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Last Updated: 07/14/2003
Diary from Burundi
Athanase Karayenga

The author reflects on the recent peace process in Burundi and its shortcomings and calls for an international criminal tribunal.


In June 1993, after the very first Burundi democratic elections since May 1965, which saw a Hutu president being elected, the future of the country seemed to many as bright and promising.  For many others, Mechior Ndadaye’s election was a bad omen. With the threat of possible violent confrontation between Hutu community supporting the elected president and Tutsi community supporting Pierre Buyoya who was defeated although he had been in power and had organised the whole democratic elections.


It was unusual for an African leader to lose elections organised by his government, to step down freely and to hand over the power to his successor. The international community  involved in Burundi democratic process, both in terms of funding and supervising the elections was praising Burundi and the country was even presented by international media as a possible model for other African countries.


The nightmare started only after three months of effective presidency of the newly elected Head of State. Mechior Ndadaye was assassinated, on 21st October 1993, by a group of soldiers from the national army dominated by Tutsi High Officers. Several high ranking officials from the new administration were also murdered. Therefore, the promised democratic paradise was destroyed by these horrible political massacres.


In retaliation, officials from FRODEBU, Ndadaye’s political party, organised massive killings of Tutsi and Hutu community members as a means of revenging the assassinated president. Later, a commission was sent down to Burundi by the United Nations Security Council in order to investigate on these massacres throughout the country. The UN commission produced an official report (S/1996/682) where it is clearly stated that these massive killings were actually “acts of genocide”.


Since October 1993, “Burundi annus horribilis”, the country is running after political solutions to curve down violence, to put an end to the civil war, to put up a government accepted by all and to address the real issues of poverty eradication, of education and health for all, among others major concerns.


The international community has been very active in this desperate search for a lasting peace in Burundi. Political negociations between Hutu and Tutsi political factions were initially moderated by Julius Nyerere, former Tanzania president. After his death, Nelson Mandela, the World Icon, took over the position of Burundi peace negotiations moderator. Finally, a peace agreement was reached between G7 (Hutu political parties) and G10 (Tutsi political parties) in Arusha, North of Tanzania.


Since then, transitional institutions comprising a government, a national assembly, a senate have been put in place. A transitional constitution organises a sharing power system between Hutu and Tutsi at all levels of Burundi administration and more specifically in the national army. Most of Hutu and Tutsi factions have signed this peace agreement brokered under the auspices of South Africa and generously funded by the international community. The process has the blessing of the United Nations, European Union, USA, African Union and of neighbouring countries in the African Great Lakes region.


Nevertheless, a number of political organisations  and associations are opposed to the Arusha peace process. Two main Hutu rebel factions are even still fighting the government although after a first term with a Tutsi heading the state, a Hutu president is now chairing the government for a second  term of 18 months. Bujumbura, the capital city, has recently been shelled, with heavy mortar bullets, by one of these Hutu rebel factions and many people have lost their lives during these rebel attacks. This Hutu rebel faction is claiming that the actual Hutu president be removed so that “real peace negotiations” can resume again between Hutu and Tutsi.


This appears to be the first Burundi paradox. Indeed several Hutu rebel factions have been fighting since ten years against national army  accused of being Tutsi dominated in order to restore democracy and to put up new institutions from which Hutu wouldn’t be excluded in the future. But Hutu are now included at all levels of  the administration and the army in process of being restructured. And yet no peace,  at last, for the country !


On the other hand Arusha peace agreement has been built on the principle of ethnic balance in power sharing. A Burundi politician can claim to be part of the national assembly, of the senate or to become minister in the government only because he was born Hutu or Tutsi and provided he is supported by a hutu or a tutsi political party.


Somehow, Burundi power sharing system is installing a political “apartheid” system. And yet the Arusha system has been supported by international donors and has absorbed a tremendous amount of money paid for by the international community traumatised by Rwanda genocide. What a paradox !


The international community is putting pressure only on the power sharing process between Hutu and Tutsi and is preaching for reconciliation without justice. Burundi power sharing process actually is a power sharing process among criminal accomplices. Some Tutsi politicians are hiding behind the Arusha peace agreement so that Ndadaye’s assassins would never be brought again to justice. On the other hand, several Hutu politicians are hoping to buy time and obtain temporary immunity for “acts of genocide” perpetuated in 1993. Hoping that they would never come to justice neither. Actually, temporary immunity leads to amnesty and to impunity. Unacceptable !


Since there is no recognition of the rights for victims of these crimes against humanity, war crimes and political murders in the Arusha peace process, it is feared no  reconciliation will ever be possible in Burundi. Unless fair justice is applied, victims sufferings recognised and compensations considered.


The only way to achieve an ever-lasting peace will be through a special International Criminal Tribunal for Burundi like the court put in place in Sierra Leone. For many Burundians, this Tribunal would be the best way to clear criminal files and would act as an immediate deterrent against actual war-mongers like Charles Taylor in Liberia. Otherwise, peace without Justice in Burundi will just be yet another mirage.


For the latest situation, showing signs of serious deterioration 14 July 2003 see:

Athanase Karayenga, a citizen of Burundi, is a journalist and sociologist, and international communications consultant currently based in Geneva.