Crisis Profile: Can peace take root in war-weary Burundi?

News and Press Release
Originally published
Burundi is one of Africa's most densely populated countries and the scene of a long and brutal civil war between the Hutu majority and dominant Tutsi minority. But following successful elections in the summer of 2005, many are hopeful that the country is finally on the road to lasting peace.
Even so, the new government faces immense challenges. A rebel group is still active near the capital Bujumbura, many soldiers and former rebels are still armed, the country is experiencing chronic food shortages and there are thousands of returning refugees in need of food and land. Peace in Burundi is still very fragile.

So who won the elections?

A former powerful rebel group, the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD), won the parliamentary elections. Despite its origins as a Hutu group fighting the mainly Tutsi army during the civil war, it says its first priority is to bring reconciliation.

It claims to have rapidly recruited Tutsis since becoming a political party. It also says it wants to bring security, which will mean negotiating with the last active rebel group, the National Liberation Forces, a Hutu group and up to now a bitter rival of the FDD.

The elections - only the second democratic elections in the country's troubled history - took place amid tight security and the threat of rebel attacks. They were divided into two stages: district council elections and national assembly elections. The president is due to be elected in August 2005.

The last time Burundi went to the polls, in 1993, the newly elected Hutu president was ousted by the Tutsi-dominated army, triggering more than 10 years of civil war that killed at least 300,000 people, most of them civilians.

What will prevent civil war from breaking out again?

Since 2001, Burundi has been ruled by a power-sharing government. A ceasefire has more or less held since 2003 when the main rebel army, the FDD, joined the government.

In April 2005, Burundians voted overwhelmingly for a new power-sharing constitution, which many hope will help maintain the peace. Under the new constitution, the presidency and 60 per cent of the national assembly is given to the Hutus and 40 per cent of the national assembly to the Tutsis.

The FDD party has more Tutsi officials than other Hutu parties, and this may also help to ease tensions between the two communities.

But with the National Liberation Forces still active and involved in pre-election violence that killed at least 18 people, the nation's road to peace is by no means guaranteed. Although the NLF signed an agreement with the interim government in May 2005 to end hostilities, attacks have continued. The UN has maintained its 5,600 peacekeeping soldiers in Burundi.

What are the other threats to peace?

Thousands of soldiers and former rebels remain armed. In May 2005, there were an estimated 250,000 small arms still in circulation. There are regular reports of armed men attacking villages and feeding centres in search of food.

What was Burundi's conflict about?

Ethnic differences explain part, but not all of the animosities in Burundi's civil war. In Burundi there have been power struggles between Hutus and the Tutsi minority. Another minority tribe - the Twa, perjoratively called "pygmies" - also suffer massive discrimination.

Prior to independence, colonialists privileged the minority Tutsis and exaggerated ethnic differences. In reality, there has been extensive intermarriage between Hutus and Tutsis. People from both tribes have crossed borders fleeing massacres at various times.

German colonial rulers merged Burundi and Rwanda into a single country called Rwanda-Urundi in 1899. Belgium took over after World War One, separated the countries and merged Burundi with Congo, which later became Zaire and is now Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tutsis have controlled government most of the time since independence in 1962. The civil war started in 1993 when elements in the Tutsi-dominated army ousted a Hutu president - after he had won the country's first free elections.

All the forces in the civil war and those involved in the ongoing fighting between the FNL and the army outside the capital have committed grave human rights violations, killing and raping civilians and pillaging their property.

So how will the country come to terms with its past?

Burundi's government and the United Nations have agreed to set up a truth and reconciliation commission and war crimes court. The commission will examine the causes of Burundi's decades of ethnic tensions and compile a list of people suspected of genocide and war crimes. The suspects will be tried by the new court.

What is the current food situation?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated two million Burundians - a quarter of the population - will need food aid in 2005. This is a 40 per cent rise on 2004 because of a severe drought last year.

The food emergency has steadily worsened ever since civil war broke out in 1993. The economy has been crippled, and continued insecurity has limited people's ability to farm.

Food shortages are particularly acute in the north, northeast and central provinces, areas traditionally regarded as Burundi's food basket. Families have already resorted to selling their livestock and other assets, including the roofs of their houses. Many have left their homes in search of casual labour or alternative sources of food.

How many refugees have returned?

In 2004, an estimated 90,000 mainly Hutu refugees returned to Burundi from Tanzania. Some had been away for up to 20 years. They now need food and land. The land issue is complicated by the fact that some want to return to their original land, which in most cases has been farmed by other people for years.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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