An unresolved past
On July 1, 1962, both Burundi and neighboring Rwanda gained independence from Belgian colonial rule. Demographically similar, the two nations are approximately 85% Hutu, 14% Tutsi, and 1% Twa. In Rwanda, a Hutu political hegemony emerged at independence. After an initial period of instability in Burundi, Tutsi from inside the military took power, beginning almost three decades of Tutsi dictatorship. At several different points during the following decades, Burundi experienced massive group violence along ethnic lines. The Hutu-Tutsi divide in Burundi is a post-independence phenomenon, resulting from the political use of ethnicity to consolidate power.
Among the worst massacres occurred in 1972, when Hutu groups tried to overthrow the government. The Burundian military responded with a coordinated plan of attack against all prominent Hutu: political and educated elites, as well as potential leaders, including university students, primary and secondary school children. Between May and July, government forces killed an estimated 200,000 Hutu.
More massacres and counter-massacres followed, each of which bore traces of the violence in 1972 that went unaddressed and unresolved.
Ethnicity and the balance of power
From 1966 to 1988, Burundi was dominated by Tutsi leadership in the government and military. Throughout this period and into contemporary Burundi, violence has been fueled by extremists who proposed ethnic solutions to the political clash between Hutu aspirations for democracy and Tutsi fears of genocide. Hutu have been largely marginalized and excluded from positions of authority and power. Tutsi fears are based on a history of massacres in Burundi and Rwanda and, after 1994, the Rwandan genocide.
After yet another instance of ethnic violence in 1988 and under heavy internal and international pressure, the regime under President Pierre Buyoya initiated a transition to multiparty democracy. On June 1, 1993, Melchior Ndadaye became Burundi's first Hutu president.
This glimmer of hope was eclipsed in October 1993, when the army, opposed to reform initiatives, assassinated President Ndadaye as well as all his constitutionally prescribed successors.
The assassination of Ndadaye marked the beginning of the civil war. A growing number of Hutu-dominated rebel groups took up arms against the Tutsi-dominated government and military. Eventually two main rebel groups emerged, the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD) and the National Liberation Force (FNL), although these splintered over the course of the conflict.