A Past Forever Present: Truth And Reconciliation In Burundi

Burundi’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established in 2014 to ease ethnic animosities between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, has caused controversy ever since. Development and Cooperation states that Tutsi politicians still accuse TRC members of being too one-sided in their investigations of Burundi’s troubled past. The TRC discovered over 4,000 mass graves so far—most of which containing mainly Hutu victims of the 1972 genocide. Yet Tutsis are incensed the TRC is not paying much attention to the remains of Tutsis that Hutus butchered in 1993.

These accusations are not unfounded. The TRC is comprised of members affiliated with the Hutu-dominated and ruling CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defence of Democracy) party. Panel members also had various personal and professional ties to Hutu President Pierre Nkurunziza, who died of COVID-19 in 2020. Some Tutsis have called out the TRC for not examining Nkurunziza’s ruthless repression of dissent after an attempted coup in 2015. Human Rights Watch stated that the government regularly harassed suspected opponents, suspended independent radio stations, and shut down human rights groups.

Fortunately, President Évariste Ndayishimiye has not inherited all Nkurunziza’s autocratic tendencies. However, the international community is to blame for exacerbating Bujumbura’s siege mentality as well. The African Union’s warmongering and coercive diplomacy, according to Nina Wilén, alienated Nkurunziza’s regime following the 2015 crackdowns. UN officials also point out that Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) are harboring insurgents that attack Burundi.

Jeff Drumtra, a former UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) employee who helped Burundian refugees in Rwanda, told The San Francisco Bay View in 2015 that Rwandan soldiers, police officers, and intelligence services recruited and trained refugees (often against their will) to fight for “rebel forces” seeking to overthrow Nkurunziza. Two years later, further UN investigations implied that Burundian rebel groups like RED-Tabara (Mouvement de la Résistance pour un État de Droit) or FOREBU (Forces républicaines du Burundi) were collaborating with the Congo’s military, and used Congolese territory as a springboard to launch incursions into Burundi, according to African Arguments.

Foreign states, by aiding and abetting anti- Nkurunziza guerrillas, stirred the fires of authoritarianism and ethnic tension in Burundi—deliberately or otherwise. As a result, the beleaguered CNDD–FDD, which continues to face destabilising rebel attacks, intermittently hostile neighbours, mounting domestic opposition, and spiraling poverty, has instrumentalised the TRC to bolster its waning popularity among the Hutu majority.

Tutsi politicians must give TRC investigators more time to uncover atrocities that both ethnicities committed over many decades, glaring biases notwithstanding. Pierre Claver Ndayicariye, President of the TRC, has denied allegations of selective exhumations. He told The New Humanitarian that forensic teams are unearthing mass graves from 1972, for now, because survivors and perpetrators will not be alive much longer. Journalist Désiré Nimubona added that people simply refuse to divulge information about mass graves- even those containing murdered relatives- either out of hatred for the TRC or fear of retribution. An endemic reluctance to confront the past is preventing the TRC from completing its work.        

Central Africa expert René Lemarchand extensively documented the seemingly endless horrors that plagued Burundi in the late 20th century. In 1972, the Tutsi-dominated military dictatorship unleashed a genocidal purge in response to a brief but bloody Hutu insurrection. President Michel Micombero, fearful of an impending European mercenary invasion and the possibility of another Rwanda-style Hutu revolution that could permanently topple Tutsi rule, encouraged soldiers and extremist youth brigades to eliminate almost every educated Hutu. One refugee ruefully recalled “In my clan there were school teachers, medical assistants, agronomists…Among those who were educated, it is I alone who remains.” Scholars estimate that between 100,000-300,000 Hutus were exterminated in a few months, and hundreds of thousands more escaped to neighbouring countries.

Micombero and his successors institutionalized Tutsi supremacy after the genocide and systematically excluded Hutus from the civil service, army, and universities. A minuscule Tutsi clique, supposedly devoted to egalitarian and leftist principles, hoarded wealth and power while discrimination, hardship, illiteracy, and disease blighted countless lives. The corrupt and paranoid Bagaza regime herded farmers into stifling “villages” during the eighties to keep watch on unruly rural populations. Meanwhile, the UPRONA (Union for National Progress) party promoted secularism to undermine the Catholic Church—and to stop missionary-run literacy classes from educating Hutu youths.

In 1988, despairing Hutus, driven mad by unremitting marginalization, oppression, and lingering trauma, lashed out in anger. Hutu militiamen, petrified of another “1972” after reviled Tutsi civil servants and notables provoked them, indiscriminately massacred hundreds of innocent Tutsis. The military mercilessly retaliated once again: approximately 15,000 Hutus were killed. Amnesty International reported that “troops were engaged…in reprisals aimed at the Hutu civilian population as a whole.”

An even greater tragedy unfolded five years later. Democratic elections in 1993 brought Burundi’s first Hutu President Melchior Ndadaye into office. Yet Tutsi supremacist soldiers, fiercely opposed to any liberalization, promptly assassinated Ndadaye and numerous members of his administration. Thousands of Tutsis paid a terrible price. Roaming bands of furious Hutus slaughtered women, children, and entire families with impunity and pledged allegiance to rebel groups. Military governors, in a disastrous bid to control a rapidly escalating insurgency, confined around 350,000 civilians in what journalist Chris McGreal called “fenceless concentration camps.” The civil war ended in 2006 and claimed 300,000 lives and displaced over a million people.

What must be done to change a polarizing TRC into a productive experiment that can benefit all Burundians? As human rights activist and researcher Huma Saeed argues, “if one does not have shelter or access to medical care when needed, the right to truth and accountability, among other civil and political rights, may seem a luxury.” In a country where 52% of children are chronically malnourished, according to the World Food Programme, Burundi’s TRC should recommend and proactively campaign for radical social and economic reforms that would only improve victim’s lives today. Additionally, they should campaign for those that will likely prevent further outbreaks of ethnic discord. People prioritize basic needs and the TRC must do so the same to ensure a peaceful future.

Burundians also do not want the TRC to deliver punitive justice. Patrick Hajayandi, project leader at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, found in a study spanning three provinces that many respondents preferred to forgive rather than punish perpetrators. The TRC must also avoid creating what transitional justice scholar Simon Robins calls “a hierarchy of victimhood”, with Hutu grievances taking precedence over Tutsi ones. Pierre Ndayicariye and his colleagues need to address urgent local demands for memorials, commemorations, and reburials. The TRC will only gain the approval, trust, and respect of suspicious communities if they listen attentively to what people want and expect from now on.

Furthermore, authorities in Brussels must finally acknowledge that Belgium is largely responsible for engineering the ethnic antagonisms which ravaged Burundi since the early 1960s. Belgian colonialists, who annexed the territories formerly known as Ruanda-Urundi from a vanquished German Empire after World War I, transformed Burundi into a totalitarian and feudal society. Economists and historians like Arthur Blouin, Aidan Russell, Alexandre Hatungimana, Bonaventure Karikumutima, and Jean-Étienne Bidou demonstrated how Belgian administrations pitted Tutsi or princely “Ganwa” chieftains against the predominantly Hutu peasantry. Governors and missionaries, inspired by racist pseudoscientific theories, classified Burundians according to their physiques or status to divide and conquer a restive indigenous population—effectively laying the foundations for interethnic violence.

Tyrannical chiefs like Pierre Baranyanka, on behalf of Belgian overlords, pressured their subjects to convert subsistence farms into coffee plantations via brutal forced labor. Workers endured daily humiliations and barbaric corporal punishment such as being flogged with hippopotamus-hide whips. This slave-like existence pushed thousands of Burundians to defy Belgian-imposed travel restrictions and flee to Uganda or Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania) throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Lawyer Antoine Rubbens said that apartheid laws in Burundi were far harsher than any “colour-bar” legislation in the United States or southern Africa.

Moreover, education scholar Emily Dunlop revealed that colonial administrators made formal schooling an exclusive privilege for the sons of Tutsi chieftains and elites. Most Hutus never had the chance to pursue secondary or university studies due to these crippling restrictions. To make matters worse, sociologist Ludo De Witte alleges in an upcoming book that Belgian officials were complicit in the assassination of Prime Minister Louis Rwagasore— arguably the only politician in Burundi’s history to enjoy immense support among both Hutus and Tutsis. His murder deprived Burundians of a unifying leader and condemned the nation to decades of incessant internecine conflict and underdevelopment.

The Belgian state has not done enough to make amends for such heinous crimes. Declassifying colonial archives is certainly of “paramount importance” for academics, as noted in The Guardian, but these purely symbolic gestures are of no consequence for impoverished Burundians. A sincere apology, coupled with widespread and carefully distributed reparations to Burundi’s long-suffering masses, could make a real difference. It might even turn a divisive truth and reconciliation process into an inclusive and meaningful endeavour.




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