Burundi Crisis

Only few people really know what is actually going in Burundi. The country is setting the stage for a crisis similar to the previous one that has leaded to a civil war. According to the United Nations (UN), hundreds of people have died, thousands have been imprisoned and hundreds of thousands have left the country since the emergence of the current political crisis in 2015. Few months later after the announcement of an investigation of the ongoing violence within the state by the persecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Burundi has left the international tribunal. The government also rejected a recent UN report which accused the country of human rights abuses. [1]


According to Cristina Cliff, an expert in African Studies, the Great Lake region in Africa is at this time the most conflict-prone region in the world. The actual Burundi crisis appears to be on a path to becoming a conflict which would result in a great humanitarian tragedy. Burundi’s weak democratic norms, ongoing political strife, and the impact and the diffusion of the violence between the countries in the Great Lake region would end up in a major crisis in the area. [2] The lack of information about the situation in Burundi leads the CIPADH to investigate about the ongoing crisis in the country.

Burundi’s history

To understand the current situation, it is fundamental, in the first place, to discuss the historic patterns and societal structures of the country. The Great Lakes Region of Africa, which includes Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (RDC), Uganda and Tanzania, was divided by many European colonies. During the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885, these countries were under the control of Belgian, German and British colonies. After the defeat of the German Empire in the World War I, theirs colonies called Ruanda-Urundi (actual Rwanda and Burundi) were redistributed to Belgium. One of the primary influences of the Belgian colonizers was to create socioethnic divisions within the population, as it was the case in Burundi and Rwanda. The past of these two countries are intertwined. The Belgian colonizers establish a new hierarchy based on the social identities of the community present in the region despite the fact that the different ethnic groups share the same culture. As it is underline by Alain Destexhe, a scholar of the Rwanda genocide: “[T]he three groups [Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa] speak the same language, share the same territory, and follow the same traditions.”[3]However the Belgians did a distinction between these groups and also added a racial component to the previously existing societal divisions. They believed that since the Tutsis “looked more like [the colonizers] … they found it reasonable to suppose them closer to Europeans in the evolutionary hierarchy and therefore closer to them in ability”.[4] The competition for power and influence has started from the establishment of the distinction between these groups. This competition enables their migration among different countries in the region. This migration was encouraged by the colonizers. The phenomena of migration have created a cross-border between countries in the region of the African Great Lake that will contribute to the spread of political strife among these states through contagion and diffusion. Refugees will flee to neighboring countries where they know they are others members of the group and bring with them their experiences and knowledge.[5]

“The colonizers’ development of ethnopolitical divisions and preferential treatment of individuals and groups within the population affected historic community ties. Social/political differentiations were exacerbated by the artificially created territories that often divided familial/clan populations. The colonizers created borders in the region that were based on decisions that suited the interests of European leadership rather than local traditions, interests, or population identities, what Easterly called “drunken parallelograms.” [6] All of these factors would contribute to the conflicts that would come with decolonization.


All the countries of the region experienced a civil war during or after decolonization which implies human plights and fundamental rights violations. In the case of Burundi and Rwanda the genocidal cycle started with the shift of the ethnic political participation allowance by the colonial power. Initially, the Belgians gave the majority of the power to the Tutsis, but in the 1950s, they allowed the Hutu government in Rwanda that created ethnic-based political parties. This increased the competition between these two groups. The addition of the political ambition and the ethnic identity formed general antagonisms between the Hutus and the Tutsis. At the time of independence in 1961, Rwanda is controlled by the Hutus. It established many anti-Tutsi policies and pogroms that resulted in thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of Tutsis fleeing. Many of them went to Burundi that had its independence one year after the Rwanda and which was still governed by a majority of Tutsis. This migration created the diffusion of ethnic tensions between the two countries and the normalization of the violence in the region. In 1965, Hutu military groups attempted a coup against the Burundian government that was aborted. Consequently numerous executions of Hutus were conducted by the Burundian military and Tutsi led militia groups. One year later, they also overthrew their ownTutsi king who was considered as too lenient against the Hutus. [7]


The presence of violence in Rwanda and in Burundi illustrates the difficulties of the governments to maintain the control. The combination of weak governmental control and ethnic targeted repression endeavors are certainly the main components for the genocide in Burundi in 1972 and twenty-two years later in Rwanda. In Burundi, the genocide started with the Hutu rebels attacking government and military offices. Moreover, they also killed any Tutsi or Hutu who would not join the insurrection. As a result, the Burundian government engaged in systematic executions of the Hutus, and many of the survivors had fled to Rwanda. The influx of refugee crystallizes the fear against Tutsis, and in 1973, a military coup is done because of the failure of the Hutu government to promote the “Hutu Power”. By 1973, the two countries had ethnically based government leadership: Tutsis in Burundi and Hutus in Rwanda. They had relatively firm control over their states. Nevertheless, violence within the country did not cease and it prevented the creation of inclusive governments or societies.[8]


Civil War in Burundi


After the Burundian’s independence in 1962, the country became a constitutional monarchy. In 1991, a new constitution is approved, which allowed a multi-ethnic government, the establishment of a parliament and the election of a president. Two years later, the first democratic and pluralist elections are held in Burundi, and a Hutu candidate Melchior Ndadaye became the first president in the country. This victory crystallizes the conflict between the two ethnic groups. In October of the same year, a military coup is done by the Tutsi. To this end, the new elected president is executed as well as other members of his party. Hutu extremists in Burundi and in Rwanda argued that the assassination was an effort made by the Tutsis to “exterminate the Hutus” in the entire region. This event marked the beginning of the civil war in Burundi. It plunged for a long-running conflict between the Hutu rebel groups and the Tutsi military. Indeed, the former began to kill Tutsis; therefore the latter began massacring Hutus. This induced many Hutus to flee to Rwanda. These refugees left their country and brought with them their fear, anger and distrust that had fuelled the tense situation in Rwanda. In January 1994, Cyprien Ntayamira is elected at the head of the government in Burundi. Three months later, the aircraft of the Burundian and the Rwandan presidents was shot down as they had been returning from a regional summit, where discussions about how to end conflicts in both countries took place. This event triggered the genocide in Rwanda and fuel the Burundian civil war. The Rwandan genocide ended in June 1994. However between April and June, approximately 800’000 Rwandan, mostly Tutsis, are killed by the Hutu government in Rwanda. The civil war in Burundi ended in 2005. The peace process was very long. Between 2000 and 2004, two peace agreements, the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement and The Burundi Power-Sharing Agreement, were designed to implement democratic institutions within the country. They allowed power sharing policy among Hutu Tutsi and Twa groups in the government. [9]


The Arusha Peace Agreement, along with the 2005 Constitution, was in theory intended to conciliate the ethnic dispute between the Tutsis and the Hutus. As Vandeginste, an expert in African Studies, underline it: “This negotiated transition from conflict to peace was based on two types of power sharing. On the one hand, it involved a classic deal to share political and military positions between incumbents and insurgents. On the other, and to a greater extent than anywhere else on the African continent, consociational mechanisms were used to re-engineer state institutions on the basis of ethnic power sharing.” [10] It was in this particularly context that cease fire was signed between the belligerent. However, the majority of the political parties in Burundi were issued from former rebel groups in the country. One of the larger parties of the state is the National Council for the Defense of Democracy and the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). This party was issued from a former coalition of Hutu rebels. In 2005, a new transnational government was elected and one year later, a cease-fire agreement was signed with the remaining rebel groups. It was the first post-conflict election that was held in Burundi and Pierre Nkurunziza, a member of the CNDD-FDD, won the election. The president was elected by the two chambers of Parliament. The state was in a transition period, so the election was not submitted to popular election. The second post-conflict election, which was also the first popular election, was held in Burundi in 2010. Many parties boycotted the election, thus offering an overwhelming victory to Nkurunziza and his political party. These polls paved the way for the ongoing crisis. The dominant position of the CNDD-FDD allowed it to eliminate the parliamentary opposition and to form a coalition with other parties. Since the establishment of the new political structure, the CNDD-FDD has maintained a dominant majority in the government that destabilizes the delicate balance of the country. [11] The government had gradually reduced the democratic space available for the media and the civil society in the country.


According to many scholars, the 1993 civil war in Burundi was a response to political reforms that started in 1992 in order to resolve the lack of political representation, the ethnic division and the unequal access to resources. Notably since the independence, the Tutsi minority has controlled all major position in the government. Collier and Sambanis underline the fact that regionalism influenced all the aspects of the country and it resulted in a polarization and tension between the two ethnic groups. The domination of Tutsis on the political front and on the resources increased the tension between them and the Hutus. The 1991 reforms aimed to establish a multiethnic government in order to ease the tension between the two ethnic groups and stabilize the country. However, these reforms produced a large number of problems. As Cliff reported:  “Introducing new people and new parties to what was fundamentally a regionally controlled dictatorship did not fix the divide between the haves, have-nots, and want to haves. Instead, each group trying to retain or gain power and resources felt they had to delegitimize the other groups, and their history meant that this often devolved into ethnic scapegoating.”[12] Burundi which is known for the use of violence as a response for potential challenges was improbable to apply the reforms peacefully. Besides, the election in 1993 changed the power structure in Burundi. The Hutus took the presidency and the majority of the seat at the parliament and many important positions in the government. The Tutsi minority, including the Tutsi controlled military took fear of the shift of power within the country. This fear led to a military coup and an escalation of violence between the two ethnic groups. As Cliff states: “the coup would fail, but the violence did not end, as the newly created political parties battled, sometimes literally, for control in the assassination-created power vacuum. With each successive political shift, ethnic killings continued, and rebel groups and political parties fought, fell apart, and reformed, with no one group capable of taking complete control. It took seven years to get to the first major peace agreement and another six years to fully implement changes and finalize a cease-fire among all belligerents.” [13]

Current situation in Burundi

To understand the roots of the ongoing crisis, it is essential to revisit the Arusha Peace Agreement. As Vandeginste states : “Burundi’s constitution of 18 March 2005 was drafted during the Arusha peace talks (1998–2000). The Arusha Agreement contained a remarkably detailed constitutional blueprint for the post-transition period. One of its provisions stated that the president ‘shall be elected for a term of five years, renewable only once’ and unambiguously added that ‘No one may serve more than two presidential terms’. Another provision stated that ‘the president shall be elected by direct universal suffrage’ but that ‘the first post-transition president shall be elected by the national assembly and the senate’.” [14]


According to the article 96 of the Constitution, the president is directly elected for a term of five years renewable once. However, the article 302 states that the first post-transition president will be elected indirectly by the two chambers of parliament. According to the supporters of President Nkurunziza, the term limit of the article 302 did not apply to post-transition presidential term. Thus, the president can present for a third term without amending or violating the constitution. In other words, the argument of his supporters and his party, the CNDD-FDD, is that Nkurunziza was selected by the country’s legislature in 2005, rather than by popular vote. Consequently, he was eligible to an additional mandate. The Constitutional Court also arrived at the same conclusion allowing the candidate of CNDD-FDD to run for another term. The legitimacy of the court was contested. Some members of the court were intimidated by Nkurunziza’s supporters, like the vice-president of the court, and fled the country. The opponents of his candidacy feared that if he is been re-elected he would change the constitution and remove presidential term limits.[15]


Human Rights Abuses


Since the intention of Nkurunziza to represent for a third term, the country experienced several weeks of violence between the police and the young urban protester. The state faced also a fail coup d’état and repeated delays of the election. Many were killed in the pre-electoral violence and others crossed the border to flee mostly to Rwanda and to Tanzania. Notwithstanding international implications on the ongoing crisis in Burundi, there is not any political dialogue between the supporter and the opponents of Nkurunziza’s third term candidacy. Since his re-election in July 2015, the government and its opponents have been involved in low-intensity violence. According to Human Right Watch : “Security forces and intelligence services—often collaborating with members of the ruling party’s youth league, known as the Imbonerakure—were responsible for numerous killings, disappearances, abductions, acts of torture, rapes, and arbitrary arrests. Unknown assailants carried out grenade and other attacks, killing or injuring many people.”[16] The UN Commission of Inquiry, establish by the Human Rights Council in 2016 said that it had reason to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Burundi since April 2015. The Commission confirmed the presence of extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearance and other abuses of human rights. According to it, these violations have been perpetrated by the police, members of the intelligence services, the army and the youth league of the ruling party. As reported by Human Right Watch, many women were raped by members of the Imbonerakure and the police. Since the crisis in 2015 more than 400’000 Burundians fled the country to seek refuge in Tanzania, Rwanda and the DRC. Besides, media and civil society are restricted by the government. For instance, in January 2017, it allowed two laws to increase the control over the activities and resources of local and international nongovernmental organizations. Authorities also banned the Ligue Iteka, an important Burundian human rights organization.[17]


Furthermore, in 2015, a report by the UN Secretary-General stated an increase of hate speech by the Imbonerakure. The behavior of the government did not reassure the international society. As Cliff claim : “ first rejecting the UN reports as politically motivated, then refusing to appear as requested at a session of the UN Committee against Torture.Burundi has also suspended its cooperation with the UN Human Rights Office and barred UN investigators from the country. Additionally, in October 2016, the Burundi parliament overwhelmingly approved a bill to withdraw from the ICC, just months after the ICC began investigating the Burundi government’s role in the ongoing violence including extrajudicial killings.”  [18]


The new constitutional referendum is accepted on 17 May. This could enable the actual President, Nkurunziza, to stay at the head of the government beyond 2020 and weaken the sharing power system put in place by the Arusha Peace Agreement. The new amendment will also change the electoral system to pass legislation. Indeed, now the Assembly needs two third of the vote to pass a bill. If the referendum is accepted the Assembly will only need the simple majority. Originally, the electoral system has been adopted to ensure the ethnic and political power-sharing within the state. Besides, the representation of the National Assembly will remain the same, namely 60% of Hutus and 40% of Tutsis. The new referendum will erode the rights of ethnic minorities. Some experts in the region, like Cliff, conclude that Burundi has many components for the emergence of genocide. Indeed, the weak democratic institution and norms, the systematic use of violence and the ethnic conflicts do not predict anything optimistic.[19] Through this paper the CIPADH shed the light on the situation in Burundi, the ongoing humanitarian tragedy and the potential future of the country. The crisis will certainly escalate in the coming months with the new referendum and mark the end of the Arusha Peace Agreement that ended the Burundian Civil war.


By Milinda Wannakula Aratchilage



CLIFF Christina (2017), “The Coming Genocide? Burundi’s Past, Present, and Potentially Deadly Future”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorisme, pp.1-14.

[2] Ibid.


DESTEXHE Alain (1995),”Rwanda and Genocide in the Twentieth Century”. Trans. A. Marschner, New York: New York University Press, p. 37.

[4] Ibid.


CLIFF (2017), op.cit

[6] Ibid. p.3

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.


VANDEGINSTE Stef (2015), “Briefing : Burundi’s electoral crisis-Back to power-sharing politics as usual ?”, African Affairs, n°114/457, pp.624-636

[10] Ibid.p.624

[11] Ibid.


CLIFF(2017), op.cit. p.7

[13] Ibid.


VANDEGINSTE (2015), op.cit. p.625

[15] Ibid.


HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (2018), “ Burundi: Events of 2017”,  Human Rights Watch,[online], available on  https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/burundi , (accessed April 24, 2018)


COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS (2018), “Political Crisis in Burundi”,  Council on Foreign Relations, [online], available on https://www.cfr.org/interactives/global-conflict-tracker#!/conflict/political-crisis-in-burundi , (accessed April 30, 2018).

[18] Ibid.

[19] CLIFF (2017), op.cit..