Burundi and Rwanda Genocide

There is more to Burundi and Rwanda than the arcane histories of two overpopulated (7 million each), poverty stricken  micro-states in  the heart of the African continent: their minute size belies the magnitude of the tragedies they have suffered. The first will go down in history as the site of one of the biggest genocides of the last century, resulting in the systematic killing of an estimated 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, in a hundred days from April to July 1994. The second lives on in the collective memory of the survivors as a forgotten genocide: who today remembers that in 1972, between 200,000 and 300,000 Hutu were massacred at the hands of a predominantly Tutsi army?

Behind these horror stories lies a sociological puzzle: although Rwanda and Burundi have more in common than any other two states in the continent, in terms of size, traditional institutions, ethnic maps, language, and culture, they have followed radically different trajectories, one (Rwanda) ending up as a republic under Hutu control at the time of independence (1962), the other (Burundi) as a constitutional monarchy under Tutsi rule. Not until 1965 did the army abolish the monarchy. And while both experienced genocide, the victims in each state belonged to different communities – predominantly Tutsi in Rwanda and overwhelmingly Hutu in Burundi. Today Rwanda has emerged as a thinly disguised Tutsi dictator ship, while Burundi is painstakingly charting a new course toward a multiparty democracy.

The key to the puzzle lies in history. Sometimes referred to as ‘‘the false twins’’ of the continent, traditional Burundi was far from being a carbon copy of Rwanda. In neither state is ethnic conflict reducible to age old enmities, yet the Hutu–Tutsi split was far more pronounced and therefore potentially menacing in Rwanda than in Burundi. In contrast with the rigid pattern of stratification found in Rwanda, where the ‘‘premise of inequality’’ formed the axis around which Hutu–Tutsi  relations revolved, Burundi society was more complicated and hence more flexible. The monarchy was conspicuously weak compared  to  its Rwanda counterpart, and real holders of power were the princes of the blood (ganwa) rather than centrally appointed chiefs and subchiefs. Although both states crossed the threshold of independence at the same time (July 1962), they did so under very different circumstances: while Rwanda had already gone through the throes of a violent Hutu led, Belgian abetted revolution (1959–62), Burundi was relatively free of ethnic tension. The focus of conflict had little to do with Hutu and Tutsi, involving instead political rivalries between the two principal ganwa-led factions, Bezi and Batare.

The years immediately following independence saw a drastic transformation of the parameters of conflict, where the Rwanda model took on the quality of a self fulfilling prophecy in Burundi. As many Hutu elites in Burundi increasingly came to look to Rwanda as the exemplary polity, growing fears spread among the Tutsi population of an impending Rwanda like revolution. Unless Hutu claims to power were resisted, they would share the fate of their Rwandan kinsmen. This meant a more or less systematic exclusion of Hutu elements from positions of authority. Exclusion led to insurrection, and insurrection to repression. The first act of insurrection came in 1965, shortly after Hutu candidates were denied the fruit of their electoral victory. An abortive Hutu led coup by gendarmerie officers led to the arrest and execution of scores of Hutu leaders, and the flight to Europe of the panic stricken king Mwambutsa,  leaving  the  throne  vacant. Another major purge of Hutu leaders occurred in 1969, after rumors spread of an impending Hutu plot against the government. The crunch came in April 1972 in the wake of a localized Hutu insurrection. The government responded by the wholesale slaughter of all educated Hutu elites, and potential elites, including secondary school children. An estimated 200,000 Hutu – some Tutsi analysts claim 300,000 – died in the course of what must be seen as the first recorded genocide in independent Africa. From 1972 to 1993, when the first multiparty legislative and presidential elections were held since independence, the state and the army remained firmly in Tutsi hands.

There are obvious differences between the Rwanda genocide and the Burundi bloodbath, in terms of scale, target group, and circumstances. The killings in Rwanda came about in the wake of a long and bitter civil war (1990–4), triggered by the invasion of Tutsi exiles from Uganda on October 1, 1990. There was nothing in Burundi comparable to the virulent anti Tutsi  media campaign organized by Hutu extremists, and the central role played by Hutu youth groups, the infamous interahamwe, in planning and organizing the killings. Most importantly, in Rwanda the killers were eventually defeated by the Tutsi dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR); in Burundi, by contrast, they came out on top, in full control of the army and the government. Yet there are parallels as well, in that both were retributive genocides, occurring in response to perceived threats; in each case the army and the jeunesses were the driving force behind the killings; and in Rwanda as in Burundi the post genocide state emerged stronger than before, and ethnically homogeneous.

A critical turning point in post genocide Burundi came with the 1993 elections, and the short lived tenure in office of Melchior Ndadaye, the first popularly elected Hutu president of Burundi. His assassination by a group of army officers on October 21, 1993, unleashed a violent civil war, from which the country is only barely recovering. An estimated 300,000 people died in the course of what some referred to as a genocide in slow motion. The power sharing agreement negotiated at the Arusha conference (1998–2000) did not bring an end to ethnic and factional violence – to this day, a small, militant Hutu dominated faction, the Forces Nationales de Libe´ration (FNL), continues to engage in sporadic attacks against civilians – but it did pave the way for a major political turnaround, by substantially reducing the scale of violence, putting in place a three year transitional government consisting of an equal number of Hutu and Tutsi, and by taking the constitutional, legislative, and administrative steps required for holding multiparty legislative and presidential elections in April 2005. Not the least significant of such measures is the allocation to Hutu and Tutsi candidates of respectively 60 and 40 percent of the seats in the legislature and the government to Hutu candidates, and the restructuring of the army on a 50/50 share of officers’ positions.

The contrast with post genocide Rwanda could not be more striking. The recognition of ethnic identities is central to an understanding of the pluralistic character of the emergent Burundi polity; in Rwanda, the elimination of such identities by decree is no less important to appreciate the extent of the transformations enforced by the Kagame regime. There are no Hutu or Tutsi in today’s Rwanda, only Rwandans, or Banyarwanda. Yet at no time in its violent history has Rwanda been more thoroughly dominated by Tutsi elements, or, more specifically, Tutsi from Uganda. Tutsi survivors, the so called rescapes, are systematically excluded from positions of authority. The Hutu are at the bottom of the heap, not just politically but socially and economically. The depth of inequality between Hutu and Tutsi is without precedent in colonial or precolonial history. To hold the regime responsible for ethnic discrimination makes no sense, however, since Hutu and Tutsi no longer exist, officially at least, as separate ethnic categories.

By the criteria normally used by political scientists to define a regime as totalitarian (an official ideology, a single political party, a centrally directed economy, governmental control of mass communications, party control of the military, and a secret police), Rwanda qualifies as one of the few totalitarian states in existence in Africa, and the only one in which an ethnic minority representing 15 percent of the population holds unfettered control over the state, the media, the economy, and the armed forces. It is also one of the largest recipients of foreign assistance per capita, and thanks to the generosity of the international community it boasts one of the largest armies in the continent (approximately 75,000 men). Last but not least, it is the only country on the continent that has invaded a neighboring state – the Congo – on three different occasions, looted its mineral wealth, and used its influence to manipulate client factions – all of the above without incur ring effective sanctions from the international community.

Rwanda’s claim that its security is threatened by the presence in the Congo of former genocidaires, though not unfounded, is greatly exaggerated. But it serves as a convenient pretext to carve out a major sphere of influence in a vitally important swath of territory in its neighbor to the west. In the past the histories of Rwanda and Burundi were closely interconnected. Today, the destinies of the three states that once formed Belgian Africa are more closely intertwined than at any time in history, past or present.


  1. Eltringham, (2004) Accounting for Horror: Post Genocide Debates in Rwanda. Pluto, London.
  2. Jones, B. (2001) Peacemaking in Rwanda: The Dynamics of Failure.
  3. Lynne Rienner, Boulder, Kuper, L. (1985) The Prevention of Genocide. Yale University Press, New Haven.
  4. Lemarchand, (1994) Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  5. Prunier, (1998) The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. Columbia University Press, New York.

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