Former President Buyoya aims to make peace and unity a reality in Burundi

News and Press Release
Originally published
His political life spanned two of the most tumultuous decades in the history of Africa's Great Lakes region, but now former President of Burundi Pierre Buyoya is working to help secure a more peaceful future for his country. Since January, Buyoya has been a Watson Institute visiting senior fellow, writing a book about and advancing work on peace and democracy in Burundi.

Buyoya led his country for two terms from 1987 to 1993 and from 1996 to 2003. At that time, the Hutu represented 85 percent and the Tutsi 14 percent of Burundi's population. Although he sought in Burundi to establish power sharing between the Hutu and Tutsis, ethnic tensions raged during the decade, ultimately resulting in the Rwandan genocide and mass killings in Burundi. Buyoya was in power during the Arusha Peace Accords negotiation process from 1996 to 2000.

Recently, he discussed with Watson Institute writer/editor, Nancy Hamlin Soukup, the peace process and the foundation he established to facilitate democracy-building in Burundi.

NHS: President Buyoya, you have been at the center of Great Lakes politics for nearly two decades. Since the signing of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement five years ago, how has governance changed in Burundi?

PB: When I came into Burundian politics in 1987, we had a monoparty system; in fact, many African countries had similar styles of government. Despite attempts in the 1990s to create a more multiparty system, especially in Burundi, the Great Lakes region fell into terrific conflict and war with failed negotiations for peace. The result was that Burundians and others in the region began to design, or as I would say, "invent," their own democratic process.

The question for us has always been how to create a democratic system with two competing ethnic groups-Hutu and Tutsi-wherein one has a majority and the other a minority. The Arusha agreement is showing that two ethnic groups can engage in power sharing on all levels of government, from the parliament to the security system.

The system for doing this is very elaborate. For instance, the agreement dictates that when the president is a Hutu and the vice president is a Tutsi, no ethnic group in the parliament can have more than 60 percent of the seats. In the senate and security systems of our government, Hutu and Tutsi are represented equally, each with 50 percent. This is aspect of power sharing is special to Burundi.

Ultimately, my hope, and the hope of many Burundians, is to achieve genuine democratic governance in our country through this process.

NHS: Barbara Bodine, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, was recently to Brown to give a talk for the Watson Institute's Directors Lecture Series on Contemporary Series. At the time, she commented on the process of democratization especially in postconflict settings. Ambassador Bodine stressed that the United States, and the West as a whole, should certainly support and offer resources to emerging democracies but should not prescribe what form or shape democratic governance should take in these settings. What is your view on Western intervention in these matters?

PB: I agree completely with this view. The realities on the ground in Burundi, or in many countries in Africa, are somewhat different from the West. Instead, we should ask: What might democracy look like in a country such as Burundi? This question must be asked because our countries are very different from Europe and the United States. Independence for many African countries only occurred in the past 40 to 50 years. We are poor countries, and ethnicity plays an important role in our politics and society.

In 1990, Francois Mitterrand, then president of France, declared "democracy" for all of Africa, especially francophone Africa. It was a bold statement. At the time, many countries were rushing to democracy, but they were making mistakes and derailing the system. I think now we have learned lessons to avoid imposing strict models of democracy, but rather to support ongoing efforts in this direction. Let each country go at its own pace in this direction.

NHS: Could you reflect on the Rwandan genocide and the ethnic civil wars in your own country, and how the stark realities of these conflicts have shaped the political future of the Great Lakes region?

PB: In 1994, I was out of public life, working as a consultant with the World Bank, when the genocide occurred in Rwanda It was the extreme manifestation of the Hutu-Tutsi conflict. In Burundi, we experienced killings and massacres in 1965, 1972, and 1993 through 1998. Yet no one could imagine-even in Burundi-that this could happen on such a scale. We also were frightened that the genocide did not cross over our borders, and that was possible. The government at that time took a very tough position to avoid genocide across the border.

Of course, the goal of the genocide was to eliminate forever every Tutsi, and what was most disturbing is that it was planned and carried out by the Rwandan state structures at that time. How could a state plan to eliminate one whole segment of its own population?

The Rwandan genocide was a terrible and dramatic lesson for Burundians, showing us if we don't deal with our own politics-our ethnic divisions-genocide could happen here.

NHS: In addition to the immense human tragedies in the Great Lakes region, similar civil conflict has continued to erupt in West Africa. What is your prognosis for peace and stability in these countries?

PB: Stability in these countries and elsewhere on the continent is not achieved in one day. We have to remember that America was extremely destabilized early in its attempts at independence. Decolonization does not create a smooth transition to democratization. The path to nation building is fraught with problems over national identity, the integration of multiple groups, and bad management caused by colonial systems. In the end, I'm certain the countries of West Africa are going to overcome these problems. I'm against those who say that civil wars are endemic to Africa; therefore let us abandon our efforts there. I think it is some how normal to go through this period of destabilization, and we will achieve peace and stability.

NHS: Tell me more about your foundation to advance peace and reconciliation in Burundi.

PB: I am the president of the Foundation for Unity, Peace, and Democracy, which I founded in 1994. The foundation works in three areas. First, we are developing a study center for peace and reconciliation in Burundi and greater Africa by sponsoring lectures, seminars, and conferences. We have carried out studies on Burundian power sharing and our security systems, and we have engaged a civic education program in Burundi's primary and secondary schools. Yet, we need to investigate other areas more intensely, such as internally and externally displaced persons. Second, we are helping orphans and poor children to receive an education. This year alone, we have helped 5,000 children by giving them access to school materials. The "transit center for street children" takes abandoned children, particularly those living on the streets of our towns and cities, and brings them to centers for rehabilitation and reintegration into the schools. Finally, we are attempting to fight poverty through education by building vocational schools. Currently, three are under construction, and when completed, should enroll 500 to 800 students.

NHS: The foundation has an ambitious program.

PB: Yes, but I want to demonstrate that in Burundi-in Africa-if someone has been a president, he can step down and be useful to his country-to the society. I think this is the best way to promote democracy in Burundi. I hope that my activities and those of other former presidents will be a model to sitting presidents who are wondering what they will do when their terms are over.