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Kubura Shinge na Rugero: Failure to Prevent Ethnic Conflict and Future Violence in Burundi

This paper was written by Jocelyn Young for IWP’s course on “Mass Murder Prevention in Failed and Failing States” (IWP 649). Jocelyn is a master’s student in IWP’s Statecraft and International Affairs program specializing in conflict prevention and how to counter violent extremism around the world.

Nestled by the shores of Lake Tanganyika, the small nation of Burundi has long struggled to become the republic it has so fiercely desired to be. Bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the small East African nation came to be through similar means as the rest of the African continent. Under colonial rule first by Germany and later by Belgium, Burundi did not gain its independence until the 1960s, at which point an unstable monarchy claimed power.[1] The monarchy was short-lived, however, as it was soon overthrown to make way for several tumultuous changes.[2] Despite a number of auspicious starts, the nation seemed destined to face challenges throughout its existence.

Political instability has marked a great deal of Burundi’s history since its independence. Violence has been particularly prevalent when such strife has also concerned relations between the nation’s two largest ethnic groups – the Hutu (85%) and Tutsi (14%).[3] In more recent history alone, the assassination of the first democratically elected president (a Hutu) sparked a brutal civil war that raged through most of the 1990s and into the early 2000s.[4] Peace accords officially ended the war and allowed for democratic elections in 2005, but since then have been largely left behind as the electoral system has grown less trustworthy and the country becomes more and more unstable.[5] Nearly half a million people have fled the rising conflict in Burundi, even as citizens of neighboring countries like Rwanda and the DRC rush in to avoid conflicts in their own home countries.[6] With land and resources already scarce, the tensions resulting from the flows of refugees and existing ethnic strife continue to worsen.[7] If Burundi’s history is any indicator of the nation’s near future, the people, leadership, and international actors should be gravely concerned about the current course of events.

Burundi was initially a colony titled Ruanda-Urundi – encompassing territory now belonging to modern-day Rwanda and Burundi.[8] Under the control of German colonizers, ethnic tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi people began to ignite as the colonizers favored the Tutsis and thus placed them in puppet positions of power over the Hutu.[9] Discrimination and oppression became part of daily life. For example, in what is now Rwanda, Hutus were required to submit to forced labor from which Tutsis were exempt.[10] Such segregation was far removed from the region’s historical hierarchies and practices. Prior to the colonization of the area, the social dynamics of Hutus and Tutsis were considerably more dynamic in nature. First and most notably, the Hutu and Tutsi ethnicities had blended over the decades through marriage and related families, despite what colonizers saw as strictly distinct groups.[11] Though ethnicity was still noted, status as a cattle owner or farmer mattered just as much with regard to the social hierarchy.[12] Additionally, though the region was loyal to a Tutsi ruler, that loyalty was shared by lower Tutsi officials as well as Hutu land chiefs.[13] Greater rigidity was imposed as Germans took power and gave local control to the Tutsis in their absence.[14] This began what was soon to escalate into unadulterated ethnic oppression and, ultimately, genocide.

In 1916, Burundi endured another invasion – this time by Belgium – and shortly thereafter become a colony to yet another imperial force.[15] The new Belgian powers made no attempt to hide their ethnic favoritism. What anti-Hutu laws the Germans had left in place were doubled by efforts to further empower the Tutsi minority. As enforcement, the Belgians assigned identification cards to easily identify Hutus from Tutsis.[16] They also highlighted ethnic divisions by assigning new definitions of what it meant to be Hutu or Tutsi by examining each person’s ancestry and, if that provided no clarification as to ethnic heritage, by how many cows a person owned (at least ten were required to be considered a Tutsi).[17] Such rules made it impossible to be of mixed descent or for any Hutu to rise to the status of a Tutsi. As Hutus were more severely subjugated than ever before, Tutsis received all the benefits of a ruling class – including security and better education.[18] An overthrow of this heinous way of life was nearly inevitable.

The Rwandan system of oppression shattered in the 1950s, as Hutu factions began violently fighting back against the inequality that had long been forced onto them.[19] It is quite likely that this violence had brewed through the generations as systemic injustice took its toll. Hutu extremists committed horrendous atrocities against many of the Tutsis still living in the Rwandan nation.[20] In an effort to stabilize what was still a protectorate of the Belgian nation, the Belgians backed the Hutu overthrow – leading to a chaotic reversal of national power.[21] Conceivably, this attempt might have been to right past wrongs against the Hutu, but the wound had been left to fester too long for such an action to slow the inertia gained by Hutu extremists. Tutsis fled the nation as a matter of survival.[22] Many of them fled to Burundi, where the Tutsis rule continued – for now.[23]

As Burundi gained its independence from Belgium in 1962, there were hopes that it might be the more successful of the two former Belgian protectorates.[24] However, as the world now knows, ethnic conflict does not stop at post-colonial borders. The consequences of the unrest in Rwanda caused Burundi to plunge into chaos almost immediately. Two-thirds of the nation’s first prime ministers were assassinated as it rushed through seven turbulent changes of government.[25] By the latter half of the 1960s, there had already been a military coup by Hutu officers which led to a retaliation from Tutsi leaders who purged and executed nearly all Hutu members of the army and government.[26] Almost expectedly, this led to a reprisal by Burundi’s Hutu population only a few years later. In 1972, a Hutu uprising against the Tutsi-dominated government was met with such overwhelming ferocity that nearly 200,000 Hutu were massacred and 200,000 more escaped to Rwanda.[27] This level of violence had become an ingrained pattern by this point in the nation’s history and seemed to have become the learned response to any rise in ethnic tension. In 1988, more violence against Hutus occurred in the northern provinces, sparking calls for government reform in the hopes that this might prevent further atrocities.[28] Some changes were made as a response, shining a glimmer of hope onto decades of devastation. The Burundian constitution was altered to allow for multi-party elections in an effort to facilitate greater Hutu representation in government.[29] The reform proved to be a success. In 1993, a member of the Hutu dominated FRODEBU party (The Front for Democracy in Burundi), Melchoir Ndadaye, became the first democratically elected president in the nation’s history.[30]

The election appeared to start a new chapter in Burundi. Democracy seemed to have flourished even after decades of bloody struggle. There had even been a remarkably peaceful transition of power from the previous Tutsi president to Ndadaye.[31] The hope for Burundi’s future was short-lived, though, as, later that same year, Tutsi soldiers murdered Ndadaye, along with a score of other high-level Hutu officials.[32] Hutus across Burundi massacred Tutsis in response, causing the mass murder of 800,000 civilians.[33] In response to the killings, the Tutsi military began systematically wiping out all Hutu opposition, claiming they were taking revenge, but killing Hutus even in areas that saw no Tutsi murders.[34] This form of vengeance would spark a civil war that would last for a decade and ultimately touch every soul within Burundi’s borders.

By 1996, the government demanded a restoration of order, but it had little effect as the Tutsi military and Hutu opposition continued in a cycle of ethnic violence, avenging each egregious act the other side committed against them.[35] In response to the continuation of hostilities, border nations enacted an embargo against the Burundian government – believing it to be the best way to encourage reform.[36] However, these efforts were deeply misguided and ill-informed. Burundi’s already-fragile economy crumpled with the implementation of the embargo, only adding to the ruinous circumstances that clouded the lives of all Burundians.[37] By the end of the 20th century, nearly every Burundian had experienced some form of ethnic violence.[38] In total, it is estimated that the conflict alone – not including the mass murders leading to it – took 300,000 lives and led to the exodus of nearly 1.2 million people.[39] Taken all together with the mass murders that led to the civil war as well, it is likely that the number of unjust killings totaled well over a million.

It took both time and immense measures of patience and fortitude to end the war and brutality. Peace accords – now dubbed the Arusha Accords – were signed at last in the early 2000s after years of trying peace talks.[40] The Accords ceased the violence through demobilization of both sides and provided a clear governing framework with which the country was meant to rebuild in an equitable manner.[41] In 2005, it was concluded that the civil war had officially ended as the newly-elected multi-party government came to power.[42] After peaceful transitions from two intermediary presidents, President Pierre Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel and son of a Tutsi mother, symbolized another hopeful beginning for Burundi.[43]

Another decade later, Burundi still felt the residual effects of its twelve-year civil war. While Nkurunziza emerged as a beacon of chance and promise after the finalization of the Arusha Accords in the early 2000s, his initial reforms like the abolishment of the death penalty were followed by his administration’s own extrajudicial killings, torture, unchecked corruption, and the intimidation of and attacks on journalists.[44] While these actions have become more commonplace, Nkurunziza and his party have become less and less accountable. His party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), began consolidating power after the 2010 election.[45] This allowed them new reigns of command that would continue to spiral out of control. Nkurunziza began restricting civil space and attacking the independent judiciary as his thirst for domination grew.[46] He then began attempts to alter the constitution that would weaken power-sharing among the branches of government and ethnic groups mandated by the Arusha Accords.[47]

In 2015, his clear desire for unchecked power reared its head. As the next election cycle neared, Nkurunziza made it clear that he would not only stand for a third term, but that he would do so by any means necessary.[48] Rising Hutu nationalism coupled with Nkurunzia’s blatant disregard for the Arusha Accords sparked protests across the country, which were met with ruthless crackdowns on the part of the government.[49] A failed coup followed, as did numerous murders in the wake of the disruption – current estimates suggest that from 2015 to 2019 alone there were 1,700 killings.[50] The violence has been endemic and pervasive.

One of the main actors in the recent spike has been the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD party, the Imbonerakure.[51] Though the group began as an electioneering campaign, it soon turned violent after Nkurunziza sought a third term and has begun operating as an informal, state-directed militia for any opposition the CNDD-FDD might face.[52] An example of the influence of extremism on state-contracted violence and young people, the group operates outside of the law with no consequences. Committing atrocities with impunity, the group recruits some who are ideologically aligned with their mission, but many others are forced to participate or risk their lives.[53] As it has grown, it has only become more powerful and influential. In fact, a former Imbonerakure leader was recently appointed as the head of the state broadcasting station, RTNB, as part of Nkurunziza’s crackdown on the free press.[54]

Though the rest of the world has begun to notice, little could be done while Nkurunziza stonewalled foreign intervention. His administration had done everything in its power to prevent outside eyes from seeing the violence that is escalating inside the country – going so far as to declare foreign diplomats personae non grata and withdrawing from the Rome Statute in an attempt to block an ICC investigation.[55] Each step has led Burundi closer and closer to its tipping point.

However, in a shocking turn of events, another opportunity for Burundi to change course presented itself this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. President Nkurunziza died suddenly of what the government claimed was a heart attack, though many believe it was due to complications from COVID-19, which Nkurunziza had downplayed.[56] Though elections had taken place and named Evariste Ndayishimiye the successor, the nation’s fate remained unclear until Ndayishimiye assumed the role of the president in an emergency ceremony shortly after Nkurunziza’s death.[57] In a statement while taking his oath, Ndayishimiye promised that he “will not fail the unity charter, the constitution and other laws, will uphold unity among Burundians, peace and justice for all, [and] fight the ideology of genocide and discrimination.”[58] Though a hopeful statement, the nation and world still hold their breath to see whether this will truly present itself as a turning point for Burundi. Ndayishimiye has a similar background to Nkurunziza and belongs to the same party which continues to support violence and the murder of its own citizens.[59]

Current assessments indicate that more than 300,000 people have already fled the country since the new outbreak of violence in 2015.[60] Once outside of Burundian borders, though, many of these people remain unsafe. Recent reports have said that Tanzanian police forces and secret Imbonerakure factions continue to harass and torture those who have fled.[61] In addition, leaked documents show that Burundi’s government made a secret deal with Tanzania to coerce Burundian refugees back into the country – voluntarily or otherwise – forcing many to flee further to Uganda.[62] Even those who have left the nation still face the wrath of Nkurunziza’s policies – which Ndayishimiye has yet to change.

The new president has a history of enacting vicious crackdowns himself – so notable are his practices, in fact, that the EU and the U.S. have already placed sanctions on him.[63] This, combined with his lack of action to prevent further atrocities on those fleeing the nation, does not inspire confidence in the near future of Burundi. It is likely that a change in presidential leadership will not be enough to alter the course of Burundi’s history. A 2019 UN Commission report found that his entire party is guilty of “summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, sexual violence, and forced disappearances.”[64] There have also been other reports of the government spreading ethnic-based propaganda while opposition militia groups have begun training for some form of confrontation – both key factors in the country’s past conflicts and in the lead up to the Rwandan genocide.[65] Information on all of these events is only getting more difficult to obtain as well. One independent media station has even been bombed in response to its reporting.[66] The lack of reliable information makes it especially difficult to track the circumstances of citizens still living within Burundi’s borders. There have been a number of reports that young men around the nation have been rounded up and placed in squalid prisons with no due process.[67] As the situation grows more dire, one cannot help but notice how the present day echoes conflicts past and appears to be signaling that far worse is yet to come.

Prevention of further escalation and a complete walk back of destructive policies implemented over the past decade is the only hope for Burundi and its people. The process will require the revamping of and realignment with the Arusha Accords, which have already provided a working roadmap for the nation.[68] The peace process must also include all voices – even those that have been exiled by recent administrations.[69] Members of the Imbonerakure should be reabsorbed into society and be part of the path forward as well, once the group has been disbanded as a violent organization. Among many more dynamic and complex steps, perhaps the most important is international oversight and investment. The world has seen what can happen when international actors turn a blind eye to the signs pointing to genocide through our experience with Rwanda. To open the door to greater international intervention, one step must be for international aid organizations to reclassify Burundi as a post-conflict country so that it receives the help it needs to reverse course.[70] Once encouraged from the outside, aid organizations and foreign powers can begin their work by deescalating the hostility toward international aid. Though larger and more widespread changes will be challenging, if not impossible, to implement in the midst of the current instability, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increasing chance of another Ebola outbreak, foreign nations should and must keep pressure on the Burundian government.[71] The world must also be more ready and more willing to act than it has in the past when presented with reports of genocide. As the people of Burundi cry out, nations around the globe must answer the call.


[1] “The World Factbook: Burundi,” Central Intelligence Agency (Central Intelligence Agency, February 1, 2018),

[2] “The World Factbook: Burundi”

[3] “The World Factbook: Burundi” and “Burundi — Ethnic Groups,” East Africa Living Encyclopedia (African Studies Center: University of Pennsylvania), accessed December 17, 2020,

[4] “The World Factbook: Burundi”

[5] “The World Factbook: Burundi”

[6] “The World Factbook: Burundi”

[7] “The World Factbook: Burundi”

[8] Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent since Independence (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2011).

[9] Meredith

[10] Meredith

[11] Meredith

[12] Meredith

[13] Meredith

[14] Meredith

[15] “Burundi Country Profile,” BBC News (BBC, June 24, 2020),

[16] Meredith

[17] Meredith

[18] Meredith

[19] Meredith

[20] Meredith

[21] Meredith

[22] Meredith

[23] Meredith

[24] Meredith and “Burundi Country Profile”

[25] Meredith

[26] Meredith

[27] Meredith

[28] “Modern Conflicts: Conflict Profile – Burundi (1993-2006),” Modern Conflicts (University of Massachusetts: Political Economy Research Institute), accessed December 7, 2020,

[29] “Modern Conflicts: Conflict Profile – Burundi (1993-2006)”

[30] “Modern Conflicts: Conflict Profile – Burundi (1993-2006)”

[31] “Burundi: Human Rights Developments,” Human Rights Watch (Human Rights Watch), accessed December 8, 2020,

[32] “Burundi: Human Rights Developments”

[33] “Burundi: Human Rights Developments” and “Modern Conflicts: Conflict Profile – Burundi (1993-2006)”

[34] “Modern Conflicts: Conflict Profile – Burundi (1993-2006)”

[35] “Burundi: Human Rights Developments”

[36] “Burundi: Human Rights Developments”

[37] “Burundi: Human Rights Developments”

[38] “Burundi: Human Rights Developments”

[39] “Modern Conflicts: Conflict Profile – Burundi (1993-2006)”

[40] Modern Conflicts: Conflict Profile – Burundi (1993-2006)”

[41] Modern Conflicts: Conflict Profile – Burundi (1993-2006)”

[42] Modern Conflicts: Conflict Profile – Burundi (1993-2006)”

[43] Paul Nantulya , “Burundi, the Forgotten Crisis, Still Burns,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies (Africa Center for Strategic Studies, September 24, 2020), and Sherman Hollar, “Pierre Nkurunziza,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.), accessed December 8, 2020,

[44] “Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza Death Ends Repressive Era,” Amnesty International, June 17, 2020,

[45] “Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza Death Ends Repressive Era”

[46] “Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza Death Ends Repressive Era”

[47] “Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza Death Ends Repressive Era”

[48] “Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza Death Ends Repressive Era”

[49] Nantulya

[50] Nantulya

[51] Hilary Matfess, “Impunity, the Imbonerakure, and Instability in Burundi,” ACLED (ACLED, February 25, 2020),

[52] Matfess and “Burundi’s Imbonerakure Leader Named Head of RTNB,” BBC News (BBC, July 14, 2019),

[53] Matfess and Gregory Warner, “Above The Law, A Militia Threatens To Push Burundi To The Brink,” NPR (NPR, July 7, 2015),

[54] “Burundi’s Imbonerakure Leader Named Head of RTNB”

[55] “Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza Death Ends Repressive Era”

[56] “Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza Dies of ‘Cardiac Arrest’ at 55,” BBC News (BBC, June 9, 2020),

[57] “Burundi’s Imbonerakure Leader Named Head of RTNB”

[58] “Burundi’s Evariste Ndayishimiye Is Sworn in as President,” BBC News (BBC, June 18, 2020),

[59] “Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza Death Ends Repressive Era” and “Tanzania’s Police Are Torturing Refugees from Burundi,” The Economist (The Economist Newspaper, December 3, 2020),

[60] “Tanzania’s Police Are Torturing Refugees from Burundi”

[61] “Tanzania’s Police Are Torturing Refugees from Burundi”

[62] “Tanzania’s Police Are Torturing Refugees from Burundi”

[63] “Tanzania’s Police Are Torturing Refugees from Burundi”

[64] Nantulya

[65] Emma Graham Harrison, “The World Looks Away as Blood Flows in Burundi,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, April 10, 2016),

[66] Graham Harrison

[67] Graham Harrison

[68] Nantulya

[69] Nantulya

[70] “The World Factbook: Burundi”

[71] Nina Wilén, “Burundi on the Brink Again? Identifying Risks before the 2020 Elections,” EGMONT (EGMONT Royal Institute for International Relations, October 2019),


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“Burundi — Ethnic Groups.” East Africa Living Encyclopedia. African Studies Center: University of Pennsylvania. Accessed December 17, 2020.

“Burundi’s Evariste Ndayishimiye Is Sworn in as President.” BBC News. BBC, June 18, 2020.

“Burundi: Human Rights Developments.” Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch. Accessed December 8, 2020.

“Burundi’s Imbonerakure Leader Named Head of RTNB.” BBC News. BBC, July 14, 2019.

“Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza Death Ends Repressive Era.” Amnesty International, June 17, 2020.

“Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza Dies of ‘Cardiac Arrest’ at 55.” BBC News. BBC, June 9, 2020.

Graham Harrison, Emma. “The World Looks Away as Blood Flows in Burundi.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 10, 2016.

Hollar, Sherman. “Pierre Nkurunziza.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed December 8, 2020.

Matfess , Hilary. “Impunity, the Imbonerakure, and Instability in Burundi.” ACLED. ACLED, February 25, 2020.

Meredith, Martin. The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent since Independence. New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2011.

“Modern Conflicts: Conflict Profile – Burundi (1993-2006).” Modern Conflicts. University of Massachusetts: Political Economy Research Institute. Accessed December 7, 2020.

Nantulya, Paul. “Burundi, the Forgotten Crisis, Still Burns.” Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Africa Center for Strategic Studies, September 24, 2020.

“Tanzania’s Police Are Torturing Refugees from Burundi.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, December 3, 2020.

Warner, Gregory. “Above The Law, A Militia Threatens To Push Burundi To The Brink.” NPR. NPR, July 7, 2015.

Wilén, Nina. “Burundi on the Brink Again? Identifying Risks before the 2020 Elections.” EGMONT. EGMONT Royal Institute for International Relations, October 2019.

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