October 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

BurundiWho lives there?: Nine million people. The main divide is between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups: Hutus are 85% of the population, Tutsis 15%.

The question of what the difference between the two groups is, is hugely contentious and there are a number if theories. The main contenders being: the two groups originated in different areas (Tutsis migrating from Somalia, Hutus migrating from Ethiopia), phenotypical differences between the groups (Tutsis are supposed to be slightly paler on average),  the groups being created by colonial statecraft (Tutsis being artificially separated out by the Belgians to provide a ruling elite – this theory has proven popular in recent years as a method for national reconciliation, however it may be a case of historical revisionism), and the differences being largely a matter of class (Tutsis being richer cattle owners, and more nomadic; Hutus being poorer more settled farmers with no livestock).

Around 60% are Catholic, the rest have a mixture of local beliefs and protestant and Muslim beliefs.

How does the system work? (the theory): Burundi has an elected president who wields considerable executive and legislative power. A two term limit and terms of five years have been introduced. The president is elected by first past the post with a runoff if necessary.

There is a bicameral parliament. The lower house, the National Assembly, has 106 members elected by d’Hondt closed list PR with a  2% threshold. A further 18 to 22 seats are then co-opted in proportion to the seats parties have already won to ensure there is a 60-40 split between Hutu and Tutsi members and at least 30% are women. A further three seats are reserved for the Twa minority. All parties who win 5% or more of the vote must be invited to form part of the Government.

The upper house, the Senate, is indirectly elected. An electoral college of the local councillors in each province elect two senators (one Hutu, one Tutsi) per province. Elections are held in a three round first past the post system. Candidates must receive a supermajority of 66% of votes to be elected in the first two rounds. If no candidate has been elected in the first two rounds then there is a simple runoff third round. In addition there are a further three seats reserved for the ethnic Twa minority, women can be co-opted to ensure 30% female representation and all former Presidents are made senators

Burundi is divided into regions and municipalities, each of which have elected local councils.

How does the system work? (the practice): Elections are seen as being moderately free and fair, but the situation is tense, democracy is very new, and there is still a deal of fear of the Government who have, in the past, banned opposition movements and curtailed freedom of expression. There is an independent election commission, who demonstrate their independence by having very poor relations with the government.

In other words in general the systems do work, and are fair, but elections are not really competitive because they are being held in the shadow of civil war and an authoritarian past. This has led to most opposition groups boycotting polls – resulting in a severe democratic defect. In areas which were formerly held by Hutu rebels the FNL, turnout was only 1 or 2 percent.

The writ of the state is reasonably weak in the countryside, particularly in former FNL areas.

How did we get here?: Burundi was a Tutsi kingdom for about 200 years before it was conquered by the Germans in the late 19th century. As part of the terms of the treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to give it to Belgium in 1924. Burundi gained independence in 1962 and was initially ruled as a Tutsi kingdom. Relations between Hutus and Tutsis, already poor, deteriorated following the assassination of prominent politicians on both sides, a failed Hutu coup, and its brutal suppression by the increasingly Tutsi dominated army. The deteriorating relations between the two groups in Rwanda and DR Congo did not help either.

In 1966 a military coup abolished the monarchy and for the next 25 years Burundi was ruled as a Tutsi military dictatorship – although the dictator in question changed three times following further coups. There were major acts of ethnic genocide on both sides in 1972 and 1988, as well as many smaller incidences of ethnic cleansing. In total ethnic bloodshed cost at least 250,000 lives in this time.

In 1993 democracy was reintroduced. Hutus won the elections easily but the Hutu president was almost immediately assassinated by Tutsi military officers. This led to further bloodshed. Then in 1994 a plane carrying the Hutu presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi was shot down – it is still not known who by. Whilst it was obvious there would be bloodshed following the incident, it was thought it would be worse in Burundi than Rwanda – and many families fled to Rwanda in the belief it would be safer there. As we now know this was not the case and, whilst 300,000 people were killed in Burundi, the death toll in Rwanda was over a million.

The situation in Burundi remained chaotic until 1996 when another Tutsi general, Pierre Buyoya, seized power in the capital Bujumbura. Most of the countryside was controlled by two Hutu rebel groups: the CNDD in the south and the FNL in the west – although there were over 19 different groups in total. Peace talks were initiated in 1998 led initially by Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, then by Nelson Mandella, then by the UN. 13 of the rebel groups had laid down arms by 2003 and in 2005 elections were held which the CNDD easily won. The last group to lay down arms were the FNL in 2009, however they did not adapt to democracy as easily as the CNDD and decided to boycott the 2010 elections.

Who’s in charge?: The CNDD are firmly in charge of the institutions of state. Pierre Nkurunziza is the president, having been unanimously re-elected earlier this year after all the opposition parties boycotted the poll. Widespread boycotts also led to the CNDD dominating parliament: winning 81 of the 106 seats in the national assembly (entitling them to a further 16 co-opted seats) and 32 of the 34 seats in the senate (entitling them to a further 8 co-opted seats). Turnout was 67%. Whilst having a Hutu nationalist past, CNDD do seem to genuinely desire national reconciliation. There are factions within the party – in 2008 the CNDD successfully petitioned the supreme court for permission to expel 22 dissident Assembly members

The second most successful political party are the multiethnic but Tutsi dominated UPRONA. They have a long history, having led the campaign for Burundian independence. They won 17 seats in the National Assembly (entitling them to a further 3 co-opted seats and participation in the government) and 2 seats in the Senate (as part of a deal with CNDD, they have one former president as a further senator).

The only other political party not to boycott elections was the left wing Front for Democracy – formed from supporters of various Tutsi military leaders. They have 5 seats in the National Assembly (entitling them to a further one co-opted seat and participation in the government, which they have turned down). They also have two former presidents sitting in the senate.

The only other party to enjoy representation is PARENA: the party of former Tutsi dictator Jean-Baptiste Bagaza who, as he is still alive, is entitled to a senate seat.

burundi parties


The most powerful group by far outside of parliament is the FNL – they still informally control much of the south of the country. They have declared peace but are currently boycotting the political process. Other areas are under heavy influence from the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – another former rebel group currently boycotting elections. Meanwhile the Hutu nationalist Interhamwe militia are still a problem in some areas.

There are hundreds of other political parties who only enjoy minor support. The largest is probably the Movement for Solidarity and Development. The other exceedingly powerful force in Burundian politics is the army.

What does it look like?: Burundi consists of rolling plateau pasture land. The west is dominated by lake Tanganyka – which runs along most of the border with DR Congo.


What are the issues?: Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world – according to some measures the poorest. The main concern is rebuilding the state after years of genocide and civil war. There is widespread problems with corruption and with providing basic services – only 12% of young girls are enrolled in a school. There are also a number of issues surrounding traumatized and damaged people –  including over 3000 child soldiers.

The albino community are suffering particularly from persecution and violence. There is also a problem with the lack of investigation of rape, particularly of minors, and with persecution of homosexuals – homosexuality was made a criminal offence last year.

A good source of impartial information is: The news is mostly independent but there isn’t much of a web presence for Burundian news sources. Isanganiro is about the only news source with a  website and is in French. For English language news try All Africa.

A good book is: The classic work of political science for the region is How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. It discusses the origins of Hutus and Tutsis and much on the politics of the region besides. It has recently come in for some criticism for being overly reductionist, and for going a little too easy on Marxist regimes.

If you want to read something specifically about Burundi then Gender and Genocide in Burundi: The Search for Spaces of Peace in the Great Lakes Region and Life After Violence: A People’s Story of Burundi both come highly recommended. Both offer an extraordinary amount of detail on Burundian politics and complement each other well. The former is an intellectual treatment of the subject which explains where Burundi sits within modern political theories, whereas the latter is more of a bottom-up people’s eye view of the situation.

When are the next elections?: The next set of elections will be in 2015.


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