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Great Lakes Region of Africa - Burundi


By Rutagengwa Claude Shema

Regional Coordinator

Great Lakes Peace Initiative (GLPI)


Bio Other articles in this series...

Transcend Africa Network: Report on Refugees


War and the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the Great - Lakes Region of Africa


Africa in the Face of the Development of Others


International Migration and Development Revisited


Ghettoization or Globalization of African Literature


Sudanese Internal Displaced People


Rwanda: Conflict, Genocide and Post Genocide


Child Rights Associations/Youth Movements in Rwanda


Assistance, Bi-lateral Cooperation and Humanitarian Interventions


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Rais Neza Boneza  2006




GREAT LAKES REGION OF AFRICA: a sub-region in eternal transition


Since some decades ago, the so called "Great Lakes region of Africa" has been a scene of conflict. And those conflicts had connections to colonialism or neo-colonialism from powerful countries like Belgium, United kingdom, USA, and France.

Many of above mentioned countries have fueled conflict in this region, and contributed to deep conflict and massacres or any kind of seriously human right violations like the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in human slaughtering in Democratic Republic of Congo, and civil wars in Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and neighbouring countries.

According to most of national/international human rights organizations, this unbreakable conflict caused the death of  more than 1.000.000 Tutsis in Rwanda and moderate Hutus, while more than 3,000,000 innocent people perished in Democratic Republic of Congo and there were more than 600.000 people dead in Uganda.

Moreover, the conflict in that region has increased the number of refugees in neighbouring countries like Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Angola, Zimbabwe and even in Europe, while mass internal displacement of people has emerged to be catastrophic.

The similarity of historical background in African Great Lakes countries (colonial matters, ethnicity, poverty) involves almost all countries in similar conflict.

That means that those countries share borders and share conflict impacts as well. And sometimes their implications in certain conflicts in that region lead to explosive situations which undermine the peace process. For instance, the current conflict situation in Democratic republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) directly involves at least 7 countries from African regions like DRC itself, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad, Libya, and more than 4 world powerful countries - all were involved indirectly like USA, UK, France and Belgium.

Surprisingly, if I look on the global map, I find that those 4 countries, so called world powerful countries, are far from the Great Lakes region of Africa, but they usually play a major role in fueling conflict in this region in different ways and individually most of the time.

Personally, I think this is the main reason why this sub-region will unintentionally remain in eternal conflict and will be under-ruled in eternal transitional periods of power.






Ethnic background and pre-colonial times

Total population: 7.1 million

Composite population comprised of Hutu (85%), Tutsi (14%) and Batwa (1%)(colonial census)

Numerous interrelations between the ethnic groups (marriage, language, common monarchy)

The Batwa are most likely the most ancient ethnic group in Burundi but they are marginalized in Burundi society .The same situation faces the  Batwa minority ethnic group in Rwanda, and DRC.

"GEOGRAPHY: Landlocked in central Africa, bounded by Rwanda in the north, Tanzania to the east and south, and the vast Democratic Republic of Congo to the west. One of the smallest states on the African continent, Burundi covers 27,834 square kilometers (10,747 square miles).

- POPULATION: 7.1 million, of which around 85 percent are Hutu and 14 percent Tutsi. The remaining one percent of the population are pygmies called Twas. One of the most densely populated African countries.

- CAPITAL: Bujumbura (population 300,000)

- LANGUAGES: Kirundi (national), French (administrative), Swahili (local and most spoken language in Great lakes region of Africa)

- RELIGION: Christian (70 percent); Animist (15 percent); Muslim (15 percent)."*

Burundi is situated in Central Africa, along Lake Tanganyika and shares borders with Rwanda, Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo. According to statistics dating back to the 1930s by Belgian colonial masters and anthropologists, 85 per cent of the population are Hutu, 14 per cent Tutsi and 1 per cent Batwa. According to the colonial masters and anthropologists, the Hutu are considered to have originated from Chad and the Niger, while the Tutsi, of Nilo-ethiopian origin, are thought to have come from eastern Africa. The Batwa originate from the Congo Basin (Pygmies). This breakdown does not take into account the Abaganwa (those of princely origin), nor a handful of other immigrant communities, nor those of mixed origins (mixed marriages having been common in the past).

It also does not take into account the fact that within both groups there existed historically rankings of status nor that passage from one group to another; for instance becoming Tutsi from Hutu or Abaganwa, was also possible. The Burundians all speak the same language, Kirundi, which is both the national and the official language. Other languages, as provided for in the Constitution, are also spoken. Despite ethnic differences, the Burundians live intermingled on the thousands of hills of the country without distinction on account of ethnicity. They are therefore inextricably bound to one another and cannot contemplate any notions of separation.

Although settlements have always been mixed, society in Burundi was built along a 'class' and 'caste' system. While their distinctions were not rigidly determined along 'ethnic' or 'tribal' lines, there was significant correlation between class and ethnicity, with the Tutsis associated with the upper class and the Hutus with the lower class. This did not mean that all Tutsis were upper class nor all Hutus lower class. Both class and the ethnic correlations were also dynamic. A Hutu could rise economically and socially and become a 'Tutsi'.

This coexistence between Hutus and Tutsis ethnic groups in Burundi is the same in Rwanda, and they have the same culture, same morphology and same physiology.

There is no difference also between Kirundi (national-native language of Burundians) and Kinyarwanda (national-native language of Rwandans).

Hutu and Tutsi relationships were in the past cemented by their shared loyalty to common institutions. Kingship was such an institution; patron-client ties constituted another powerful socio-political institution. Patrons were expected to offer protection and gifts in exchange for services and offerings in kind. This was the same in Rwanda.

As social and political roles that once gave meaning and cohesion to membership in the community vanished, the use of the terms 'Hutu' and 'Tutsi' with ethnic connotations became more rigid.

Conflict and aftermath

Colonialism and its system of "divide and rule" in most African countries has been a major root cause of endless conflict in Africa. This happened in Rwanda where Belgians introduced Hutu and Tutsi identities as a fundamental ethnic division in the long plan ,and the result was the 1994 genocide.

In Burundi also, Belgians did the same, and a standoff started between two brothers eternally…

The conflict in Burundi started before 1970, and went on since then until today. I do not want to go through the time line of Burundian conflict and bloodshed and  war, but just to focus on the positive change which is continuing in that country.

As CNDD/FDD, a former rebel group decided to negotiate and stop fighting under international mediation, and transformed into a political party. Surprisingly this party became more popular and won election, while UPRONA, a former Tutsi party in power more than 30 years, lost the election. The same surprise happened to FRODEBU, the former Hutu political party.

The victory of the CNDD/FDD political party in last year's election describes the determination of Burundians in the peace process, because if we look at African history in the Great Lakes region of Africa especially, we find that former rebels winning election over the political party on power is a rare occurrence.

It is also a miracle nowadays to take over power and share power without a bloody military coup.

Sometimes we look at conflict in an evil angle only without looking with wisdom on another positive side of conflict, which is new cooperation, new coalition and new alliances towards positive change. Burundians have a good example and gave a good lesson in that way.

For instance, after several years of the UPRONA political ruling party, most UPRONA members were Tutsi - at least 99% of members - but during the recent election, a number of Tutsi decided to join CNDD/FDD (the former rebel party ),and many Hutus from the FRODEBU political party (former) - the largest opposition party over the UPRONA political party and winner of 1993 general election - joined CNDD as well. So, what reason really pushed Burundian people to join CNDD/FDD and support it to win the general/presidential election?

I would figure out some reasons as follows:

1.Fear of conflict increasing. A decade of Burundi conflict caused the death of more that 600.000 victims, and most infrastructures were damaged or destroyed seriously ,hundreds of women and girls were sexually violated, and many children were kidnapped day and night by rebels and served as sexual slaves, experiencing inhuman care during CNDD/FDD vs. Burundi regime war. This led to most Burundian people to choose supporting the CNDD/FDD political party to win election as the single way to end war. Because the loss in general election to CNDD/FDD could have caused this former rebel group to start another war. This is one of the reasons why many people including Tutsi and Hutus from other parties decided to join the former rebel party.

2.Unhappy with former regime .The UPRONA party had been ruling the country for 3 decades under dictatorship of military high ranks like Colonel Bagaza and Major Buyoya (Bagaza’s cousin brother) later on. Under UPRONA’s ruling party period, people were complaining about unlawful and inhuman arrests, kidnapping and planned killing of opposition opinion leaders, an oppressive system set up by both Bagaza and Buyoya. So, many people were tired with that agony, really fed up, and wanted to have new leaders.

3.Opportunism .Some intellectual people also joined the CNDD/FDD political party to seek jobs and get some celebrities like members of parliament, ministers etc….

This is common in nowadays. But the most important, no matter, reason to join this party is that Burundi has reached a peace agreement and ceased fire. Then war ended. Only one rebel group, called FNL/PALPEHUTU, a former ally of CNDD/FDD, still undermines the peace process by attacking villages and killing innocent people.

And through the truth and reconciliation commission, Burundians are eager to rebuild their nation and work together and in harmony towards a new nation. But this commission must face some realities and challenges like ethnicity, the FNL rebellion, and dealing with corruption and violence as well.

Another heavy task which is actually undermining Burundian people is a desire for power (opportunism), and this is common in our day-to-day life.


* source: AFP 25 February 2005