The Next Genocide

8 May 2003

The Next Genocide

By Gwynne Dyer

There may be another genocide coming in Africa, this time in Burundi, and the most frustrating thing about it is that you can’t even pin the blame for it on some monster of wickedness. It’s just the situation.

Burundi got a new president recently. On 30 April Domitien Nzayizeye, a member of the Hutu majority, accepted the presidency from Pierre Buyoya, the Tutsi army officer who has ruled the country since 1996. Former South African president Nelson Mandela showed up in person to bless the transfer of power, and a 3,000-strong force is being sent by the African Union to keep the peace. But there is no peace to keep: last month a hundred rockets rained down on the lakeside capital, Bujumbura, from the hills behind, and the massacres out in the villages continued at about the usual rate.

Burundi has a past only slightly less bloody than its twin to the north, Rwanda, where 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority and Hutus thought to be friendly towards them were slaughtered by a Hutu-led extremist government in 1994. It has exactly the same population mix, and just as in Rwanda the Belgian colonial authorities played a game of divide-and-rule, transforming the traditional patron-client relationship between the pastoral Tutsis and the Hutu farmers into a modern and far nastier system of ethnic privilege. Then they departed, leaving the 15 percent minority of Tutsis in charge of both countries.

There were Hutu rebellions in both countries, but in Burundi the Tutsi, who have a stranglehold on the army, managed to hang onto power. In 1972 Tutsi extremists massacred up to 250,000 Hutus in an attempt to wipe out the entire educated Hutu elite in Burundi, and since then guerilla war has been almost constant in the countryside. The Hutu are filled with mistrust and bitterness, which makes the Tutsi minority all the more reluctant to relinquish power, and even clever people with good intentions cannot break the vicious circle.

Major Pierre Buyoya is such a person, and the coup he carried out in 1987 was meant to solve the problem. He actually gave the country multi-party democracy for a little while, and a Hutu, Melchior Ndadaye, was elected president in 1992. But the Hutu guerillas never came in from the hills, the Tutsis never let go of the army — and in 1993 Ndadaye was assassinated by a rebel group of Tutsi paratroopers.

Buyoya managed to stabilise the situation, and another Hutu was elected president of Burundi — but he was almost immediately killed in Rwanda, shot down together with the Rwandan president by a surface-to-air missile. The Rwandan regime blamed the downing of the presidential aircraft on Tutsi rebels and began the great genocide of 1994, but the missile was almost certainly fired by Hutu extremists in the Rwandan army precisely in order to provide a pretext for a massacre of the Tutsis in the country.

Another Hutu, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, became president of Burundi in 1994, but the Hutu guerillas out in the hills saw him as just a Tutsi puppet and escalated their attacks. The Tutsi-run army retaliated with counter-massacres of Hutu villagers, and by 1996 the UN special rapporteur for human rights was talking about a “genocide by attrition” in Burundi — so Buyoya seized power again. He never fully got the army back under control (there were two coup attempts against him in 2001, and village massacres are still commonplace), but he is trying once again to hand over power to the majority.

Buyoya understands that Burundi’s future, and the safety of his own Tutsi people, can only be assured in the long run by a democratic system that grants the majority full rights. His problem with the Hutu presidents he boosted into office in the mid-90s was that he had to choose people moderate enough to escape a veto by the Tutsi army officers, who see themselves as the final bulwark against the kind of genocide that their fellow-Tutsi suffered in Rwanda. Unfortunately, he has the same problem again with Nzayizeye.

Pierre Nkurunziza, leader of the Forces for the Defence of Democracy, the biggest Hutu rebel group, rejects Nzayizeye as a mere Tutsi puppet: “This change is purely cosmetic. How do you expect us to give up ten years of effort for nothing?” The FDD is no longer observing the ceasefire that it signed last December, and insists that it will only suspend its attacks if the Tutsi-dominated army disarms. Given what happened to the Tutsis in Rwanda, that is not going to happen.

Nobody is being unreasonable here. Buyoya is right to keep trying to hand over power to Hutus, and Nkurunziza is right to say that the change is cosmetic so long as the army remains Tutsi. Even the Tutsi army officers are just trying to protect their own people in a terrifying situation they did not create. The new African Union is meeting its first challenge well — but it may all be in vain.

Most rural people in Burundi live in perpetual fear and misery, and the FDD is rapidly re-arming. It may soon be a match for the army in both firepower and discipline. “If the rebels launch a total assault (the Tutsi elite) would be completely cut off from Rwanda and Tanzania,” said a Western analyst based in Bujumbura. “This is the plan. It is a genocidal agenda.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Buyoya…country”;and “Nobody…vain”)