The original Burundians were the Twa Pygmies, but they were soon squeezed out by bigger groups. First came the Hutu, mostly farmers of Bantu stock, from about 1000 AD. Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the tall, pastoral Tutsi from Ethiopia and Uganda arrived. Relations were cordial, but the Tutsi gradually subjugated the Hutu in a feudal system similar to that of medieval Europe.
At the end of the 19th century Burundi and Rwanda were colonised by Germany, but after WWI the League of Nations mandated Rwanda-Urundi to Belgium. Taking advantage of the status quo, the Belgians ruled through the Tutsi chiefs and princes. The establishment of coffee plantations, and the resulting concentration of wealth in the hands of the Tutsi elite, provoked tensions between the two tribal groups.
In the 1950s a nationalist organisation based on unity between the tribes was founded under the leadership of the mwami’s eldest son, Prince Rwagasore. But in the lead up to independence he was assassinated with the connivance of the colonial authorities, who feared their commercial interests would be threatened if he took power.
Despite this setback, it appeared that Burundi was headed for a majority government following independence in 1962. But in the 1964 elections, Mwami Mwambutsa refused to appoint a Hutu prime minister, even though Hutu candidates were the clear winners. Hutu frustration boiled over, and Hutu military officers and political figures staged an attempted coup. A wholesale purge of Hutu from the army and bureaucracy followed.
In 1972 another large-scale revolt resulted in more than 1000 Tutsi killed. The Tutsi military junta responded with selective genocide: any Hutu with wealth, a formal education or a government job was rooted out and murdered, often in the most horrifying way. After three months, 200, 000 Hutu had been killed and another 100, 000 had fled the country.
In 1976 Jean-Baptiste Bagaza came to power in a bloodless coup. During the Bagaza years, there were some half-hearted attempts by the Tutsi government to remove some of the main causes of intertribal conflict, but these were mostly cosmetic.
Bagaza was toppled in September 1987 in a coup led by his cousin Major Pierre Buyoya. The new regime attempted to address the causes of intertribal tensions yet again by gradually bringing Hutu representatives back into positions of power in the government.
Buyoya eventually bowed to international pressure and allowed multiparty elections in June 1993. These brought a Hutu-dominated government to power, led by Melchior Ndadaye. But he was assassinated by a dissident army faction in October. The coup failed, but in the chaos that followed the assassination, thousands were massacred in intertribal fighting.
In April 1994 the new president, Cyprien Ntaryamira (a Hutu), died in the infamous plane crash that killed Rwanda’s President Habyarimana and sparked the planned genocide there. Back in Burundi, both Hutu militias and the Tutsi-dominated army went on the offensive. No war was actually declared, but at least 100, 000 people were killed in clashes between mid-1994 and mid-1996. In July 1996 the former president, Pierre Buyoya, again carried out a successful coup and took over as the country’s president with the support of the army.
Peace talks staggered on during the conflict, mediated first by former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere and later the revered Nelson Mandela. A breakthrough came in April 2003, when President Buyoya handed over power to Hutu leader Domitien Ndayizeye and both sides promised to work towards elections. Tragically, the conflict had already claimed the lives of about 300, 000 Burundians.
In 2004 the UN began operations in Burundi, sending more than 5000 troops to enforce the peace. Parliamentary elections were successfully held in June 2005 and the former rebels, the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD), emerged victorious. FDD leader Pierre Nkurunziza was sworn in as president in August. One rebel group, the Forces for National Liberation (FNL), remains active in the country, but they are now fighting their former allies and a Hutu majority government. The country is finally on the road to stability and all sides need to embrace the spirit of national unity to bring Burundi back from the brink.