Burundi’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), created in 2014 to assuage ethnic animosities between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi, has since sparked controversy. Development and Cooperation says Tutsi politicians still accuse members of the TRC of being too biased in their investigations into Burundi’s troubled past. The TRC has uncovered over 4,000 mass graves so far, most of which contain mostly Hutu victims of the 1972 genocide. massacred in 1993.
These accusations are not baseless. The CVR is made up of members affiliated with the ruling Hutu-dominated CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy) party. Panel members also had various personal and professional ties to Hutu President Pierre Nkurunziza, who died of COVID-19 in 2020. Some Tutsis called out the TRC for failing to examine Nkurunziza’s ruthless crackdown on dissent after an attempted coup of state in 2015. Human Rights Watch said the government regularly harassed suspected opponents, suspended independent radio stations, and shut down human rights groups.
Fortunately, President Évariste Ndayishimiye did not inherit all of Nkurunziza’s autocratic tendencies. However, the international community is also to blame for exacerbating Bujumbura’s siege mentality. The African Union’s warmongering and coercive diplomacy, according to Nina Wilén, alienated the Nkurunziza regime after the 2015 crackdown. UN officials also point out that Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) harbor insurgents attacking Burundi.
Jeff Drumtra, a former UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) employee who helped Burundian refugees in Rwanda, told The San Francisco Bay View in 2015 that Rwandan soldiers, police and intelligence services recruited and trained refugees (often against their will) to fight for “rebel forces” seeking to overthrow Nkurunziza. Two years later, other UN investigations suggested that Burundian rebel groups like RED-Tabara (Resistance Movement for the Rule of Law) or FOREBU (Republican Forces of Burundi) were collaborating with the Congolese army. and were using Congolese territory as a springboard to launch incursions into Burundi, according to African Arguments.
Foreign states, by aiding and abetting anti-Nkurunziza guerrillas, have fanned the fires of authoritarianism and ethnic tension in Burundi, deliberately or not. As a result, the embattled CNDD-FDD, which continues to face destabilizing rebel attacks, intermittently hostile neighbors, growing domestic opposition and growing poverty, has instrumentalized the TRC to bolster its waning popularity within the Hutu majority.
Tutsi politicians must give TRC investigators more time to uncover atrocities committed by both ethnicities over many decades, despite blatant bias. Pierre Claver Ndayicariye, president of the CVR, denied the allegations of selective exhumations. He told The New Humanitarian that forensic teams are digging up mass graves dating back to 1972, for now, as the survivors and perpetrators won’t be alive for very long. Journalist Désiré Nimubona added that people simply refuse to disclose information about mass graves – even those containing murdered relatives – either out of hatred of the TRC or fear of reprisals. An endemic reluctance to face the past prevents the TRC from completing its work.
Central African expert René Lemarchand has extensively documented the seemingly endless horrors that plagued Burundi in the late 20and century. In 1972, the Tutsi-dominated military dictatorship unleashed a genocidal purge in response to a brief but bloody Hutu insurgency. President Michel Micombero, fearing an imminent European mercenary invasion and the possibility of another Rwandan-style Hutu revolution that could permanently overthrow the Tutsi regime, encouraged soldiers and brigades of young extremists to eliminate almost all educated Hutus. A refugee remembers with regret: “In my clan, there were teachers, medical assistants, agronomists… Among those who were educated, it is only me who remains. Specialists estimate that between 100,000 and 300,000 Hutus were exterminated in a few months and that hundreds of thousands of others fled to neighboring countries.
Micombero and his successors institutionalized Tutsi supremacy after the genocide and systematically excluded Hutus from the civil service, army and universities. A tiny Tutsi clique, supposedly devoted to egalitarian and leftist principles, amassed wealth and power while discrimination, hardship, illiteracy and disease destroyed countless lives. The corrupt and paranoid Bagaza regime herded farmers into sweltering “villages” during the 1980s to police unruly rural populations. Meanwhile, the UPRONA (Union for National Progress) party promoted secularism to undermine the Catholic Church and to prevent literacy classes run by missionaries from educating young Hutus.
In 1988, desperate Hutus, driven mad by relentless marginalization, oppression and lingering trauma, began howling in anger. Hutu militiamen, petrified of another “1972” after being provoked by vilified Tutsi officials and notables, indiscriminately massacred hundreds of innocent Tutsi. The soldiers again responded mercilessly: around 15,000 Hutus were killed. Amnesty International reported that “troops were engaged…in reprisals targeting the entire Hutu civilian population”.
An even greater tragedy unfolded five years later. Democratic elections in 1993 brought Burundi’s first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, to power. Yet supremacist Tutsi soldiers, fiercely opposed to any liberalization, soon assassinated Ndadaye and many members of his administration. Thousands of Tutsis paid a terrible price. Wandering bands of furious Hutus massacred women, children and entire families with impunity and pledged allegiance to rebel groups. Military governors, in a disastrous attempt to control a rapidly escalating insurgency, confined an estimated 350,000 civilians in what journalist Chris McGreal called “unfenced concentration camps.” The civil war ended in 2006 and claimed 300,000 lives and displaced more than a million people.
What needs to be done to turn a polarizing CRT into a productive experience that can benefit all Burundians? As human rights activist and researcher Huma Saeed asserts, “If one does not have access to shelter or medical care when needed, the right to truth and accountability, among other civil and political rights, may seem like a luxury”. In a country where 52% of children are chronically malnourished, according to the World Food Programme, Burundi’s TRC should proactively advocate and campaign for sweeping social and economic reforms that would only improve the lives of victims today. today. Moreover, they should campaign for those who are likely to prevent further outbreaks of ethnic discord. People put basic needs first and the TRC must do the same to ensure a peaceful future.
Burundians also do not want the TRC to deliver punitive justice. Patrick Hajayandi, project manager at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, found in a study covering three provinces that many respondents preferred to forgive rather than punish perpetrators. The TRC must also avoid creating what transitional justice scholar Simon Robins calls “a hierarchy of victimization,” with Hutu grievances taking precedence over those of Tutsi. Pierre Ndayicariye and his colleagues must respond to urgent local requests for memorials, commemorations and reburials. The TRC will only win the approval, trust and respect of suspicious communities if they listen carefully to what people now want and expect.
Moreover, authorities in Brussels must finally acknowledge that Belgium is largely responsible for engineering the ethnic antagonisms that have ravaged Burundi since the early 1960s. The Belgian colonialists, who annexed the territories formerly known as from Ruanda-Urundi to a defeated German Empire after the First World War, transformed Burundi into a totalitarian and feudal society. Economists and historians like Arthur Blouin, Aidan Russell, Alexandre Hatungimana, Bonaventure Karikumutima and Jean-Étienne Bidou have demonstrated how Belgian administrations pitted Tutsi or princely “Ganwa” leaders against the predominantly Hutu peasantry. Governors and missionaries, inspired by racist pseudoscientific theories, categorized Burundians based on their physique or status to divide and conquer a restless indigenous population, thus laying the groundwork for inter-ethnic violence.
Tyrannical leaders like Pierre Baranyanka, on behalf of Belgian overlords, pressured their subjects to convert subsistence farms into coffee plantations through brutal forced labor. Workers endured daily humiliations and barbaric corporal punishment such as flogging with hippopotamus skin whips. This slave-like existence drove thousands of Burundians to defy Belgian travel restrictions and flee to Uganda or Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania) throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Lawyer Antoine Rubbens has said apartheid laws in Burundi were far harsher than any “color bar” legislation in the United States or southern Africa.
Additionally, education scholar Emily Dunlop revealed that colonial administrators made formal schooling an exclusive privilege for the sons of Tutsi chiefs and elites. Most Hutus never had the chance to pursue secondary or university education because of these crippling restrictions. To make matters worse, sociologist Ludo De Witte alleges in a forthcoming book that Belgian officials were complicit in the assassination of Prime Minister Louis Rwagasore – arguably the only politician in Burundi’s history to enjoy immense support among Hutus and Tutsis. His assassination deprived Burundians of a unifying leader and condemned the nation to decades of relentless internal conflict and underdevelopment.
The Belgian state has not done enough to repair these heinous crimes. The declassification of colonial archives is certainly of “paramount importance” for academics, as noted by The Guardian, but these purely symbolic gestures are of no consequence for the poor Burundians. A sincere apology, coupled with widespread and carefully distributed reparations to the long-suffering Burundian masses, could make a real difference. It could even turn a divisive truth and reconciliation process into an inclusive and meaningful endeavour.