Burundi: Update to Early February 1996

  • Author: Gérard Prunier
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    1 February 1996


The last months of 1995 and the very early part of 1996 have seen a sharp increase in international attention towards Burundi. This increase was not, as we will see, provoked by any proportional escalation of violence, violence that nevertheless did remain at a high level all this time. The same journalist who a few months earlier had written that "small massacres were bubbling on in Burundi"[1]1, appears to have decided that some sort of a threshold had been crossed, when six months later he used the title "Bubbling over" for his latest article on the country.[2] This was in fact a reflection of an alarmist tendency which had taken hold with the publication in November 1995 of a report by Médecins Sans Frontières,[3] which attracted a great deal of attention. Médecins Sans Frontières staff presenting the report estimated the number of casualties in Burundi over the past year at 10,000 to 15,000.[4] A few days later the Centre International des Juristes in Geneva used the same figures to ask the UN for immediate intervention,[5] the Le Monde editorialist was voicing his "grave concern" over the situation in the country,[6] which in another paper was seen as being "on the razor's edge",[7] and both the French Government and the UN decided that measures should be taken "to avoid another Rwanda-like genocide",[8] although the precise nature of the measures remained rather vague.

What can we say about this wave of alarm sweeping concerned world public opinion during late 1995 and early 1996?[9] First, as we will see, the likelihood of a near repetition of the 1994 Rwandese horror is extremely low, the reason being that a genocide is a systematic and complicated process, which needs to be organized at the highest level by authorities controlling substantive means of coercion.[10] Given the general deterioration of administration in the country nobody in Burundi today has the organizational capacity to perpetrate a genocide, . The second point is that the situation is indeed very bad, but no worse than during the past two years. And the third point is that some "battle fatigue" is beginning to develop among the players of that deadly contest, offering a pale glimmer of hope in an otherwise intractable conundrum. The lesson is once more that institutional and media attention is not directly proportional to the real gravity of the situation, but rather to its perceived gravity.


2.1 Internal Evolution

Violence has not abated, nor has it changed its general pattern of scattered random killings. Yet it has increased in intensity. Its reporting in the press is usually very limited. As a rule of thumb, nothing under fifty casualties at the same time in the same place is reported.[11] But even that figure is not an absolute criteria. The massacre of 430 people (including 308 children) by the Army in Gasara, Kanyosha Commune, Isale Province on 14 November 1995 did not cause a ripple in the world press.[12]

There have been serious new developments in the nature of the killings. First, as noted by Médecins Sans Frontières:

The civilian population has become the main target of armed actions. The first aim of these armed actions is to kill. When exactions are perpetrated against civilians, the number of deaths is higher than the number of wounded, while in normal combat situations there are about four wounded for one person killed. What we have here is indiscriminate murder, targeting people who are mostly non-combattants. The indiscriminate character of these massacres is evident from the age and sex of the victims who are often children, women and old people.[13]

The second new development is that aid workers, whether UN personnel or NGO staff, have become a prime target. Eleven aid workers have been killed during the last year.[14] These developments are clearly the sign of the use of terror tactics, both on the part of the Army and of the Front de Défense de la Démocratie (FDD) militiamen.

Another development is the fact that the Army is losing control in various ways. Its troops are underpaid, or at times not paid at all, and their discipline is slipping. They are also under severe strain. The Hutu militia is able to muster increased cooperation from the civilian population, as proved by the way in which they managed to cut off power from the capital Bujumbura in November 1995.[15] As the Army loses its grip on the situation, so its violence increases.[16] It is faced by a guerrilla which does not have any serious outside support but which has been able to increase the intensity of its activities.

At the political level, nothing fundamental has occurred since the September 1994 Power-Sharing Agreement. The FDD guerrilla tries to keep a "political" rather than an ethnic profile and it has been able to keep attracting a few Tutsi who are opposed to the present non- functioning "system", such as Joseph Kabuga, the former Secretary General of Parliament. But such cases are exceptional. FDD efforts at distinguishing itself from the ethnic extremists of FROLINAT and PALIPEHUTU have been only partly successful[17] and its "Voice of Democracy" radio is still confused in many peoples' minds with the violently radical Radio Rutomorangingo.[18] As we will see below (Section 4. IS THERE A POLITICAL OPENING?) the only tentatively meaningful development has been the cabinet reshuffle of 12 October 1995, which has resulted in a partial marginalization of some of the more extremist politicians such as former Interior Minister Gabriel Sinarinzi (Tutsi) or former Foreign Minister Paul Munyembari (Hutu).[19]

2.2 The Economy

The economic situation is of course extremely serious. The Prime Minister himself in his New Year's message pointed out that, due to insecurity, "production has decreased tremendously, causing food shortages".[20] A parasitical economy is developing around the foreign aid programmes. The only growth sector of the economy is freight handling, with an increase of 13 per cent in the tonnage handled by Bujumbura harbour and a similar growth of 323 per cent in the tonnage processed through the airport during the past statistical year.[21] These quantities do not of course represent regular imports but rather emergency aid supplies.

Coupled with regression of agriculture and increased dependence on foreign aid, the economy has fallen prey to a variety of other pathological developments. Ethnicity is used as a tool for dishonest business practices such as when in September 1995 the (mostly Tutsi) personnel of the national telephone company ONATEL went on strike against their (Hutu) Director Frederick Ngendabangwa, accusing him of ethnic prejudice, while in fact the real reason was Ngendabangwa's refusal to sign a purchase contract for supplies with a "friendly" Tutsi businessman.[22] There is worse. Various gold smelting companies (AFIMET, Ashons Gemstones, IMAG) have been competing, or rather fighting, with each other for the privilege of processing gold smuggled in from Zaire.[23] There are now very strong suspicions that some of them were heavily involved in the October 1993 putsch which resulted in President Ndadaye's death and which started the whole process of civil violence we are still witnessing today.[24] We can thus witness a kind of Gresham's Law transformation of the economy, where "the bad economy chases off the good one", with violence resulting in an increasingly corrupt and parasitical economy and a faltering agricultural production.


3.1 Relations with Tanzania

Burundi's relations with Tanzania are under the greatest strain which is of course due to the refugee problem. Tanzania shelters about 700,000 refugees and does not see very much difference between Rwandese and Burundese refugees, although, given the different internal political situations in the two countries, the problems are dealt with separately. Repatriation efforts concerning Burundese refugees have mostly failed, the numbers willing to go home being extremely small.[25] But both FDD guerrillas and rival FROLINAT Hutu forces led by former PALIPEHUTU "Chief of Staff" Kabora Basan have been operating from Tanzanian refugee camps against eastern Burundi, causing the Burundian Army to carry out cross-border retaliatory raids. Tanzanian citizens were killed during those raids, causing serious concern in the Tanzanian capital, Dar-es-Salaam.[26] This led the Tanzanian authorities to push for refugee repatriation principles to be included in the conclusions of the Cairo Conference on the Great Lakes Area in November 1995.[27] Unfortunately, these resolutions were not followed by much action, especially as far as the Burundi-Tanzania problem was concerned. In early 1996 Burundi Army attacks against the Mugano refugee camp compelled 15,000 refugees to flee into Tanzania, while an additional 17,000 were blocked for several days at the border before being finally let in.[28] At present, Dar-es-Salaam is trying to discuss the issue with the UN in New York, with the hope that the proposed UN actions on the Zaire side (see section 4. IS THERE A POLITICAL OPENING?) will be coupled with similar intervention efforts on the Tanzanian border.

3.2 Relations with Uganda

Burundi's relations with Uganda have been marked by ambiguity and suspicion. The main issue is the eventual extradition of President Ndadaye's killers, who were at first given asylum in Uganda, later expelled to Zaire, then allowed back only to be arrested, then freed and finally put under house arrest. There is no less incoherence of Ugandan responses to the killers' presence shows the embarrassment felt by the Government towards the whole issue and its internal divisions in dealing with the problem.[29] The incoherence is not less on the Burundese side, where repatriation and trial of the killers is both wished for and feared, at times by the same people. For if Tutsi extremist circles understandably do not wish the Hutu President's murderers to be brought to court, even Hutu politicians who should normally be eager to see the trial take place are in fact fearful of possible counterproductive effects, which could lead to the Burundian Army carrying out a coup d'état in order to stop the proceedings. The latest steps taken in this regard have been very cautious, with a Burundi Parliamentary Mission going to Kampala to interview the killers.[30] After a number of interviews, the Mission eventually proved inconclusive, leaving Uganda-Burundi relations in a state of embarrassed ambiguity.

3.3 Relations with Kenya

Kenya has acted in maverick fashion in dealing with the Burundi crisis. The moment when President Ntibantunganya went to Nairobi on a State Visit was the time chosen by President Daniel Arap Moi to declare that he would not cooperate with the International Tribunal in charge of investigating the Rwandese genocide. The ambiguity of some media reports gave the impression that the visiting Burundese President supported President Moi's controversial position.[31] This caused a veritable political storm back in Bujumbura among Tutsi circles both moderate and extremist and President Ntibantunganya had a hard time justifying himself.[32]

3.4 Relations with Rwanda

These are also fraught with ambiguity. On the one hand border security is presented as a common goal of both the Kigali and Bujumbura governments. But on the other hand persistent rumours circulate about military cooperation between the Burundi Army and the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) going much beyond this official security goal, with the Burundi Army chasing real or supposed infiltrators into Rwanda and the RPA "cleaning up" FDD areas along the triple border (Zaire/Rwanda/Burundi).[33]


The answer to this question - a very tentative one - is maybe. There are some fragile reasons for this cautious optimism. The first and main one is that Premier Nduwayo seems to have understood that the present situation is a no-win situation for everybody, including his own Tutsi ethnic group. When Tutsi extremists recently (late January 1996) tried to organize one of their usually highly successful and deadly Opérations Ville Morte he gave the order to clamp down on the attempt. What is even more surprising is that his orders were more or less followed by the Army and that Brother Deo Nyonzimana, one of the main organizers, was detained while his ally Mathias Hitimana was put under informal house arrest. Both Nyonzimana and Hitimana are well known Tutsi extremists. [34]

The second reason is that part of the civilian Hutu population is becoming tired of the violence of their self-styled FDD "saviours".[35] If only the Army did not practice blind repression against anything Hutu, they would might even be prepared to cooperate with the armed forces.

The third and more complex factor is the international dimension. The decision taken by the Security Council of the UN in August 1995 to establish an international commission of inquiry was indeed a step in the right direction.[36] But the departure of Ahmed Ould Abdallah, a very seasoned and tough operator, and his replacement with Marc Faguy, who has considerably less experience, has weakened the local UN representation. The proposal by Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to deploy UN peacekeeping troops in Zaire in the hope that this will somehow improve the situation in Burundi is well intended but completely unrealistic.[37] In fact, the only line of action, already recommended by Ahmed Ould Abdallah when he was in Bujumbura, is to support elements of the civil society who are ready to struggle for peace (if properly backed up) and to put very heavy institutional pressure on the extremists, who are after all in limited numbers, even though they now occupy the forefront of the political scene.[38]

The choice is now between costly and probably inefficient military intervention and a much more complicated but cheaper and potentially more effective approach of active international presence within the Burundese political scene itself, where many actors (women's organizations, church groups, planters' cooperatives, moderate politicians) are ready to work for peace. At present they are powerless because the international community has so far abandoned them.








































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