A civil war in Burundi began in 1993 and resulted in the death of an estimated 300,000 people, the flight of 500,000 refugees, and the internal displacement of 800,000 persons. The Museum's concern for Burundi stemmed from:
• History of ethnic conflict in Burundi
• Level of human rights abuses
• Continued instability in the region
• Relationship to the 1994 Rwanda genocide
Burundi and Rwanda have similar ethnic compositions, and violence in either country has had a serious impact on the other -- particularly the assassination of Burundi's president in 1993 and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. And the internal conflicts in both Rwanda and Burundi were played out in war across the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although human rights abuses still occur, the situation in Burundi has stabilized and significant improvements have been made, starting with a peace agreement signed in 2000 and elections in 2005.
A chance to demonstrate Burundi’s commitment to peace and democracy in the aftermath of civil war, the 2010 presidential elections were the first since Burundi’s last remaining rebel group demobilized and agreed to transform into a political party called FNL. But on voting day, June 28th, incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza was the lone candidate on the ballot. In early June, six opposition candidates had pulled out of the elections, citing intimidation and rigging by the government in previous district elections.
Just hours before polls opened, a grenade exploded near the offices of the European Union election observer mission. More than 40 grenade attacks in Burundi have killed five people and injured 60 in the last several weeks.
Widely considered the key challenger to President Nkurunziza, Agathon Rwasa, the head of FNL, has gone into hiding and is believed to be in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both Nkurunziza and Rwasa were leaders in different Hutu rebel groups, which fought against the Tutsi-dominated government and army in the civil war between 1993 and 2000.
In a little over five months, on June 28, 2010, Burundi will vote in presidential elections that will test the strength and endurance of the nation’s fledgling peace process. Unlike the 2005 election, this one will be a direct election by all voters, not by parliament. The elections come as a significant marker for this country that — once known for violence — now rarely reaches the headlines.
The nation’s peace process drew to a quiet close in 2009, with the last rebel movement, Palipehutu-FNL, demobilized and converted to a political party simply called FNL. Without fanfare, South Africa concluded its eight year peacekeeping mission to Burundi and brought home the last of its troops just before the New Year. South Africa explained that their presence — maintained in Burundi after the UN peacekeeping mission departed in 2006 — had “assisted in laying the foundation for political dialogue, restored a semblance of peace, instilled hope and ushered a new beginning to the people of Burundi to build their country.”
Despite these advances, there are worrying signs that need to be watched carefully. The upcoming election will severely test a fragile peace in Burundi. A leadership contest occurring within the ranks of FNL could spark new violence, as could the rearming of militias, a dangerous development made possible by the existence of large caches of illegal weapons and well-organized political youth wings, populated with former combatants who failed to be reintegrated in the recently completed DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) process.
In a recent essay on the political situation in Burundi as it prepares for the 2010 elections, a senior researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies explained that because of these warning signs, “Burundi is a classroom example of a country at potential risk for election-related violence… Burundi’s upcoming election is not only a test for the Barundi, but also for those organisations and structures put in place to deal with the prevention of conflict, especially election-related conflict. This issue has received more attention after experiences of violence triggered by elections in numerous African countries in the recent past. In the case of Burundi, it is impossible to argue that there were no warning signs.”
Sporadic fighting in Burundi that began in April 2008 between the government and the Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People (Palipehutu-FNL) rebel group ended on May 26, 2008 with the signing of a ceasefire agreement. A regional summit in Bujumbura on December 4, 2008 concluded with Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and FNL leader Agathon Rwasa signing a communique that committee parties to begin disarmament and demobilization of rebels, allot 33 government posts to FNL members, and release all political prisoners and prisoners of war. While implementation is slow, both parties have shown signs of good faith. On January 3, 2009 the government began releasing political prisoners and on January 9 the FNL, in an effort to become a registered political party, changed its name from Palipehutu-FNL to FNL. The FNL removed Palipehutu from its name to come into compliance with the country’s constitution which prohibits ethnic references in the names of political parties.
After months of delay, the FNL began demobilization on March 17, 2009 with 3,000 soldiers at an assembly site west of Bujumbura. In addition to the demobilization of these soldiers, over 100 child soldiers were released and transferred to the Gitega Demobilization Centre for reintegration. The process to demobilize and reintegrate ex-combatants, initially scheduled for completion by the end of 2008, faces many delays due to issues of adequate demobilization facilities. It is estimated that 19,000 FNL ex-combatants must go through the process. In a recent agreement reached in South Africa, the government and the FNL agreed to integrate about 3,500 FNL rebels into the national army and police force.
The country faces enormous challenges due to the history of violence, extreme poverty of the area, and the needs for development. However, Burundi’s peace is holding, and the country has made enormous strides forward.
Insecurity continues to be a problem in Burundi and has intensified with the violation of the ceasefire accord that was signed in 2006 after years of civil war. Sporadic fighting in late 2007 and early 2008 between Government forces and the Palipehutu-FNL rebel group (Forces Nationales de Liberation) has increased during April in and around the capital of Bujumbura displacing thousands throughout the country. The latest round of fighting killed 33 people. On March 8, four politicians from opposition political parties were targeted in separate grenade attacks, incidents that the government has failed to fully investigate. Food security remains a problem with 600,000 people needing food aid according to a recent UN report.
The UN Peacebuilding Commission sent a delegation on April 19 to meet with government officials, religious and human rights leaders, women’s groups, and members of civil society in an attempt to assess the situation on the ground.
The Burundian Army has begun demobilizing hundreds of soldiers, although the process has been hampered by financial and selection concerns. Soldiers have refused to complete the process as many have yet to be paid their demobilization salaries and concerns have arisen that the 50-50 ethnic quota for the make up of the army is not being honored through the demobilization process.
Tanzania has decided to close three of its refugee camps by the end of 2008, forcing the 218,000 Burundian refugees who lived there to either repatriate or seek Tanzanian citizenship. Hundreds of thousands fled in 1972 during violence estimated to have killed at least 200,000 people. Many settled in refugee camps throughout Tanzania and have continued to live there ever since. Now, thirty-five years later, Burundian refugees who fled to Tanzania will be returning to their home country. Some are eager to return to Burundi, but many are not. Many have families, homes, and jobs in Tanzania, and are therefore reluctant to leave and uproot their entire lives. Those choosing to return to Burundi could face a host of challenges, including finding their land occupied, food and aid shortages, and increasing insecurity as fighting continues between the government forces and FNL.
Reform in Burundi has seen progress with the advancing peace process, establishment of a truth and reconciliation committee, and new government. However, Burundi continues to be plagued with an unstable infrastructure, security concerns and a fragmented population due to the remnants of intergroup conflict and a persistently high number of IDPs and refugees. Burundi’s justice system remains inadequate and underdeveloped, especially where children are concerned. Harsh weather conditions have decimated food sources and housing, contributing to an increasingly urgent humanitarian crisis and exacerbating ethnic tensions. Plans to move the capital from Bujumbura to Gitega are also underway.
In May 2003, Burundi’s parliament decided that a truth and reconciliation commission was to be set up to look into crimes committed since independence in 1962. The transitional national parliament also passed a bill that put genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes onto Burundi’s criminal statutes. The Burundian government announced in May of 2007, that it would soon set up this commission and that it would not grant amnesties to any side for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and other serious violations.
Refugees and IDPs
From the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Burundians fled their homes to escape fighting between the government and Hutu rebel groups seeking to end political dominance by the Tutsi minority. Many others, predominantly Hutus, were forcibly displaced in the second half of the 1990s. Following the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the government and a major rebel group in 2003, as well as the election of a national unity government in 2005, hundreds of thousands of refugees and IDPs returned home.
However, some 100,000 internally-displaced people (IDPs) remain in limbo, living in settlements throughout Burundi or with host families; according to the latest monthly report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). Many Burundians still live as refugees outside the country - some 152,000 Burundians live in UNHCR-administered camps in Tanzania alone. Many of these refugees are reluctant to return home because of a severe land and housing crisis, in addition to lingering security concerns. In September 2006, the last remaining rebel group, the National Liberation Forces (FNL), signed a ceasefire agreement with the government. Many provisions of this accord have not been implemented, and tensions are still high in Bujumbura Rural and the provinces surrounding it. There have also been reports of ceasefire violations through arbitrary arrests and executions of people suspected to be allied with the FNL. The government is investigating these allegations. In addition to these fears, refugees in Tanzania - many of whom have lived there since ethnic violence drove them from their home in 1972 - have formed strong community networks they are reluctant to relinquish.
Extreme weather in late 2006 has resulted in the destruction of livelihoods for many Burundians. Droughts and severe flooding have destroyed a vast number of crops and homes, leaving tens of thousands of people without shelter. With more than seventy percent of farmlands destroyed by the floodwaters, there is a threat of a major food crisis.
Human Rights/Legal System
Burundi is still lacking a solid foundation of rule of law and respect for human rights, according to a December 2006 report by Human Rights Watch. Investigators report numerous accounts of torture and killings of civilians in official custody. A few dozen have disappeared and are presumed dead. In Burundi’s legal system, children are treated as adults, often have no access to legal advice or representation, are incarcerated alongside adults where many suffer from physical and sexual abuse, and receive no reintegration services upon their release from detention. Burundi’s parliament is currently looking to propose amendment to their criminal law in order to improve children’s rights.
In its first year in power, the current Burundian government has made significant achievements — judicial reform, reconstruction initiatives, social welfare improvements — but the threat of instability in Burundi, human rights situation, and legacy of the civil war remain serious issues for the people of Burundi.
A major hurdle was overcome when the last rebel group still holding out from the peace process in Burundi (which began in 2000), the Front National de Liberation (FNL) signed a temporary peace agreement with the government on June 18. Shortly thereafter, negotiations between the government and FNL began. In early August, the government arrested some 9 people, charged with conspiring to commit a coup against the government. Among the arrested are a former vice-president, an army colonel, former rebel leader, and opposition politicians. Human rights organizations have expressed concerns that those arrested have been tortured by government security forces and have reported on continued governmental harassment of opposition politicians and the independent media.
One major area of reform, the judiciary, has seen several important, if at times controversial, steps. Some 3,000 designated “political prisoners” have been released from jail, a move that caused some victims’ rights and human rights organizations to express concerns about the process and protections for victims surrounding these releases. The government has focused on creating greater ethnic and gender balance in the promotion of judges. Additionally, discussions have continued between the Burundian government and United Nations about establishing both a special court and truth and reconciliation process to deal with crimes committed since the country gained its independence from Belgium in 1961.