Left in the shadow of Rwanda, Burundi's ethnic turmoil and civil war was even less of a priority for Western powers that could have helped quell the violence. During the First World War, Belgium's colonial powers occupied Burundi (1916), and in 1919 it was made part of the Belgian League of Nations mandate of Ruanda-Urundi. The country became independent in 1962, when it was left to be ruled by the mwami of Burundi. One year after the Rwandan genocide, Burundi was having its own ethnic slaughter (this time Tutsis killing Hutus) in the hills. From fall of 1994 to spring of 1998, an "ethnic slaughter" caused the death of several tens of thousands of unarmed civilians and led to the hundreds of thousands fleeing the area.

We can look at the formation of ethnic identities in Rwanda-Urundi (and later Burundi) in order to understand how the conflict came into being. Was the mass murder of Hutu in Burundi genocide, as the West was loathe to call it? Also, why does it matter whether it is called one or not?

First, we will look at the origins of the violence in Burundi, and who may have instigated the fight for power. Presently, the Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi (as in Rwanda) are considered by most to be two different ethnic groups. However, scholars make the point that the two groups speak the same language, have intermarried, and share many of the same cultural traits. If one were to look at the two groups in the traditional sense, the differences were more class related than ethnicity related. The farmers were Hutu, and the elites who owned cattle were called Tutsi. It has been said that Tutsi and Hutu look different from one another, the Tutsi being taller and thinner, but in reality the two are often indistinguishable.


The Twa are said to be the original people who inhabited the territory which is currently known as Burundi. Around one thousand A.D., they became outnumbered by another group who migrated to the area, the present day Hutu. The Tutsis came later, around the fifteenth century and established several states. They ruled the area by the nineteenth century. They had a mwami (king) who ruled over the other Tutsis. When Belgium took over the region in 1916, there were two kingdoms and they were called Rwanda-Urundi. They both had similar tribal compositions, with 85% Hutu, 14% Tutsi, and 1% Twa. Under the rule of the mwami, the area had a surprising amount of cohesion, and he remained relatively unquestioned.

It is a commonly held belief amongst many scholars that the colonial powers (particularly Germany, Belgium, and Great Britain) have deliberately attempted to influence and manipulate "ethnic" configurations in Africa." This is obvious, especially in 1933, when the Belgian colonial forces in Rwanda-Urundi required every person to have an I.D. card showing which ethnic group they were a part of, Hutu or Tutsi. This served to only increase the distinction.

Since achieving independence, violence in Burundi increased the divide between the Hutu and the Tutsi in these areas. The Belgians initially put the Tutsi in high ranking roles and encouraged their dominance, and then decided that Hutu and Tutsi should share power later in neighboring Rwanda. The resulting tensions led to civil war, which forced many Rwandan Tutsis into exile in other countries, such as Burundi. When Rwanda became independent in 1962, it was actually under Hutu rule. In 1990, Tutsi rebels who had been in exile in Uganda attempted to overthrow the Hutu government.

Burundi, also faced the problem of its previous power structure being overhauled and then tentatively put back into place after the Belgians pulled out, still leaving Tutsis in control, but having stripped away their prior institutions. After independence,

...Rwanda and Burundi took different paths. In 1959 Rwandan Hutu launched a murderous uprising and forced the creation of a majority-controlled republic, which survived until 1994. In Burundi, by contrast, the Tutsi remained in control. Both armies were dominated by the ruling tribe and did not hesitate to suppress uprisings by the opposing group. Peasant revolts on Burundi in 1965, 1972, and 1988 were ruthlessly put down, in one case leading to the loss of over 200,000 lives. (Purvis/Bujumbura)

When uprisings began shortly after Burundi's independence, they were seen as part of a continuing problem in the Rwanda/Burundi area, and not taken into account on its own. Rwanda's violent civil war was not initially considered genocide or ethnic cleansing by the West, and Burundi would face the same problem. Did Burundi have ethnicity based genocide? It seems clear in Burundi that there was a power divide between the two groups prior to colonialism, but was it really an ethnic divide? Since Rwanda and Burundi used to be one area (Rwanda-Urundi) prior to independence, the origins of their present ethnic groups are similar.


The term "genocide" was pivotal in the West's (particularly the United Nation's) decision whether go enter Rwanda or stay out. The same can be said of Burundi. First of all, the origins of the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi have been classified by many as a civil war. This raises the question: At what point does a civil war become a genocide? I believe it becomes genocide when people who are not involved in the political body, and are not soldiers, are targeted. Unfortunately, there is heavy implication when using the word genocide, especially when it demands action of the UN or the West in general.

Genocide has been linked to ethnicity, but since it is more likely that the Hutu and Tutsi are politically created groups, it would not apply. When genocide is linked with civil war, third parties become daunted and do not want to charge in and take a side. Not only was the genocide in Burundi about ethnic cleansing, it was about gaining power in the government. This is what made the situation difficult to classify for outsiders, and where they got bogged down in the details instead of taking action.

The term genocide also has a clear connotation of disapproval. Genocide is a clear act for which there is no logical basis other than pure hatred. The underlying question is, why does it matter whether it was being called genocide or not? Whether it was a civil war or genocide, people who had nothing to do with the governmental issues were being hacked to pieces in the hills of Burundi.

In a civil war, the West could keep out and say that they were minding their own business. When it becomes genocide, it is something that should be acted upon immediately, and is something that bystanders become responsible for if they don't help. Though the situation may be simplified here, it was surely a major point for foreign policy decisions in the West during this time period. Colonial powers have been directly blamed for putting into place the structures which have caused so much violence in Burundi after independence. Therefore, there is a direct implication that the former colonial powers, as well as the West in general, has a degree of responsibility in cleaning up what they failed to prevent (or stop once it had started).


The massacres in Burundi did not go entirely ignored, however. It is just that the response was not adequate enough to solve the problem. Nelson Mandela attempted to arbitrate in 1999, but received a lot of criticism. Mandela had faced the issue, relatively successfully, of dealing with apartheid in South Africa. However, he made the mistake of thinking that he could apply this to Burundi. Both situations involved talking an oppressive majority group into giving power to a minority group, but the situation is very different otherwise.

The difference is that there was not mass murder in South Africa. The Tutsi had to fear losing their lives if the Hutu decided to wage retaliation upon receiving any power. The Hutu would be suspicious of the Tutsi because of all the years of bloodshed. This was not a simple matter of apartheid type discrimination, this was much more violent, and both sides had much more to lose. One author in the World Policy Journal points out that "That Mandela would immerse himself in the Burundian negotiations was certainly to his credit, but in fact the power-sharing deal he finally brokered in the summer of 2001 was utterly fanciful". (Rieff)

Likewise, Rieff points out another failed attempt at arbitration by Garreth Evans, the former Australian Foreign Minister. Evans demanded "a major international mobilization" in order to support Mandela's effort, which included asking "Congo and Zimbabwe to cut off support for the rebels". Rieff remarks that "Evans is writing as an advocate, and on that level at least, cannot be faulted for making suggestions that the savvy political operator in him must know have not a snowball's chance in hell of being implemented." (Rieff)

After the civil wars in Burundi left the economy in (even worse) shambles and the Hutu starving and disenfranchised, the West finally decided to step in and offer some help. However, there were opposite forces at work. On one hand, humanitarian aid was being sent over to help the population stave off malaria and starvation. On the other hand, arms traders were only helping to escalate the violence.

This is so instrumental especially because of the area that Burundi is in. Rwanda is not stable, the Congo is not stable, and a domino effect is bound to occur. If Burundi is subject to arms trafficking, it compromises the security of all the countries surrounding it. If the flow of guns stopped, I do not believe the violence would stop. However, it does give one party an edge over another where it may not have existed otherwise. At some point the population of Burundi has to be given some responsibility for its actions.


Since aid workers have been sent to Burundi, there have been complaints from the upper class elite there, as well as aid workers themselves. David Rieff interviewed one aid worker who said,

You can talk about the dilemmas of aid all you want here...but if we were to leave, people would die. Sure, by staying we prop up the government, and our presence is an important economic asset for them as well. But what would follow our departure would be malaria and hunger, not a better regime.

It seems as though even the aid workers can't accomplish anything. The elite resents them because they come from rich countries, rent their houses, and live in splendor compared to the people they are helping. It also doesn't help that the people they are assisting are the very people the elite have tried to keep down.

Aid workers also feel used by the government because they are taking care of problems the government simply does not care about. Rieff quoted one upper-class Burundian as saying,

The aid workers came here because of our miseries... and those foreigners, well, you have to assume they wouldn't succeed at home. Hence, they live in the houses of cabinet ministers...but if I had a brilliant career in Paris or New York, would I go to Burundi?
On top of this animosity, the refugee camps that the UN and other groups have set up are now being used as training grounds and recruitment centers for extremists. Though the West is attempting to help repair some of the damage done, in some ways it is still causing more problems for the region.

What now?

How, then, is anything to be accomplished? Colonialism did end in the region nearly 50 years ago, so the people of this country should have some responsibility for their own state of affairs. However, the colonial powers do have some accountability for what has happened. This is not an easy situation to classify and easily analyze using Western standards. Both the initial response to the wars and the response afterward was not carefully planned in conjunction with what the people of Burundi actually needed. By taking a critical look at the West's role and influence in Burundi, at least the some of the contributing factors to these violent acts can become clearer. However, it still seems that an objective history and a clear solution are still not within our reach.



The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. "Burundi: History". Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. vol. 6. Columbia University Press. Copyright 1995. 28 Apr. 2005 (

Prunier, Gerard. The Rwandan Crisis: A History of Genocide. New York, Columbia University Press, 1995.

Scherrer, Christian P. Genocide and crisis in Central Africa: Conflict roots, mass violence, and regional war. Westport, CT: Praeger. 2001


Purvis/Bujumbura, Andrew. "Roots of Genocide." Time v148 (1996): p57

Rieff, David. "Suffering and Cynicism in Burundi." World Policy Journal v18 no3 (Fall 2001): p61

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