Independence & Coups

Burundi, like Rwanda, was colonised first by Germany and then later by Belgium, and like its northern neighbour, the Europeans played on ethnic differences to divide and conquer the population. Power was traditionally concentrated in the hands of the minority Tutsi, though Hutus began to challenge the concentration of power following independence in 1962.

In the 1964 elections, Tutsi leader Mwami Mwambutsa refused to appoint a Hutu prime minister, even though Hutu candidates attracted the majority of votes. Hutu frustration soon boiled over, and Hutu military officers and political figures staged an attempted coup. Although it failed, Mwambutsa was exiled to Switzerland, and replaced by a Tutsi military junta.

A wholesale purge of Hutu from the army and bureaucracy followed, and in 1972 another large-scale Hutu revolt resulted in more than 1000 Tutsi being killed. The Tutsi military junta responded with the selective genocide of elite Hutu; after just three months, an estimated 200,000 Hutu had been killed and another 100,000 had fled into neighbouring countries.

In 1976 Jean-Baptiste Bagaza came to power in a bloodless coup, and three years later he formed the Union pour le Progrès National (Uprona). His so-called democratisation program was largely considered to be a failure, and in 1987 his cousin Major Pierre Buyoya toppled him in another coup.

The new regime attempted to address the causes of intertribal tensions by gradually bringing Hutu representatives back into positions of power. However, there was a renewed outbreak of intertribal violence in northern Burundi during the summer of 1988; thousands were massacred and many more fled into neighbouring Rwanda.

A Bloody Civil War

Buyoya finally bowed to international pressure, and multiparty elections were held in June 1993. These brought a Hutu-dominated government to power, led by Melchior Ndadaye, himself a Hutu. However, Ndadaye's rule was to be short-lived, as by October of that year he had been assassinated by unknown military assailants in an attempted coup (a 1996 UN investigation accused the army command of being responsible for Ndadaye's death, but the report did not name names). The coup eventually failed, though thousands were massacred in intertribal fighting, and almost half a million refugees fled across the border into Rwanda.

In April 1994 Cyprien Ntaryamira, the new Hutu president, was killed in the same plane crash that killed Rwanda’s President Juvénal Habyarimana – an event that ignited the subsequent genocide in Rwanda. In Burundi, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya was immediately appointed interim president, though 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 former president Major Pierre Buyoya again carried out a successful coup, and took over as the country’s president with the support of the army. However, intertribal fighting continued between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-dominated government and Tutsi militia. Hundreds of thousands of political opponents, mostly Hutus, were herded into ‘regroupment camps’, and bombings, murders and other horrific activities continued throughout the country.

A Fragile Peace

At the end of 2002 the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD), the largest rebel group, signed a peace deal. In April 2003 prominent Hutu Domitien Ndayizeye succeeded Buyoya as president, and a road map to elections was hammered out.

In 2004 the UN began operations in Burundi, sending more than 5000 troops to enforce the peace. Parliamentary elections were successfully held in 2005, and the former rebels, the FDD, emerged victorious. Pierre Nkurunziza, leader of the FDD, was sworn in as president in August. The 2010 elections were marred by violence and allegations of fraud and corruption. Despite international observers recognising the local elections as mainly free and fair, a growing mistrust of the incumbent’s commitments to democracy saw all opposition withdraw their candidacy and Nkurunziza was re-elected unopposed.

Between 2010 and early 2015 the peace largely held and Burundi continued on its (very shaky) road to recovery: foreign investment started to arrive; the infrastructure of the country started to be overhauled; the economy climbed slowly upward, with tourism increasing; and for a few short years things looked more positive than they had in many a year.

But then in April 2015 Domitien Ndayizeye announced that he intended to run for a third term as president. Opposition parties said that this would be against the constitution, which limits a president to two terms. Ndayizeye, though, claimed that his first term didn't count as he was appointed by parliament and not voted for by the people. But the people weren't happy and by the end of April angry protests had broken out on the streets of Bujumbura. On 26 April six demonstrators were killed in clashes with police during a protest. This led to more protests, much more violence, a government shutdown of independent radio stations and media outlets, an attempted coup, and tens of thousands of people fleeing the worsening situation for Rwanda and Tanzania.

Despite the rapid breakdown in law and order, elections were held in late July 2015. These were boycotted by the opposition and Ndayizeye was duly re-elected. Since then low-level violence has continued throughout Burundi and an estimated 380,000 people had fled its borders by February 2017.