1998 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 6.5
Civil Liberties: 6
Political Rights: 7

Ratings Change

Burundi's civil liberties rating changed from 7 to 6 due to a slight easing of repression in the country.


In June, Burundi's leading Hutu and Tutsi political parties implemented an accord that legitimized the presidency of retired army Major Pierre Buyoya, who seized power for the second time in 1996. A transitional constitution promised reforms to end the country's five years of bloody ethnic war. Nevertheless, human rights abuses by both the government and insurgents continued to wrack the country. Extremist elements of both the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi communities sought to block compromise aimed at ending the civil war, which has claimed nearly 250,000 lives since 1993. Tutsi chauvinists believe that they should never share power with the Hutu, who comprise approximately 85 percent of the country's people, while radical Hutu continue to call for the extermination of all Tutsi. In the countryside, fighting lessened, but still flared with savagery. Almost 500,000 Hutu have been driven from their homes to relocation camps where abysmal conditions include disease and malnutrition, and most Hutus have been driven from the capital, Bujumbura.

Burundi received its independence from Belgium in 1962 under a system that gave political and military power firmly to the 15-percent Tutsi minority. Since then, massacres by and against the country's ethnic Hutu majority have repeatedly torn the country. Major Buyoya mounted his first coup in 1987 by deposing the widely unpopular authoritarian President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza. In 1992, the Tutsi dominated Unity for National Progress (Uprona) party agreed to multiparty elections, which were held one year later. Melchior Ndadaye of the Burundi Front for Democracy (Frodebu) defeated Buyoya with more than 60 percent of the vote and become the country's first Hutu president. Frodebu also scored a large victory in legislative elections.

In 1993, radical Tutsi soldiers ended Burundi's democratic experiment and sparked the ongoing ethnic civil war by assassinating President Ndadaye and several other senior officials. Cyprien Ntaryamira, Ndadaye's successor, was killed along with Rwanda President Juvenal Habyarimana in 1994 when their plane was apparently shot down while approaching Kigali airport. The event provoked intensified killings in Burundi and marked the start of the anti-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. Under a 1994 power-sharing arrangement between the main political parties, Hutu politician Sylvestre Ntibantunganya served as Burundi's new president until his ouster by Major Buyoya in 1996.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

In 1993, Burundi's citizens freely elected their president and legislative representatives to five-year terms by secret ballot in the country's first and only open multiparty elections. The subsequent murders of Presidents Ndadaye and Ntaryamira eventually led to the formation of the coalition government overthrown by Major Buyoya in 1996. The national assembly, banned after the coup, was nominally restored through a 1996 Buyoya decree that provided for a resumption of political activities. The June agreements and transitional constitution negotiated between Buyoya, Frodebu, and Uprona expanded the National Assembly to 121 members and established two vice presidencies, with one filled by each party. The new government brings the Hutu majority effectively back into government, but real authority still lies with President Buyoya and his supporters. No date for new elections has been discussed.

Murder, rape, and torture by both government and rebel forces has been reported from the countryside. Efforts to resolve the political impasse are complicated by deep divisions within both communities over the goals for any negotiations. Various Tutsi faction leaders have been arrested, and Hutu guerrillas are split into competing groups that have sometimes turned their guns on each other.

Constitutional guarantees regarding arrest and detention are widely disregarded. Approximately 8,000 people, nearly all of whom are Hutu, are detained without trial. In July, an Amnesty International report described Burundi's justice system as often arbitrary, grossly unfair, and marked by summary trials. According to the report, torture while in detention is commonplace. Judicial reforms to create more ethnic balance were agreed in June and may help to end the distrust felt by the Hutu majority due to Tutsi control over the courts. Burundi's first official executions since 1981 were carried out in 1997, when six men were hanged after being sentenced for ethnic killings in trials criticized by observers as grossly unfair. More than 250 others have received death sentences. Discrimination against the Hutu minority is systemic in both economic and political life. The small Twa (pygmy) minority of approximately two percent of the population is almost entirely excluded from the modern state.

Official press restrictions were formally lifted in 1996, but journalists practice extensive self-censorship for fear of reprisals. In March, authorities seized copies of the Frodebu-backed L'Aube de la democratie and closed the offices of Net-Press, a local news agency. With the exception of Le Renouveau, the thrice-weekly official government organ, few newspapers are available, and most are little more than extremist propaganda sheets. The government runs the two main radio stations, which reach a larger audience, especially in the countryside. The European Union has operated a radio station that offers nonpartisan programming promoting peace and ethnic tolerance, and similar American-funded programming, including a radio soap opera, is broadcast on national radio. Sporadic clandestine broadcasts by Hutu radicals are filled with crude propaganda and incitements to violence. Foreign journalists have been regularly harassed by soldiers.

Formation of political parties or associations is permitted, although political activists have been detained by the government and attacked by death squads of various factions. Under highly militarized and dangerous conditions, pro-development nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups such as the Burundi Human Rights Association face extreme difficulties. Religious practice is not restricted.

Burundian women face legal and customary discrimination. It is very difficult for women to receive credit, and they may be dispossessed by inheritance laws. Especially in the countryside, women's educational opportunities are far fewer than those of men, and laws providing for equal pay for equal work have resulted in few advances for women in the formal sector. Violence against women has been reported.

Constitutional protections for unionization are in place, and the right to strike is protected by the labor code. The Organization of Free Unions of Burundi is the sole labor confederation and has been independent since the rise of multipartyism in 1992. Most union members are civil servants and have bargained collectively with the government. Approximately 80 percent of Burundi's people are subsistence farmers, often with few links to the modern economy.

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