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Burundi: Averting Another Rwanda

As Hutu-Tutsi violence rises, government and opposition try to negotiate a solution

BURUNDI, with the same volatile ethnic mix as neighboring Rwanda, is in danger of collapsing into a similar conflict, diplomats and government officials here say.

But as sporadic violence increases in this capital and some rural areas, the government and opposition politicians are meeting regularly to try to diffuse the crisis through negotiations.

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The minority Tutsis, who control the Army, and the majority Hutus, who control the presidency, are seeking to curb each other's power and the actions of supporters in hopes of avoiding more ethnic slaughter.

The military has recently shown signs of moderation, curbing efforts by militant Tutsi politicians to call a citywide strike and block traffic to protest some government actions.

What happens in the political meetings here is crucial to what happens elsewhere in Burundi. ``The signals from the meetings run out quickly to the rest of the country, for good or bad,'' says Jean Marie Ngendahayo, Burundi's foreign minister.

An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people were killed last year following the assassination of the country's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. Hutus went on a rampage of revenge, followed by a brutal crackdown by the Tutsi Army.

In recent weeks, as the political talks have dragged on, there has been an upsurge of violence: grenade attacks on a bus and an open market here; the killing of three local government officials; the murder of a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official in the north; and a clash between Hutus and Tutsis in a rural area, in which an estimated 200 people died.

Tutsi youth gangs have been goaded into acts of violence by militant Tutsi politicians, stoning cars and burning homes of those deemed supporters of the government, according to diplomats and government officials.

``This crisis is more than an ethnic one,'' says Ould Abdoullah, a Mauritanian who heads a two-man civilian UN team sent here last year to try to keep peace. ``It's ethnicity, personal ambitions, personal animosity, one-party mentality, and urban-elite mentality.''

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Ambassador Abdoullah is not optimistic. ``The experience of Rwanda is lingering in everyone's head,'' he says. Yet there is a ``real possibility'' Burundi could explode the way Rwanda did.

Not everyone is so pessimistic. ``I think we'll come out of this crisis,'' says Charles Mukasi, chairman of the mostly Tutsi Union for National Progress, the largest opposition party.

Mr. Mukasi, a Hutu, is encouraged that rival politicians are talking with one another instead of whipping up emotions that result in massacres. ``It's a new way of working in Burundi,'' he says.

Since becoming independent from Belgium more than three decades ago, Burundi has been a one-party state ruled by Tutsis. The Tutsis currently constitute only about 14 percent of the population.

Only last year, as pressures for democracy swept the continent, did President Pierre Buyoya organize a democratic, multiparty election. He lost and stepped down without a struggle.

The winner, Mr. Ndadaye, quickly moved to purge many Tutsis from government posts. He also signaled an open-door policy to large numbers of Hutu refugees living abroad - who had fled earlier massacres - encouraging them to return. Both moves rankled the Tutsis.

Ndadaye's assassination last October was the work of elements within the Army, according to all accounts, including an admission by the Army itself. No one has been arrested for the killing.

An interim president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, a Hutu from Ndadaye's party, was killed in a plane crash on April 6 along with the president of Rwanda. The current interim president, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, has been forced into political negotiations with the opposition prior to being confirmed as president. The Constitution is not clear on succession, which has become an issue in the negotiations.

So far, Mr. Ntibantunganya has acceded to most of the demands of the opposition, including appointment of more Tutsis to the Cabinet. But the opposition wants curbs on the powers, too.

``It's a question of life or death,'' says militant Tutsi politician Andre Birabuza, who accuses Hutu militants of smuggling arms into the country.

On Aug. 17, the Tutsi-led opposition demanded 60 percent of the key government posts and creation of a State Council that can moderate presidential decisions.

``We can't accept that,'' interim President Ntibantunganya said in a Monitor interview this week. ``It's an open challenge to the democratic elections of 1993.''

He accuses the Tutsi-led opposition of trying to ``recoup their power'' lost in the elections. (The Hutus also won 80 percent of the seats in parliament last year.)

A Western diplomat says the efforts to curb the power of the Hutu president would amount to a coup dtat by the Tutsis, if implemented.

Foreign Minister Ngendahayo says the international community can help by continuing to send high-level officials here for visits. Both sides say they would welcome more UN civilian observers, but not UN troops.

Another UN official here says it's ``too simple'' to accuse the West of sitting by while Burundi heads to a potential disaster.

The finger of responsibility for solving the crisis the official says, ``needs to be redirected to the people in this very country.''

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