In the early morning of October 21, 1993, the first brief episode of Hutu rule came to a bloody end in Burundi. Just five months earlier, Melchior Ndadaye had been elected president in the East African country’s first democratic vote.
Since Burundi gained independence from Belgium in 1962, a small group of Tutsi militants had divided power among themselves. But, during Pierre Buyoya’s term in office, the pressure became too great; he reformed the country’s political system, resulting in an electoral victory for the progressive “Hutu party” FRODEBU (Front for Democracy in Burundi) with Ndadaye. This, in turn, attracted radical Tutsis to the scene.
Exactly 30 years ago, Tutsi soldiers stormed the presidential palace, abducting and murdering Ndadaye. The country then descended into a bloody civil war between the Tutsi-dominated army and Hutu rebel groups. More than 300,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands fled to neighboring countries.
‘Assassination created hatred’
Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, a Hutu and Burundi’s president Nfrom 1994 to 1996, told DW that Ndadaye’s “assassination created hatred among Burundians, who turned against each other, and caused a bitter war between them for more than 10 years. The country went backwards economically.”
It was a time of great loss for Burundi, Ntibantunganya said. “Because as far as I know, Melchior Ndadaye was a person who had the determination to fight the extreme poverty in Burundi, and he had solid plans to achieve that, but also to help the Burundians to live together in peace.”
Ntibantunganya’s term occurred during Burundi’s civil war, which begin in and officially ended with the Arusha Accords in 2000, though deep wounds remained. The peace treaty laid the foundation for a comprehensive division of power between the two groups in government, parliament, administration, police and army. A cease-fire followed in 2003, and the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party joined the transitional government formed in 2001.
President’s unfulfilled promises
The division of power established in the subsequent constitution significantly eased the polarization between Hutu and Tutsi in politics and everyday life. In 2014, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to address the violence. However, the body’s work has come under fire for failing to achieve its mandate, with Amnesty International alleging that is suffers from bias.
Burundi, a country of 11 million inhabitants, has not been free from conflict in its recent history, though it has taken on a different character. Unlike what took place in the 1990s, current disputes are primarily political rather than ethnic in nature. After the violent suppression of protests in 2015 against an unconstitutional third term in office by President Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundi was isolated internationally for a long time, with the opposition and civil society under pressure.
Incumbent President Evariste Ndayishimiye has left repeated promises to ensure justice and promote political tolerance unfulfilled since taking power in 2020. Not only did he appoint ruling party hard-liners to key positions in 2022, but the government is failing in its duty to ensure the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Meanwhile, suppression of political opponents often results in violent protests.
Human rights violations
Killings, torture, abuse arbitrary arrests and detentions of actual or suspected opposition members were all documented by international and Burundian human rights groups in 2022.
While foreign policy channels have opened up, the human rights situation remains tense, with limited room to maneuver by the political opposition, civil society and the media.
Former President Ntibantunganya believes that Burundi has learned from bitter experiences since the civil war began 30 years ago. The first lesson, he said, has been that many Burundians now understand that there is no path to power but to seek the consent of the people through inclusive, free and fair elections.
The new Burundi?
Ntibantunganya himself was never elected. He ended up in the role of interim president in 1994 after his predecessor Cyprien Ntaryamira and his Rwandan counterpart Juvénal Habyarimana were killed when their plane was shot down in Kigali — the that event marked the beginning of the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda. In neighboring Burundi to the south, things were comparatively peaceful for a time, but the civil war eventually intensified.
“The second lesson is that Burundians now understand the importance of multipartism, and the role of the independent nongovernmental organization and the media in maintaining the foundations of democracy and the promotion of human rights,” Ntibantunganya said. “But the most important lesson is that Burundians are now aware of the importance of dialogue when problems arise between them.”
Thirty years ago, Melchior Ndadaye, upon taking office after his election, said to the people: “Peace will be the first priority of the new government that you have elected. … This new government will say goodbye to harassment, torture, tyranny and murder — the new Burundi.”
But Burundi’s path toward a stable democracy remains uncertain.
Source: DW News