A History Scarred by Ethnic Violence

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

A History Scarred by Ethnic Violence


Divisions between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic groups have long been a part of Burundi society. Hutus migrated to the region throughout the first millennium, displacing the Twa, who remain a tiny minority of the population. The Tutsis arrived in the 16th century and, as they had in Rwanda, established themselves as the dominant political and economic power. (However, in contrast to Rwanda, intermarriage has been common between the two groups in Burundi.)

In 1899, Burundi came under German East African administration. Then, during World War I, in 1916, Belgium gained control of the territory that encompasses modern-day Rwanda and Burundi. The Belgians administered the area through indirect rule, relying on the Tutsi-dominated royalty, a policy that exacerbated ethnic tensions.

Burundi became an independent state on July 1, 1962, and Tutsi King Mwambutsa IV established a constitutional monarchy. In 1966, a military coup led by Capt. Michel Micombero abolished the monarchy and declared a republic. The military government that emerged proclaimed the Tutsi-dominated Unity for National Progress (UPRONA) the only legal political party.

Civil unrest continued throughout the 1970s and `80s, including a Hutu rebellion in 1972 and military coups. Tensions between the Hutu majority and ruling Tutsis in 1988 erupted in violent confrontations, in which an estimated 150,000 people were killed.

In 1991, military ruler Major Pierre Buyoya approved a constitution that provided-for a president, a nonethnic government and a parliament. Under this constitution, Burundi's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was elected in June 1993.

The following October, Ndadaye and several other Hutu political leaders were assassinated in an attempted coup by the Tutsi-dominated military. …

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