Repetitions of the Past: Analyzing the Horrors in Burundi

By TASSC Advocacy Intern Dan Ogden

History and Current Stage

Before the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, where approximately 800,000 people died, the Tutsi and Hutu populations battled in Burundi, the small nation bordering Rwanda to the south. The early 1970’s saw a vicious massacre by Tutsi extremists in response to a Hutu rebellion in a smaller region of Burundi. Tutsi leaders systematically eliminated Hutu civilians and lead the nation through oppressive rule for most of the latter 1900’s. No educated Hutu remained after the 1972 genocide and the government killed all threats to their power. 

Similar to Rwanda, the Hutu majority in Burundi has consistently used the power of numbers to their advantage. When the Hutus did not control government and military, these two ethnic groups fought in a bloody civil war throughout the late 1980’s to the 1990’s. But since 2005, the Hutu majority has had control. They dominate every level of government and crimes against humanity have persisted despite NGO’s and the international community condemning these acts. Recently, journalists and media members have either mysteriously died, been told to leave the country, or have been limited in their ability to report to other international organizations. Human Rights Watch and the UN have documented and acknowledged many of the atrocities occurring inside of Burundi, but mysteries still exist throughout the nation. 

Similarities to Rwanda

The lack of knowledge about current affairs in Burundi forces us to use dated information, so the information may have changed in recent months.

One of the main similarities between the two situations is the concept of “revenge killings”. In Rwanda, this occurred after the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) marched into the capital, Kigali, on July 4th, 1994, and chased Hutu civilians into neighboring countries. According to BBC News, “Human rights groups say RPF fighters killed thousands of Hutu civilians as they took power - and more after they went into DR Congo to pursue the Interahamwe (militia). The RPF denies this.” Similarly, in Burundi, consistent coup attempts against the Hutu-led government has created tension between the majority population and moderate Hutus and Tutsis. “After the armed forces put down an attempted coup, he (Pierre Nkurunziza) won election amid alleged revenge killings and the unrest has continued.” The government in both situations allowed no mercy, and their aim was not to solve the human rights violations, but rather avenge the wrongs committed against them.

In both countries, government security forces persecuted those threatening their rule. For Rwanda, orders were sent to local militias to murder the Tutsis in their region. They mobilized the military by creating smaller militia task forces that could then spread throughout the entire country and attack those the government deemed a danger. In Burundi, the government uses radicalized youth to spread terror and violence against opponents of the government and civilians. Emilie Boyer King, a reporter stationed in Paris, explained, “One of the tools used by Pierre Nkurunziza’s regime to divide and terrorise its people is the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure. The movement is believed to have several hundred thousand members, according to the FIDH study (although the ruling CNDD-FDD party says that they number 3 million).” FIDH, known as International Federation for Human Rights, sought to unveil many of the unknown violations committed by the Burundian government. The militarization of normal society and the radicalization of this militarized group created a sect of people that would contribute to the massacre due to their full trust in the government and the tension they grew up in between the Tutsi and Hutu populations. 

There have been increasing warning signs indicating that conflict and tension existed between the Hutu and Tutsi groups in Burundi, and Rwanda exemplified many of these same characteristics before the genocide. Unfortunately, the international community has done little to support or aid the endangered populations, and did little to help Rwanda as well. In Rwanda, France was the only nation to provide some level of support near the end of the genocide in limiting the amount of revenge killings and, while Belgium had peacekeepers in the area, once some of them were killed the country withdrew its support. Even the United States avoided aid due to their failure in Somalia a year earlier.

For Burundi, the international community has lost contact with the nation due to the elimination of media members. The UN could create another inquiry into human rights violations in Burundi but have yet to do anything since September 2017. Even the United States House of Representatives, which introduced House Resolution 651 in December 2017 warning of risks of mass atrocities, did not further or reintroduce the resolution in the next Congress. Additionally, France has begun to provide military support to Burundi, despite these human rights violations.

Both government leaders have taken advantage of a lack of attention on the country and the abuses committed and the renewal of these specific hate-filled acts serve as a warning that the murders of the Rwandan Genocide could occur again.

Differences from Rwanda

Because the world is more globalized and technology has connected us to the opposite ends of the earth, gaining more information on Burundi through a UN Inquiry is possible and could be decided on quickly. Though worries still exist on the extent of international prevention of genocide, as seen with the continued actions in Burma, technology has created the possibility of gaining information and quickly disseminating it. People learned quickly what was happening in Rwanda, but the world was almost petrified by the stories and information, frozen by the sheer idea of the genocide. Today, people have better ability to quickly mobilize and act on possible genocidal acts. The persecution of civilian protesters in Sudan and the quick action of the United States to promote peace and an agreement between the two sides shows the power and immediate influence of other nations.

Further, a large stimulus of the Rwandan Genocide was the build-up of the tension between both ethnic groups by the media. When the RPF invaded, Hutu-media sources used hate-speech and propaganda to build massive support and convert many moderate Hutus to become more extremist in their views. Continued actions by the RPF, war in the north, and the French supporting the Hutu government all aided the propaganda efforts against the Tutsi and influenced the spark for the genocide. With Burundi, the government does not allow opposition to speak. The president of Burundi is willing to use force to intimidate the opposition, but has not shown inclination to mobilize people to commit genocide. Rather, his government has created a repressive state, with vast human rights abuses, but not genocidal acts. The media cannot breathe in his government, and therefore only media supporting his party are able to speak and try to further his party’s goal, not isolate an “other” population. 

The largest difference between the two situations is the timing of conflict in the overall history of the nations. In 1959, Hutus overthrew a Tutsi monarchy in Rwanda that had long held power. Many Tutsis fled and founded the RPF, which would eventually invade the Hutu-led Rwanda in 1990 and start a civil war. This civil war further exacerbated tensions and, with the death of the Hutu president, the genocide began. Comparatively, the Hutu government that currently leads Burundi rules with an iron fist. They persecute the minority population and eliminate any political rivals. Though there exists a way for tensions to further by a Tutsi rebel group to emerge and try to fight the government, the current government limits any possibility of an uprising. The previous examples in Burundi’s history, such as the genocide in 1972 and the ethnic conflict of 1993, have acted as the climax of the crime. The spark that existed before the Rwandan Genocide has been used already in Burundi, though not to the same level. The current Burundian administration limits the ability for the spark to be lit unless an outside rebel group raises the tension between the two ethnic groups.

Daniel Ogden is an Advocacy Intern at TASSC in the Summer 2019. He is currently a student at University of Alaska, Anchorage, where he is majoring in Political Science and History with a minor in International Relations.

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