 1993, and again since 2015. Photo: Bettmann

There are countless reports, some from the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Burundi (created in 2016), others from reputable national and international organisations, complete with dates and names of victims and perpetrators – all available at the world’s fingertips. 

Still, with all that information, the international community seems determined to proceed like it did in 1972: sweep it all under the rug and pretend nothing happened. The latest Human Right Watch report on Burundi should have be a wake-up call: “Every year since its creation, the [UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi] has documented grave human rights violations, which in some cases may amount to crimes against humanity.”

A (divided) international community took some steps to bring Burundians back to reason in months that followed the start of the 2015 crisis. The European Union (EU) levied a few sanctions. The United Nations Security Council and the African Union issued statements. These actions were meant to bring Burundians to a genuine dialogue “in the spirit of the Arusha Agreement” (a phrase repeated in nearly every statement on Burundi since 2015). 

Nkurunziza resisted these calls to his final dying breath. 

A severely flawed (if not outright stolen) election later, Burundi has had a new president – General Évariste Ndayishimiye, Nkurunziza’s anointed successor – for a year. His regime continues on his predecessor’s path, relying on the same individuals and same institutions (such as the intelligence services and the ruling party’s youth league) that Nkurunziza used to silence (thousands of times for good) his real or perceived opposition.  

To his credit, Ndayishimiye has made some concessions, such as the release of journalists who many had pointed out were unjustly detained. These concessions have seemed like hostage release negotiations as Ndayishimiye seeks to recover $480-million in aid that the EU froze due to Nkurunziza and his acolytes’ atrocious human rights record. Yet, many political prisoners remain behind bars and the list keeps growing. Human rights defenders continue to report cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. 

The Arusha Agreement-style dialogue still has not happened. And the more days go by, the more Burundi drifts away from the spirit of the Peace Agreement, which was first and foremost an inclusion pact, following decades of ethnic and political exclusion. In its wreckage, the old divisive and exclusionary practices have reared their ugly heads. 

As Burundi celebrated its National Unity Charter’s 30th anniversary last February, Ligue Iteka, Burundi’s oldest human rights organization, issued an alarming report on the state of political and ethnic exclusion in Burundi. Iteka’s research concluded that close to 95% of President Ndayisimiye’s appointments are from his party, the overwhelming majority being Hutus – his ethnic group.

The Iteka report highlighted for example that there was not a single Tutsi in the provincial leadership of Burundi’s notorious intelligence services (Burundi has 18 provinces), and more than 80% of military commanders and provincial police commissioners are Hutu in a country where the constitution (inspired by the peace agreement) requires a 50/50 Hutu/Tutsi representation in security services to prevent acts of genocides and ethnic cleansing. 

Statistics on political exclusion are even worse, which led Agathon Rwasa, leader of the largest opposition party, to conclude that exclusionary practices have reached levels of the regimes he joined the bush in the 1980s to combat.

These alarming levels of discrimination and the widespread impunity are some of the burning issues a renewed, sincere, and inclusive dialogue could resolve to prevent future cycles of political violence in Burundi. Burundians and partners of Burundi should not lose sight of that goal.  

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Thierry Uwamahoro
Thierry Uwamahoro is a Burundian democracy activist, with a background in democracy-related projects for the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

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