The Republic of Burundi, in the Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa, is a landlocked country. It is bordered by Tanzania to the east and south, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west, and Rwanda to the north. Its population is estimated at 11,465,726 and its area is 28,000 sq. km. Bujumbura is the country’s capital. Lake Tanganyika is on Burundi’s southwestern border.
Since Burundi’s formation 500 years ago, the Twa, Tutsi, and Hutu people have occupied the country. For two hundred years, the country was ruled as a kingdom by the Tutsi. Germany and Belgium occupied the area in the early 20th century. Burundi and Rwanda became Ruanda-Urundi, a European colony.
Social differences between the Hutu and the Tutsi led to regional unrest. This in turn led to a civil war in Burundi in the middle of the 20th century. Burundi is presently a presidential representative democracy. Roman Catholics are 62 percent of the population. 8 percent to 10 percent are Muslim, and the rest follow indigenous religions or other Christian denominations.
Burundi has the lowest per capita GDP in the world and is considered one of the ten poorest world nations. Civil wars, corruption, HIV/AIDS, and poor education have taken their toll on GDP. Burundi’s population is dense and there is high emigration. Natural resources include cobalt and copper. Coffee and sugar are major exports.
Kingdom of Burundi
The first evidence of the Burundian state dates back to the late 16th century where it emerged on the eastern foothills. Over the following centuries it expanded, annexing smaller neighbours. The Kingdom of Burundi, or Urundi, in the Great Lakes region was a polity ruled by a traditional monarch with several princes beneath him; succession struggles were common. The king, known as the mwami (translated as ruler) headed a princely aristocracy (ganwa) which owned most of the land and required a tribute, or tax, from local farmers (mainly Hutu) and herders (mainly Tutsi). The Kingdom of Burundi was characterized by a hierarchical political authority and tributary economic exchange.
In the mid-18th century, the Tutsi royalty consolidated authority over land, production, and distribution with the development of the ubugabire—a patron-client relationship in which the populace received royal protection in exchange for tribute and land tenure. By this time, the royal court was made up of the Tutsi-Banyaruguru, they had higher social status than other pastoralists such as the Tutsi-Hima. In the lower levels of this society were generally Hutu people, and at the very bottom of the pyramid were the Twa. The system had some fluidity however, some Hutu people belonged to the nobility and in this way also had a say in the functioning of the state.
The classification of Hutu or Tutsi was not merely based on ethnic criteria alone. Hutu farmers that managed to acquire wealth and livestock were regularly granted the higher social status of Tutsi, some even made it to become close advisors of the Ganwa. On the other hand, there are also reports of Tutsi that lost all their cattle and subsequently lost their higher status and were called Hutu. Thus, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was also a socio-cultural concept, instead of a purely ethnic one. There were also many reports of marriages between Hutu and Tutsi people. In general, regional ties and tribal power struggles played a far more determining role in Burundi’s politics than ethnicity.
Burundi ceased to be a monarchy when king Ntare V Ndizeye was deposed by his Prime Minister and Chief of Staff, Capt. Michel Micombero, who abolished the monarchy and declared a republic following the November 1966 coup d’état.
After being defeated in World War I, Germany gave control of its eastern African colonies to Belgium. On October 20, 1924, the area, consisting of modern day Burundi and Rwanda, became a practical part of the Belgium Empire as Ruanda-Urundi under a Belgian League of Nations mandate. The Belgians allowed the area’s kingship dynasty to continue.
After World War II, the colony became a United Nations Trust Territory under Belgian control. A series of policies during the 1940s caused divisions. On October 4, 1943, legislative powers were split between kingdoms and lower chiefdoms. The kingdoms were in charge of the land. Some powers also rested with native authorities, which became an influence on Burundi’s independence.
Independence and Civil War
On January 20, 1959, Mwami Mwambutsa IV, Burundi’s ruler, requested the Belgians separate Burundi and Rwanda. Political parties were formed six months later to bring attention to the proposal. The Unity for National Progress (UPRONA) was the first of these.
Instability and ethnic persecution in Rwanda influenced Burundi’s drive for independence. In November of 1959, the Hutu in Rwanda attacked the Tutsi, killing them by the thousands. The Tutsi escaped to Burundi and Uganda. Once in Burundi, those Tutsi began fighting the local Hutu in retaliation. In 1960, the Hutu took power in Rwanda after they won Belgian-run elections.
The UPRONA became the most prominent organization in Ruanda-Urundi. A multi-ethnic party, it was led by Prince Louis Rwagasore. The Christian Democratic Party (PDC) also was at the forefront. Prince Rwagasore was assassinated in 1961 after UPRONA’s election victory. Belgian administrators allegedly assisted in the killing.
Independence was claimed on July 1, 1962. The country legally changed its name from Ruanda-Urundi to Burundi, with Mwami Mwambuta IV being named king. Burundi joined the United Nations on September 18, 1962, just a month after declaring independence.
A constitutional monarchy was established after independence with both Hutu and Tutsi representation in parliament. King Mwambutsa appointed a Tutsi prime minister which led to the Hutus, holding a parliament majority, to feel cheated. The police, dominated by Hutus, attempted a coup which the army, led by a Tutsi put down. Hutus then began attacking Tutsi in the countryside. The government suppressed the killing fearing Hutus wanting to follow the “Model Rwanda.” Burundi’s police and military were brought under Tutsi control.
In 1966, Mwambuta’a son, Prince Ntare V deposed him and claimed the throne. Tutsi Prime Minister Captain Michel Micombero deposed him that year and abolished the monarchy. While he declared the nation a republic, effectively it was a military regime.
In 1972, the Hutu Burundi Workers’ Party (UBU) carried out attacks on Tutsis to attempt to exterminate the entire group. The military responded by targeting Hutus. Estimates have varied, but the total deaths in the attacks on both sides is said to be 100,000 at least. A similar number sought asylum in Rwanda and Tanzania. In 1976, Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, a Tutsi, led a bloodless coup. He promoted reforms and a constitution was established in 1981. It kept Burundi a one party state. Bagaza was elected the state’s head in 1984. He suppressed religious freedoms and political opponents throughout his tenure.
In 1987, another Tutsi, Major Pierre Buyoya, over threw Bagaza and suspended the constitution. He also dissolved political parties and reestablished military rule under the Military Committee for National Salvation (CSMN). The remnants of the UBU redistributed anti-Tutsi propaganda. This led to Tutsi killings in August of 1988 in northern communities. The government estimated deaths at 5,000, but this has been criticized as too low by organizations.
While the government did not respond harshly, international trust was lost when it declared amnesty for the massacre’s leaders. Some analysts believe this started the “culture of impunity” but others believe it began earlier.
After the incident, Hutu intellectuals wrote a letter to Buyoya requesting more Hutu representation in the government. The signors were then imprisoned. Buyoya did appoint a new government several weeks letter with equal Hutu and Tutsi representation. A Hutu, Adrien Sibomana was appointed Prime Minister. A commission was also started to address the national unity question. A new constitution was established in 1992 creating a multi-party system. A civil war started shortly after in Burundi’s core.
Democracy’s First Attempt
In June 1993, elections were held. Melchior Ndadye, leader of the Hutu Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU), won the election and became the first Hutu head of state. Tutsi soldiers assassinated Ndadaye in October, 1993, triggering years of violence between the groups. 300,000 were estimated killed in the following years.
Parliament elected another Hutu, Cyprien Ntaryamira, as president in 1994. He, along with Rwanda’s president, was killed when their airplane was shot down. Refugees then started moving into Rwanda. The Hutu parliament speaker, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, was appointed to replace the president. Ethnic violence began with Hutus being massacred in the capital. The Tutsi Union for National Progress withdrew from parliament and the government.
A Tutsi, Pierre Buyoya, took power in 1996 in a coup. After suspending the constitution, he was sworn in as president. Rebel attacks forced the government to relocate the population to refugee camps. South Africa moderated peace talks, which led to power sharing agreements. After four years of planning on August 28, 2000, Burundi’s transitional government began to take shape under the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. The government was given a five year trial. A 2001 power sharing agreement and peace plan has been fairly successful. The largest Hutu rebel group, CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy), and the Tutsi controlled government signed a cease fire in 2003.
In 2003, Domitien Ndayizeye, the FRODEBU Hutu leader, was elected to become president. Government ethnic quotas were formed in 2005 to determine government positions. Hutu and Tutsi conflicts continue. The government is in peace talks with the Hutu led Palipehutu-National Liberation Forces (NLF).
African leaders began peace talks between warring factions after the U.N. Secretary General requested their intervention. Tanzania’s former president organized the talks until his death, then Nelson Mandela took over. South African President Thabo Mbeki and U.S. President Bill Clinton also helped the talks.
The talks were held as Track I mediations. In short, this method involves government representatives forcing an outcome using the “carrot and stick” approach.
The objective was a transformation of the government and military to bridge the gap between Hutus and Tutsis. There were two ways to do this. First, a transitional government was to be formed with a president serving a three year term. Second, the military was also to be structured to represent both groups equally.
The talks’ success had several obstacles. Burundian officials believed the goals were too high and that any agreement was worthless without a cease fire. This required talks with rebel groups. Hutus, feeling they were deceived by Tutsis in prior agreements, also distrusted the talks.
Burundi’s president signed the agreement, as did 13 of 19 warring factions, in 2000. There were still disagreements as to when the ceasefire would commence and which of the groups would preside over the government. Hardline Tutsi and Hutu groups disrupted the talks and refused the treaty. This led to more violence. After three more years, the president and the main Hutu opposition group signed an agreement at an African leader summit, ending the fighting. The signors were given government posts. Smaller Hutu groups still remained active.
Involvement of the U.N.
Many rounds of peace talks overseen by regional leaders occurred between 1993 and 2003. They gradually established agreements to share power between major groups. Peacekeepers from the Africa Union oversaw placement of the transitional government. The United Nations took over in June, 2004 to lend international support for the peace process.
The United Nation’s mission is mandated by the U.N. Charter at chapter VII to monitor the cease fire, disarm groups, reintegrate combatants, humanitarian support, protect international and Burundi civilians, election assistance, stabilize the borders, reform institutions, and halt illegal arms trades. The mission, consisting of 5,650 military, 120 police, and 1,000 civilians, has been functioning well. The transitional government has been acceptable.
The last Tutsi rebel group continued to resist and was the main obstacle in the U.N.’s mission. By June 2005, the group stopped its campaign and returned to the political process. A power sharing formula between ethnic groups has been accepted by all parties. No party can take government offices unless it is integrated.
The U.N.’s mission has been to support creation of a constitution to allow elections. A constitution was accepted with 90 percent approval in February, 2005. Elections were held at the local level in May, June, and August of 2005 to elect parliament and the president.
The mission has managed to win the people’s trust despite problems with food supplies and refugee return. The mission has also helped with some infrastructure improvements.
2006 to Today
Reconstruction efforts really began after 2006. The peacekeeping mission ended and reconstruction began. A regional economic bloc, called the Great Lakes Countries Economic Community, was formed between Rwanda, D.R. Congo, and Burundi to aid reconstruction. In 2007, Rwanda and Burundi joined the East African Community.
The September 2006 agreement between the Forces for National Liberation (FLN), the last armed group, and the government were not completely implemented. Claiming security threats, FLN leaders left the monitoring team. Rival group factions clashed in September 2007, killing fighters and causing residents to flee. The factions disagreed with disarmament and the process for freeing political prisoners. In late 2007 and 2008, these fighters attacked government camps and pillaged rural homes.
Amnesty International reported in 2007 that improvement is needed in many areas. The FLN commits acts of violence against civilians and recruits child soldiers. The judicial system also needs reform. War crimes, genocide, and other crimes against humanity have gone unpunished. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has not been established. Neither has a Special Tribunal to investigate and prosecute war crimes. There is limed freedom of expression and journalists are subject to arrest.
The FLN sought a law giving them immunity from arrest in March 2008. This would not have covered war crimes or other international criminal acts. While the government granted this to other groups, the FLN has not been able to secure the protections.
On April 17, 2008, the FLN attacked Bujumbura and suffered heavy losses in the government counterattack. On March 26, 2008, another cease fire was signed. President Nkurunziza met the FLN leader, Agathon Rwasa, in August 2008. Charles Nqakula, a South African minister, mediated this first direct meeting between the sides since June 2007.
Refugee camps closed and 450,000 refugees have returned. The conflict shattered Burundi’s economy. Refugees returning have started property conflicts.
Burundi has a presidential representative democratic republic with multiple parties. The President heads the government and state. Burundi has 21 registered political parties. The March 13, 1992 constitution established multiple parties. Six years later this was changed and the National Assembly’s seats were broadened, allowing for two vice presidents. Due to the Arusha Accord, a transition government was established in 2000.
Burundi has a bicameral legislature, with the houses being the Transitional National Assembly and the Transitional Senate. The Transitional National Assembly has 170 seats, with the Front for Democracy in Burundi having 38 percent. UPRONA holds 10 percent of the seats with the remaining 52 held by other parties. The constitution mandates this body have 60 percent HUTU, 40 percent Tutsi, and 30 percent female members and three Batwa. Members are elected by popular vote every five years.
The Senate is composed of 51 members. Three seats are reserved for former presidents. The constitution mandates 30 percent female members. Electoral colleges select he Senators. The electoral college is composed of members from Burundi’s communes and provinces. One Hutu and one Tutsi Senator are selected for each province to serve a five year term.
The legislative branch elects the President to serve for five years. The Council of Ministers is appointed by the President and is part of the executive branch. Members of the Senate, up to 14, can be selected by the President to be Ministers. Two thirds of the legislature must approve the Ministers. The President also selects two vice presidents. Pierre Nkurunziza has been the President since 2010. Therence Sinunguruza is the first vice president and Gervais Rufyikiri is the second.
Burundi’s highest court is the Court Supreme. Directly below this are three Courts of Appeals. Each province has Tribunals of First Instance as lower courts. There are also 123 local tribunals.
Burundi is one of Africa’s smallest countries. It has an equatorial climate and is landlocked. The western extension of the Great Rift Valley, the Albertine Rift, is in Burundi. Burundi is in Africa’s center and lies on a gently rolling plateau. The central plateau has an average elevation of 5,600 feet (1,707m). The borders have lower elevation. Mount Heha is the highest peak at 8,810 feet (2,685m) and is southwest of the capital. The Nile is Burundi’s major river. Lake Victoria, serving as a Kagera River fork, is a water sources. In Burundi’s southwestern corner, Lake Tanganyika is another major body of water.
The land consists mostly of pasture or agriculture. Rural settlements have led to soil erosion, deforestation, and habitat loss. Overpopulation is the main cause of deforestation. There is only 230 sq. mi. of forest remaining which still depletes at 9 percent per year. Established in 1982 for conservation, the two national parks are Kibira National Park and Ruvubu National Park.
Burundi has been administratively split into 17 provinces, 117 communes, and 2,638 collines. The provinces are Bubabza, Bujumbura Mairie, Bujumbura Rural, Bururi, Cankuzo, Cibitoke, Gitega, Karuzi, Kayanza, Kirundo, Makamba, Muramvya, Muyinga, Mwaro, Ngozi, Rutana, and Ruyigi.
Partly due to it being landlocked, Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Lack of education access and HIV/AIDS are also factors. 80 percent of the people live in poverty. 56.8 percent of children under five are chronically malnourished. One study ranked Burundi last of 178 countries in terms of life satisfaction. Burundi’s poverty makes it dependent on foreign aid.
Agriculture is the country’s largest industry, making up 58 percent of GDP in 1997. 90 percent of that agriculture is at the subsistence level. Coffee is 93 percent of exports. Other products include tea, maize, cotton, sweet potatoes, sorghum, bananas, manioc, milk, beef, and hides. There are natural resources including nickel, cobalt, uranium, and platinum. The currency is the Burundian franc. The exchange rate is poor. In 2008, 1,184 Burundian francs were needed to equate to one U.S. dollar.
The planned East African Federation could potentially have Burundi as a member. The country is part of the East African Community.
Burundi’s population was estimated at 11,465,726 in 2019. AIDS significantly effects the population, with over 500,000 displaced due to the disease. The civil war also caused migration. For example, 10,000 were accepted into the U.S. in 2006.
Most Burundians reside in rural areas with only 6 percent in urban zones. It has the second highest population density in Sub-Saharan Africa at 315 per sq. km. Hutus are 85 percent of the population, Tutsi are 15 percent, and less than 1 percent are Twa.
67 percent of the population practice Christianity, with Roman Catholics totaling 62 percent of all Burundians. The remaining percentages of the population are Protestant and Anglican. Indigenous religions account for 23 percent of the population. Muslims are 10 percent, the majority of which are Sunni.
According to the latest WHO data published in 2018 life expectancy in Burundi is: Male 58.5, female 61.8 and total life expectancy is 60.1 which gives Burundi a World Life Expectancy ranking of 168.
Local tradition and neighboring countries influences Burundi’s culture. Civil unrest has hindered its cultural practices. Due to agriculture, most meals do not include meat and consist of corn, sweet potatoes, and peas. To symbolize unity at gatherings, most drink a beer called impeke from a large container. Notable people from Burundi include singer Jean Pierre Nimbona, known as Kidum, and Mohammed Tchite, a footballer.
Crafts are an important art form and are given as gifts to tourists. Burundian artists often participate in basket weaving. Masks, shields, statues, and pottery are also made.
Drumming is an important cultural part. Performing for over 40 years, the Royal Drummers of Burundi use the traditional amashako, ibishikiso, and ikiranya drums. Dance often accompanies drumming performances. Burundian dances include the abatimbo and the fast pacedabanyagasimbo. Other instruments used include the zither, flute, indonongo, ikembe, umuduri, inyagara, and inanga.
Throughout Burundi Kirundi, French, and Swahili are spoken. Low school attendance contributes to a low literacy rate. Only 10 percent of boys are allowed to attend secondary school. Burundi has a strong oral tradition that passes down life lessons and history. Literary genres in Burundi include inigani, indirimbo, amazina, and ivyivugo.
Burundi’s notable sports include track and basketball. Football and mancala games are also popular. Burundi celebrates most Christian holidays and its independence day is July 1. Eid al-Fitr, an Islamic holiday, was declared a public holiday in 2005.
Burundi passed law making homosexuality illegal in April 2009. Those found guilty may receive two to three years in prison and a large fine. This law was condemned by Amnesty International as violating international declarations and the country’s own constitution.
The University of Burundi is the major institution. Literacy is only approximately half among men and 25 percent for women. Several museums exist, including the Burundi Geological Museum in Bujumbura, the Burundi National Museum, and the Burundi Museum of Life in Gitega.