April 6, 2003 - Personal Web Site: Burundi RPCV Shannon Englad writes about Exploring the Relationship Between Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: A Case Study of Burundi

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Burundi: The Peace Corps in Burundi: April 6, 2003 - Personal Web Site: Burundi RPCV Shannon Englad writes about Exploring the Relationship Between Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: A Case Study of Burundi

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Burundi RPCV Shannon Englad writes about Exploring the Relationship Between Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: A Case Study of Burundi

Burundi RPCV Shannon Englad writes about Exploring the Relationship Between Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: A Case Study of Burundi

Exploring the Relationship Between Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict: A Case Study of Burundi

Shannon England

I. Introduction

Since the overthrow of President Melchoir Ndedaye in October of 1993, Burundi has been locked in a gruesome civil war. Although estimates vary considerably, it is acknowledged that, at a minimum at least 160,000 Burundians, mainly civilians, have been killed in the massacres. A brief literature search using 'Burundi' and 'Violence' as key words turned up over a thousand news articles over the past two years. A glance at some of the more recent headlines about Burundi from the past year illuminates the magnitude of violence continuing to affect Burundians today:

November 6, 1997, "54,000 Burundians returned from Tanzania to the Eastern and Southern Provinces of Burundi. Violence has forced a standoff in the government's move to dismantle 43 'regroupement' sites holding over 250,000 people. Many more refugees in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo are unwilling to return to their homes."(Africa News)

September 2, 1997 "OAU chairman Robert Mugabe warned that sanctions imposed on war torn Burundi will stay because the ruling junta appears not to have moved toward the return of democracy. 'they haven't done anything . . . . and there is still the military regime.' stated Mugabe" (Agence France Presse).

July 24, 1997, "We visited [regroupement] camps in about five of the sixteen provinces. And the conditions in many of these camps is really quite shocking. We saw extensive malnutrition. There were a number of adults starving to death . . . and also we found it virtually impossible to speak with anyone who had not had members of their direct family killed by the armed forces of Burundi during the rounding up period , which took place from March-September of 1996."

(All Thing's Considered)

July 16, 1997, "The wife of the National Assembly was wounded when her car ran over an anti-tank mine in Bujumbura on June 30 . . . In Cibitoke province, armed men killed 26 civilians between July 2nd and 6th according to eyewitnesses. . In Bubanza province Burundi civilians reported that they were afraid to leave their regroupement camps because it was not safe for them to return home. They added that they were unable to work in their fields because of fighting . .In Maramvya outside of Bujumbura, a nutritional survey conducted by Action Contre la Faim in February found rates of severe malnutrition at 18% and global acute malnutrition rates of nearly 24%." (Africa News)

May 2, 1997, "The army announced this week that it had killed at least 300 Hutu rebels in Bururi since April 6th . . . in another incident, the military claimed that suspected rebels killed 38 high school students and seven teachers in an attack on a school at Buta near Bururi. At least another 40 students were wounded in the attack"

(Reuters World Service)

April 2, 1997 "Fighting killed 147 people last Thursday in Tumonge, Southwestern Burundi, during engagements between the Tutsi-led Burundian army and Hutu rebels." (The Xinhua News Agency)

March 13, 1997 "Residents in Burundi's capital city were caught unawares by anti-tank mines that killed at least six people yesterday . . . the mine attacks follow a foiled assassination attempt earlier in the week on President Pierre Buyoya." (Inter Press Service)

January 30, 1997 "The nation's mainly Tutsi army, which grabbed power in a coup last year, has killed at least 1000 people since the beginning of December, said the United Nations human rights office in Geneva . . .the Hutu rebels are also accused of massacres of civilians and are responsible for killing at least 58 people in the same time period."

(Los Angeles Times)

The natural question for anyone reading these articles or for anyone affected by the tragedy of war is always 'Why?' Attempting to understand the causes of any particular violent conflict is not an easy undertaking and there is never a simple explanation for violence. Attempts to clarify will almost inevitably lead to oversimplifications, nonetheless, the effort to understand - and hopefully to prevent - violent conflict is important. An interesting question about violence was once posed to public health practitioners in the United States by the Surgeon General, and it changed the way we think about violence in our own society. The reality is that the question applies equally well to any society plagued by violence: "If violence is not a public health issue, then why is it killing so many people? It is a good question and the issue deserves serious attention by scholars.

Recent scholarship on international conflict has focused on the interaction between environmental scarcity and violence. Thomas Homer-Dixon is a professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and co-director of the Project on Environmental Change and Acute Conflict. To date the project has researched several different countries and regions as case studies for the many hypotheses generated about the relationship between environmental scarcity and violent conflict. These have included studies of Bangladesh, Egypt, Senegal, El Salvador, Honduras, China, and Haiti. More recent work has focused on the Gaza strip, Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa, and Rwanda.

I propose to examine Burundi as a case study for applying these models of environmental scarcity. I will also incorporate ideas of transition theory as explained by William Drake, Professor of Public Health at the University of Michigan, to develop an understanding of the complex relationships evident in Burundi's current and past crises.

II. Overview of Burundi


Burundi is a small nation in Eastern Africa surrounded by Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tanzania. (See Map 1.) The total area of Burundi is 27,830 square kilometers with 25,650 square kilometers of land, approximately equal in size to the state of Maryland. The country's climate is temperate with a hilly and mountainous terrain. There is a plateau in the east and plains along the coast of Lake Tanganikya. Arable farmland accounts for only 43% of the total land. Approximately 35% of the land is used for pasture and raising cattle. Soil erosion is growing problem in Burundi due to both overgrazing of cattle and expansion of agriculture into marginal areas. Soil exhaustion is also becoming a concern in some areas. Deforestation of Burundi's land is almost complete with less than 2% of the country currently covered by forests, primarily in designated national parks. Trees are cut down mainly for firewood fuel.


The most recent estimates for Burundi's population place it at 6,088,000 as of mid-1996. This represents an almost 250% increase in population since 1950. The population growth rate for 1996 is estimated at 2.9%. (See Chart 1.)

Burundi's extreme population density of 237 people per square kilometer places it fifth in Africa just behind Rwanda and the island nations of Comoros, Reunion, and Mauruitius in terms of population density. If only arable land is taken into account, Burundi's population density approaches 551 people per square kilometer. Comparative statistics with some other countries noted for high population densities highlight the magnitude of current population pressures in Burundi. (See Charts 2, 3, Map 2) (Click here for a larger version of Map 2.) Population pressures are also not evenly divided in Burundi, some areas are much more densely crowded than others. (See Map 3.)


Burundi's population is very similar ethnically and culturally to its neighbor Rwanda to the north. There are three main ethnic groups in Burundi: the Hutu, who comprise approximately 85% of the population, the Tutsi, about 14% of the population, and the remaining 1% consisting of Pygmy Twa, South Asians and Europeans.

Burundi's ethnic divisions, like Rwanda's, are often depicted as representing centuries old animosities, originating with distinct tribal divisions that inevitably must lead to war. In reality, however, the divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi are not nearly so simple to explain and any reference to "tribalism" as a explanation for conflict in Burundi is essentially meaningless. Burundi is an anomaly in a continent of states with artificially constructed borders in that it was a 'kingdom' long before colonization and has been a "national entity" for centuries. Moreover, both Tutsi and Hutu speak the same language in both Rwanda and Burundi- in Burundi the language is known as Kirundi. Hutu and Tutsi also share the same social organizations and have never been separated geographically. In fact, Hutu and Tutsi have lived literally side-by-side, and mostly peacefully, for centuries. The issue is further complicated in Burundi due to the fact that Burundi's kingdom was ruled, not by the Tutsi as in Rwanda, but by a ruling class of royalty known as the Ganwa, considered neither Tutsi nor Hutu, but rather seen as having origins and legitimacy with both groups.

The distinction between Tutsi and Hutu, historically, was based much more on socio-economic divisions than upon ethnic lines. Considerable intermarriage between "Hutu" and "Tutsi" was common, as was movement between groups. The term "Hutu" originally had more to do with social status and hierarchical relationships than with ethnic identity. In Kirundi the word was traditionally used to connote one who was in a subordinate position to another.

Because of the importance of ethnic distinctions in Burundian society today, much discussion by both Tutsi and Hutu centers around perceived physical differences between the groups. Tutsi are often described in the media as 'tall, thin, beautiful people, descendants of a Northern Hamitic population of pasturalists' and the Hutu as 'darker, shorter, Bantu stock, traditionally agriculturalists.' The fact of the matter is that it is not always possible for Burundians to distinguish a 'Hutu' from a 'Tutsi' on physical characteristics alone. Many Burundians do not fit the stereotypes of their ethnicity and many are killed for it when violence erupts. The historical distinction of the Hutu as agriculturalist and the Tutsi as pastoralist probably has a bit more truth to it, but the reciprocal nature of cattle tending in traditional Burundian society was more of a uniting factor for Hutu and Tutsi than a divisive one.

A full discussion of the pre-colonial relationships between Hutu and Tutsi is beyond the scope of this paper, but the important point is that ethnic conflict in the region is not the historical reality that many assume. For more information about pre-colonial society in Burundi, interested readers should refer to Rene Lemarchand's book Burundi: Ethnocide as Discourse and Practice, Woodrow Wilson Press, (1994).


Burundi is a resource poor country, described by some as being in an early stage of economic development. The economy is dominated by the agricultural sector and 90% of Burundians depend upon subsistence level farming. The main crops for farmers are coffee, tea, sorghum, sweet potatoes, bananas, manioc (cassava), meat (cattle and goats), and milk.

Burundi's per capita income is one of the lowest in the world at $210. The UNDP 1994 Human Development Report lists Burundi as second only to Rwanda for having the highest percentage of people living in poverty: eighty four percent of Burundians are estimated to live in absolute poverty. (See Chart 4.)

Foreign exchange for the government is dependent upon the nation's coffee crop which accounts for 80% of the country's foreign exchange earnings. This dependence on one crop leaves Burundi's economy extremely vulnerable to both climate change and to market changes in world coffee prices. (See Map 4 for a depiction of Burundi's main agricultural zones.)

Health Indicators

The overall poverty rate in Burundi is reflected in several health status measures: the most notable of them being average life expectancy. A Burundian's average life expectancy is only 50.2 years, compared with 76.2 for North Americans and 64.7 for the world wide average. (See Chart 5.) Many Burundian children are subject to malnutrition resulting in growth problems. According to the UNICEF report on the State of the World's Children, almost half of the children in Burundi are suffering from malnutrition induced wasting and stunting.

(See Chart 6.) Burundi is, in fact, among the worst fed countries in Africa: only about 84% of the country's daily per capita food supplies are currently being met. (See Chart 7.) Maternal mortality in Burundi is also very high, estimated at about 1,300 deaths per 100,000 live births. Contraceptive prevalence is extremely low with less than 1% of married women reporting the use of any contraceptives at all.

III. Theories of Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict

The central questions posed by scholars interested in the link between the environment and conflict began first and foremost with speculations about population growth. Given past growth rates, within the next fifty years or so, the total population of the earth will probably surpass nine billion people. Unless radical changes are implemented, global economic output is expected to grow exponentially alongside of total population. If we accept the notion that the earth has finite resources, the next question becomes this: what happens to human populations when resources become scarce?

In his article "On the Threshold: Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict" Thomas Homer-Dixon poses the question of what happens when renewable resources of agricultural land, forests, water resources, and fisheries become scarce: In his words: "If such 'environmental scarcities' become severe, could they precipitate violent civil or international conflict?" Based on research of specific cases, he presents his own answer to the question in his follow-up article, "Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases."

"In brief, our research showed that environmental scarcities are already contributing to violent conflicts in many parts of the developing world. These conflicts are probably the early signs of an upsurge of violence in the coming decades that will be induced or aggravated by scarcity. The violence will usually be sub-national, persistent and diffuse. Poor societies will be particularly affected since they are less able to buffer themselves from environmental scarcities and the social crises they cause. These societies are, in fact, already suffering acute hardship from shortages of water, forest, and especially fertile land.

Social conflict is not always a bad thing: mass mobilization and civil strife can produce opportunities for beneficial change in the distribution of land and wealth and in the processes of governance. But fast-moving, unpredictable, and complex environmental problems can overwhelm efforts at constructive social reform. Moreover, scarcity can sharply increase demands on key institutions, such as the state, while it simultaneously reduces their capacities to meet those demands, These pressures increase the chance that the state will either fragment or become more authoritarian. The negative effects of severe environmental scarcity are therefore likely to outweigh the positive."

The concept of environmental scarcity defined by Homer-Dixon refers to three main sources of scarcity of renewable resources: environmental change, population growth, and unequal social distribution of resources. Environmental change occurs when human induced activity produces a decline in the quantity or quality of natural resources at a rate faster than it can be renewed by natural processes. Population growth creates a situation where per capita availability declines as resources are split amongst a growing number of people. Unequal resource distribution causes environmental scarcity by concentrating resources in the hands of a few at the expense of the many.

These three causes of environmental scarcity can and do interact to produce even more extreme results. Two such patterns of interaction, "Resource Capture" and "Ecological Marginalization," are described in Figure 1. "Resource Capture" is described as a situation where environmental changes resulting in a reduction in available renewable resources combine with population growth to encourage elites within a society to shift resource distribution in their favor. Severe environmental scarcity is the result for the majority. "Ecological Marginalization" describes a situation where unequal access to resources combines with increased population growth to force migrations to regions that are ecologically unstable. High population densities and a lack of capital or knowledge necessary to protect natural resources, in turn, results in increasingly more severe environmental changes leading to greater environmental scarcity for all.

How does environmental scarcity cause violent conflict? A model of the sources of and possible consequences of environmental scarcity is presented in Figure 2. First, environmental scarcity may cause population movement which can lead to "group-identify conflicts" conceivably leading to violence. Migrations of newcomers may also place new demands upon states and decrease their legitimacy. Environmental scarcity can also lead to violence by contributing to increased economic deprivation, resulting in a decreased legitimacy of the state.

Homer-Dixon is careful to note that economic deprivation in and of itself does not lead directly to violence. Notions of 'deprivation' are subjective and poor people do not necessarily revolt. First, they must believe that they have a right to economic well being. Societies with fatalistic attitudes about deprivation are unlikely to be as prone to violence as are those where the poor believe they have a right to economic and social justice. Second, the economic deprivation must be severe and persistent enough to erode the moral authority of the state. The probability of civil violence is also increased when groups centered around social cleavages (class, ethnicity, religion) are already in existence and can mobilize aggrieved individuals to action.

The theory further speculates that conflict induced in this manner is likely to be sub-national, diffuse and persistent. Environmental scarcity has cumulative impacts as it can lead a society into a continuous spiral of decline by encouraging widespread population movements and increased economic despair. Violence is also likely to increase in intensity as environmental scarcities increase. For states affected by environmental scarcity, Homer-Dixon predicts one of two outcomes: fragmentation and a decreased ability to control their regional territories or, alternatively, the state may become authoritarian and militarized in an attempt to control internal challenges to authority.

It should be noted that Homer-Dixon and his colleagues are not without their critics. The critics argue that simply because environmental scarcity and violent conflict may happen to coincide in a particular region this does not imply that you can prove causality. Many possible causes of conflict can usually be identified and focusing on one particular cause (environmental scarcity) is unlikely to explain very much. Moreover, even if causality could be proved, by only studying cases where conflict and environmental scarcity are both in evidence, scholars in the field have left themselves open to the charge that the research does little to add to the overall body of knowledge. After all, ideally research would be directed at finding solutions to the problem of violence and conflict engendered by environmental scarcity- and not simply at proving that such a connection exists. By not examining a "control group" of countries or regions that have avoided conflict despite severe environmental scarcity, potentially useful "model cases" are overlooked.

Thomas Homer-Dixon addresses some of these issues in a rebuttal specifically addressing both methodological techniques and the problems inherent in studying environment and population dynamics. He points out that all too often those analyzing violent conflict have focused on politics and have simply failed to consider the independent limits inherent in some environmental systems, as well as the resulting effect of those limits upon rational actors responses. In addition, "threshold" effects evident in many systems may lead to a situation whereby environments pass a point of irreversibility. Environmental scarcity in these systems will have long reaching effects upon human systems regardless of economic or political responses to the problem. He argues that ignoring such an important variable when analyzing violent conflict is not the answer.

Homer-Dixon also argues that identifying "control countries" to match up to specific "experimental countries" would be virtually impossible given the highly complex nature of environmental and political interactions. His argument is that case studies focusing on areas where clear relationships between violence and environmental scarcity exist may help scholars identify potential relationships that can then be used to study conflict in other areas, and that case studies are a necessary first step to understanding those relationships.

IV. Is Environmental Scarcity Related to Violence in Burundi?


A brief introduction to Burundi's current political crisis will perhaps help to clarify a very complex situation of ethnic tension. An understanding of the historical situation is also crucial to interpreting any of the relevant data on environmental scarcity to be presented. The question remains, however, "Is environmental scarcity related to ethnic violence in Burundi? And if so, how?" In attempting to answer these questions in light of Homer Dixon's theories, it is perhaps best to focus on the availability of different renewable resources in Burundi over time. Water resources are not scarce in Burundi. For the most part, people have access to enough water to meet all of their personal and agricultural needs. Renewable resource sectors to examine then become the following: agriculture, fisheries, and forests. Because population growth is also necessarily related to environmental scarcity, it will additionally be useful to look at trends in Burundi's population growth over time. Transition theory, as described by William Blake in his article, "Towards Building a Theory of Population-Environmental Dynamics: A Theory of Transitions," will be used to speculate on Burundi's stage in these four different sectors over time. Finally, the history of recent violence in Burundi will be analyzed in light of this data and its relationship to current theory about environmental scarcity and conflict.

Historical Overview of Recent Violence in Burundi

Patterns of Recent Violence

Since independence from the Belgian administration in 1961, Burundi has experienced several major periods of ethnic turmoil and violence. As mentioned previously in the introduction, Burundi's most recent period of conflict began in October of 1993 with the assassination of the first democratically elected Hutu President in Burundi's history. During this most recent period of conflict, there have been upwards of 160,000 deaths with perhaps as many as 1,600,000 people dislocated from their homes.

In 1991, a period of violence claimed between 4,000-6000 lives. There were over 5,000 Burundians killed by ethnic violence in 1988, and in 1972 over 100,000 Burundians were killed by their fellow countrymen in one of the most gruesome massacres in African history. In 1965 a wave of killing took the lives of approximately 5,000 Burundians. Charts 8 and 9 depict very conservative estimates of the number of those killed and the number of those forced from the country due to violence since 1961.

The conflict in Burundi today is explained as a simple conflict for power between Hutu and Tutsi, but it cannot be understood completely without also considering intra-group rivalry between the ruling Tutsi elite. Each of the aforementioned outbreaks of violence involved to some degree a grappling for power of the state amongst different factions of the ruling Tutsi classes. Each wave of violence, too, is necessarily connected intimately with the ones preceding it. Indeed, violence and the memory of violence permeates the political consciousness and the meaning of ethnicity for all Burundians. One must also consider the history of Rwanda to understand Burundi. Due to cultural and historical similarities, the political situation and crises in Rwanda have always had a profound effect on subsequent events in neighboring Burundi.

The political and historical events leading up to each of Burundi's massacres have been duly noted elsewhere and the story is not a pleasant one. A brief summary in this paper cannot do justice to the subject, but the story perhaps begins with the assassination of Burundi's first ever Prime Minister designate the Prince Louis Rwagasore on October 13th, 1961.

Post-Independence Burundi

Prince Rwagasore, a member of the UPRONA party was assassinated in a plot by the rival PDC party (perhaps in conjunction with the departing Belgian regime) only one month after winning the election on the eve of Independence in 1961. The tragic death of Prince Rwagasore sent Burundi down a path of violence that some beleive could have been avoided. Rwagasore's popularity, charm, and perhaps more importantly, his legitimate claim of decent from the Ganwa royalty may have served as a unifying factor in a country that was destined to become very ethnically divided.

Rwagasore's death marked the beginning of a crystallization of ethnic identity among Burundian elites. The Rwandan revolution and the establishment of a ruling Hutu government in Kigali also served, for both Hutu and Tutsi elites, as a demonstration of what could potentially happen in Burundi. Majority rule with a distinctly Hutu government in place was a prospect looked upon favorably by Burundian Hutus and decidedly not so by Tutsis. An influx of Rwandan Tutsi refugees escaping from violent conflict poured into the Northern provinces of Burundi. These refugees, as many as 50,000 in number, directly spread ideas of ethnic hatred in Burundi that could not help to fan the flames of a rising sense of an identification based upon ethnicity in Burundian elites.

In 1963 and 1964, soon after independence, the Tutsi and Hutu elite were jockeying with the monarchy (made up of the 'Ganwa') for control of both the government and the UPRONA party. (Burundi was created as a constitutional monarchy at the time of independence from Belgium in 1961. UPRONA was the dominant political party.) The intrusion of external cold war factors tipped the balance of power to the Tutsi with the "Congo Rebellion" in Eastern Zaire. The Chinese wished to use Burundi as a base to transfer ammunitions into Zaire. In exchange, they agreed to provide financial support to the Tutsi elite in Bujumbura. Tutsi refugees from Rwanda also entered into the equation because they wanted to use Burundi as a "safe-haven" from which to wage a war against the Hutu government in Rwanda. Rwandan Tutsi thus had a vested interest in helping the Tutsi in Burundi to gain power over both the Hutu and the Royal Crown and they soon became pivotal in the events that would unfold.

On January 18th, 1965 a Rwanadan Tutsi shot Burundi's Hutu Prime Minister Pierre Ngendandumwe. The event sparked outrage amongst the Hutu elite. The monarchy, sensing its legitimacy quickly slipping away, called for general elections to be held for both a new Prime Minister and National Assembly. The Hutu emerged from a legislative victory in May of 1965, capturing 23 out of a total of 33 seats in the National Assembly. Hutu elites naturally expected that a new Hutu Prime Minister would be placed into power. Instead, the monarchy selected a famous "Ganwa," Leopold Biha, to the position. Meanwhile the government, increasingly controlled by the monarchy, decreed that the number of communes (subsets of provinces) would decrease from 181 to 78 and that the elected leaders of the communes (most of whom were Hutu) would be replaced by functionaries appointed by and responsible to the court. This blatant attempt to concentrate and increase power into the hands of the ruling monarchy was not well received by either the Hutu or Tutsi elites.

Hutu elites responded in anger with an attempted coup against the ruling monarchy in October of 1965, a response that was to prove disastrous for them later. The coup attempt failed and troops loyal to the Crown regained control as the King and his courtiers fled to Zaire in panic. Hutu elites were then accused by the Tutsi of being disloyal to the government and attempting to establish a Hutu revolution similar to what had unfolded in Rwanda. Thousands of Hutus were killed in the purges of the army and the government that followed. All Hutus with any political standing were killed, and with the monarchy in exile, power came to rest exclusively with the Tusti elite.

The repression was brutal, resulting in at least 5,000 Hutu civilians being killed, mostly in the provinces of Bujumbura and in neighboring Muramvya. Surprising though it seems now, most of the rest of the country remained relatively calm, and relations between Hutu and Tutsi were fairly peaceful. The fighting among the "elite" for power seemed to have little impact on the day to day lives of Burundi's rural population. In the urban areas, by contrast, polarization around ethnic identity was fairly complete.

Besides the complete elimination of the first generation of Hutu leaders, one other notable effect resulting from the failed coup was the extreme weakening of the monarchy. The Court and most "Ganwa" were still in exile and it was not until March of 1966 that the King decided to entrust power to his son the Prince Charles Ndizeye. The reign of the new king, crowned Ntare, was to be a short lived five months. The Tutsi led government and military moved against the new king while he was away in Zaire celebrating the first anniversary of President Mobutu Sese Seko's rise to power.

The abolition of the monarchy following the Tutsi led coup in 1966 probably sent the final blow to national unity in Burundi. In Burundi, in contrast to Rwanda, the ruling monarchy class or "Ganwa" had always served as a unifying factor for Hutus and Tutis. Both groups, although occasionally in direct conflict with the monarchy, generally acknowledged the perceived legitimacy of Ganwa rule. The Crown had thus served as an intervening factor in diminishing Hutu and Tutsi perceived ethnic differences.

The First Republic

The new Tutsi led government, known as the First Republic, was led by President Michel Micombero. President Micombero was a Tutsi of the Hima clan from the south of the country, Bururi. He filled his government with his fellow clansmen. Of the seventeen military officers in his newly formed National Revolutionary Council (NRC), 8 were from Bururi and only 3 were of Hutu origin. The National Assembly was abolished and a military rule established. The UPRONA party was called upon to be the "unifying force" for an increasingly divided Burundian society.

The new government, despite its rhetoric, was hardly democratic and far from a "unifying" force. The struggles that were to follow stemmed from a conflict between Tutsi and Hutu, but also between Tutsi and Tutsi. Different Tutsi clans, based both on regional and historical kinship lines, struggled for control of the state. The threat of Hutu insurrection, with the example of Rwanda ever present in their minds, was often used as a tool by the ruling government to bring any potential Tutsi competitors for power back into line. Specifically, reference to the 'Hutu peril' as used by those from the South to accuse competitors from the North as being too 'soft' on the Tutsi-Hutu 'problem.' As Muramvanya was the site of the deposed King, Tutsi from this region were also accused of seeking to re-establish the monarchy, which supposedly could not happen without Hutu support. Purges of the army and government of 'Hutu elements' continued. A particularly harsh repression began after an accused Hutu rebellion plot was "uncovered" in 1969. Whether or not there was any basis for the charge is unclear, as there was no documentation, but the state sanctioned killings that resulted certainly were clear. What few Hutu remained in the government were clearly "tokens" and the remaining Hutu elite began to feel increasingly insecure.

In the same way that the Hutu "problem" was related to intra-group conflict among the Tutsi, similarly, Hutu insurrection in Burundi was always preceded by perceived weaknesses in the ruling government. Hutus sought to exploit the opportunities they saw in the deepening rift between Tutsi elites from the North (Muramvanya) and those from the South (Bururi). Violence erupted full force in Burundi in 1972 after just such an attempt by Hutus to wrest power from the increasingly brutal Tutsi regime. The Hutu insurrection occurred in April of 1972 after the well publicized and much discussed trials of several Muramvanya Tutsi and Ganwa by their Southern Tutsi rivals from Bururi. The Hutu uprising began in the south of the country in Nyanza-Lac when Burundian Hutus invaded from across the border of Tanzania. Assisted by Zairean troops, Hutu insurgents attacked the military outposts in Nyanza-Lac and Rumonge. Simultaneous attacks also occurred in Cankuzo and Bujumbura. In Rumonge and Nyanza-Lac, Hutu began to slaughter every Tutsi in sight. Most of the victims were civilians and estimates are that as many as 3,000 Tutsi were killed. Also killed were any Hutu that attempted to resist the slaughter.

The official interpretation of the insurrection varied widely. Some claimed that it was a plot by the former ex-king Ntare, who had returned to Burundi from Zaire, and, it was claimed, had plotted with foreign mercenaries to reinstate the monarchy. Others claimed that official high-ranking Hutus had collaborated to finance a rebellion. The historical facts hardly matter, as the repression that followed the insurrection made enemies both of the suspected 'monarchists' and the Hutu officials. They were, in fact, accused of plotting together. In the slaughter that followed, Hutus throughout the country were executed in large numbers. The ex-king Ntare also was summilarily executed. The bloodbath was carried out over several months in a chilling and systematic manner. In an effort to wipe out the Hutu elite entirely, every Hutu male with any education at all was accused of conspiracy against the government. In a call to "rise up against the python in the grass" Tutsi were advised to slaughter all Hutu males down to even the grade school level.

"Army units commandeered merchants' lorries and mission vehicles, and drove up to schools, removing whole batches of children at a time. Tutsi pupils prepared lists of their Hutu classmates to make identification by officials more straight forward."

In many areas of the country, Hutus fought the rebels alongside of the Tutsi, only to be later slaughtered in turn. If anything served to cement the hatred of Hutu for Tutsi, it was this systematic execution that took place throughout the country. Never again would the political struggles of the elites be seen by the rural population as irrelevant to their lives. The scale of the killings varies. Some conservative estimates say 100,000 people, others claim the number is closer to 200,000. In addition, at least 150,000 Hutu fled Burundi to neighboring Tanzania and Zaire to live in exile.

The systematic nature of the killings can probably only be understood by noting the cycle of fear by now implicit in the relationship between Hutu and Tutsi. Many Tutsi saw the elimination of the Hutu as the 'final solution' necessary to protect their well-being. As had happened in the South, they feared a slaughter of every man, woman, and child of Tutsi origins. This fear was compounded by the anti-Tutsi violence that shaped Rwanda's history from 1959-1962. The Tutsi elite hoped to not only eliminate the perceived immediate threat to their well being, but also to inspire fear and terror that would be remembered for generations to come. It should also be noted that, although most of the victims were Hutus, many Tutsi were killed as well. Particularly targeted were any of the remaining Muramvanya Tutsi accused of monarchism. Many Tutsi also died attempting to protect their Hutu friends and neighbors.

While not all Tutsi were involved in the genocide, many clearly benefited from the deaths. Transfer of property to Tusti seems to have been a major inducement to violence in some areas. Those killed were robbed of their money, personal belongings, lands, and livestock.

After this ethnic cleansing, the only 'elites' in Burundian society were of Tutsi origin. A strict rule of 'Kirundization' of the schools was instituted whereby it was against the law to teach French in all government schools. This effectively served to prevent Hutu children from learning the language of governance, restricting it to the realm of the wealthier and ruling Tutsi. Because admission to higher levels of education was predicated upon a knowledge of French, Hutus were effectively blocked from rising to positions of prominence in society. The army became even more Tutsi dominated, to the extent that nearly 100% of the recruits and officers were Tutsi.

The Second Republic

On November 1, 1976, Burundi's state structure underwent another profound change with the coup d'etat placing into power Lt. Col. Jean-Baptiste Bagaza. The Second Republic was a time of consolidation of Tutsi rule and an attempt to codify into the national law and discourse an official view of 'National Unity,' meant to restore the moral legitimacy of the state. The official view of history propagated by the government at this time was mostly an attempt to legitimize Tutsi rule through the ruling UPRONA party. Hutu were almost entirely excluded from political participation. By late 1987 only 2 seats out of 65 in the Central Committee of Uprona's party were held by Hutus. To prevent claims of ethnic favoritism or discrimination in educational or public life, the Second Republic simply banned the public discussion of ethnicity. Anyone publicly referring to Hutu or Tutsi ethnic identities was charged with inciting 'racial hatreds' and arrested. Individuals were issued identity cards that had to be carried with them at all times. Rural Hutu were, for a time, organized into "villages" in a nationwide campaign of "villagization." Ostensibly to increase agricultural yields in a "development scheme," the move was, in reality, an attempt to exert greater control over the Hutu communes. The project ultimately failed, but it is an example of the lengths to which the Tutsi dominated regime went to officially denying the real motives for its actions.

Divisions and cleavages within the ruling Tutsi hegemony would once again lead to a renewed cycle of violence in Burundi. This time the church played somewhat of a role in the ensuing violence that was to come. The Catholic Church, as well as several Protestant denominations, had been establishing schools and organizing community-based projects for rural Hutu. These activities threatened to undermine the carefully constructed power structures that the Tutsi rulers had created. In addition, the UPRONA party leaders remembered the crucial role of the Catholic Church in the "emancipation" of the Hutu masses in Rwanda in the 1950s. Several Church affiliated leaders also began to speak up for Hutu labor groups and (illegal) political parties.

The state responded by severely restricting the activities of churches in the country. New rules were made restricting the appropriate days for worship and meetings. Religious broadcasts were banned and foreign missionaries were expelled. Religious primary schools were closed in 1977 and all religious secondary schools were closed in 1986. Informal 'catechism schools' organized for Hutu school children by the Catholic Church were also forbidden. Some 220,000 children were denied basic schooling in this manner. By 1987 the government had expelled approximately 550 foreign missionaries from the country.

Increasing levels of church-state antagonism, including arbitrary arrests of several Catholic clerics, aroused the attention of the international community. Belgium reviewed its technical assistance program to Burundi in light of the human rights abuses surrounding the Church. The French also began to take notice. Suddenly the antagonism of church and state began to threaten a large amount of foreign exchange currency. In addition, several high ranking Tutsi were affiliated with the Catholic Church. The usual and continued nepotism and corruption of the regime also made it vulnerable to challenges of its authority by other Tutsi elites. The 'trigger event' of the coup of 1987 appears to have been the early 'retirement' of several officers in the military due to economic austerity. One batch was dismissed in 1986, with another to follow in 1987. The members of this group, who saw no other options for employment in the civilian sector, orchestrated the bloodless coup d'etat of September 3, 1987.

The Third Republic

The Third Republic was established with Major Pierre Buyoya as the new President of Burundi. Like his predecessors, President Buyoya was a Tutsi from Bururi and so much of the state's apparatus remained in place. Important changes were beginning, however, first with the repeal of restrictions on the Church, and second, with the release of several hundred Hutu political prisoners. Hopes were raised among the Hutu population that real change and political liberalization was in order. Student strikes were held and mainly Hutu students participated. Hutu were said to be engaging in clandestine meetings in the North with Hutu from Rwanda. Ethnic tensions increased and minor conflicts between Hutu and Tutsi began to occur throughout the country. The growing tension and anxiety on the part of Hutus was based in part on fears of a repeat of the 1972 massacres.

Tensions were highest in the North in Ntega, Ngozi Kirundo. Proximity to Rwanda also played a role as there were many Tusti refugees living in the two provinces. Coffee was the main economic support for the region and the drop in world coffee prices in the mid 1980's heavily impacted this region. Many Hutu producers reaped large losses. Competition for scarce social service resources (schools, health care, etc.) in the region also heightened tensions. When a confidential document was discovered that showed that the central government in Bujumbura had requested Kirundo primary schools to report their ethnic breakdown of students, tensions flaired. In a climate where any mention of ethnicity was officially banned, the document seemed to support Hutu suspicions of admission requirements based on ethnicity designed to keep their children out of schools. Finally, local elections where the Hutus won 84% of the vote were seen to be meaningless in a context where the communal level administrator was appointed by the central Tutsi government. These so-called "sham elections" played a large role in exacerbating Hutu frustrations. As tensions began to mount the gendarmes were called in to patrol Ngozi, causing widespread panic among the Hutu peasants who remembered 1972 all too well. In Ntega, Reverien Harushingoro, a known Tutsi collaborator in the 1972 massacres, was seen showing groups of army men the way from hill to hill. This was the spark that set the killings in motion.

On the night of August 14, 1988, a group of Hutu surrounded Harushingoro's house, clearly intending him harm. Harushingoro opened fire on the crowd, killing six people. Violence erupted and the Hutu killed Harushingoro and his family before fanning through the area killing Tutsi and burning their homes. Ethnic hatred caused a massacre of every Tutsi in sight and hundreds of civilian Tutsi lost their lives over the next few day. The army, of course, moved in to restore 'peace and order' and upwards of 15,000 Hutus were killed in retaliation. More than 50,000 Hutus fled to Rwanda to escape. Analysts agree that the fear of an apocalypse reminiscent of 1972 probably played a large role in the initial Hutu killings of Tutsi. The feelings of fear, related to earlier killings of Hutus, were sparked when troops began arriving in the area. Rumors, combined with the collaboration of Habushingoro in speaking with the army, led to the preemptive violence by Hutus.

Response to Massacres of 1988

The future of ethnic relations in Burundi was eerily predicted in the letter written by Hutu protesters to President Buyoya following the massacres:

"Social injustices and inequalities are a reality which has been legitimized by the authorities . . Power in Burundi remains regional, clanic, and above all tribal, but in the meantime, unfortunately, the pie is getting smaller and smaller every day. . . Someday history will tell us how the events of Ntega and Maranga have deteriorated into a bloody conflict that spread to other communes. Although the story is now shoved under the rug by the media, the future will tell . . .' -Open letter to President Buyoya by 27 leading Hutu intellectuals, 1988

The predicted violence did not happen right away, however. Compared to 1972, the difference in the regime's response to the massacre of 1988 was quite positive and dramatic. The difference was due in large part to international pressures. Unlike in 1972, when the U.S. and the world turned a blind eye to violence in Burundi, changes in international perspectives on human rights meant that the killings in 1988 generated outrage on the part of the international community. The World Bank and the U.S. threatened to cut off financial assistance unless "national reconciliation" was achieved. International pressure did what it was supposed to do. On October 12, 1988 Buyoya agreed to a major reshuffling of his cabinet with the number of Hutu cabinet members increasing from 6 to 12. He also selected a Hutu to become Prime Minister.

Under President Buyoya, Burundi was to undergo a period of increasing liberalization and integration of Hutu members within the government. These efforts culminated with the election in August of 1993 of the first ever Hutu President in Burundi's history, President Melchoir Ndadaye. This did not happen without struggle. The army continued to be dominated by Tutsi 'hard-liners' who wanted no part of democratization. Additionally, revolts by Hutu in November of 1991 in selected parts of the north of Burundi (Cancuzo and Cibitoke) were systematically repressed and several thousand Hutu were once again killed. President Buyoya also survived an abortive coup by Tutsi hardliners in March of 1992.

The election held in August of 1993 pitted President Buyoya, a member of the traditional UPRONA party (primarily the party of Tutsi- but also claiming some Hutu who were encouraged by the liberalizing changes in the party) against the Hutu Melchoir Ndadaye, part of the FRODEBU party (Front de Democrates du Burundi) which came to represent the majority of Hutu in the country. The election was a landslide victory with FRODEBU clearly gathering the majority of votes. (See Map 4) President Buyoya stepped down gracefully and the Hutu people rejoiced at the fact that one of their own was in power. The rejoicing was to be short lived. In October of 1993 Burundi was once again thrown into the by now all too familiar downward spiral of ethnic violence and killing.

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Story Source: Personal Web Site

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Burundi; Violent Conflict



By sinarinzi on Wednesday, August 20, 2003 - 9:32 pm: Edit Post

Dear RCPV from Burundi,

I do appreciate the hard work and lasting impact you made in Burundi.

However, I would like to comment on Shannon England's narrow or biased view of the Burundian conflict.

The article by Shannon England (Relationaship between environmental scarcity and conflict: Case of Burundi) is very biased against Tutsis. Her hypothesis # 3 (killing of hutus by Tutsis) sounds like the eternal civil and ethnic wars of Burundi always started by Tutsis! A more balanced analyst of the conflicts would recognize that both ethnic groups ( a small number on both sides) are responsable for the ethnic conflicts that have occurred in Burundi.
Also, Shannon England pretends that most of tutsis live better than their hutu neighbors due to the government unequal distribution of natural resources to tutsis! Again, this is false because the majority of tutsis didn't benefit from the small tutsi group that held or still hold power.

The article seems to make all tutsis collectively guilty of the problems in the country. It ignores the hutu's responsability in the conflict. Namely, the killings of innocent tutsi peasants under the excuse that their leader(s) was killed by the tutsi military.

I would like the reaction of other RCPV who lived in Burundi to give their opinion.

By Anonymous ( on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 - 3:31 pm: Edit Post


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