REVIEW: Article

Burundi and Rwanda: A Tragic Past, A Cloudy Future

Burundi and Rwanda, both countries approximately the size of Maryland, have been since the end of the Colonial period in 1962, areas of suffering for their own people, a danger to their neighbors and a troubling matter of conscience for the United States (US) and the West.

As the sweep of independence embraced all the countries in Black Africa in the late 1950s and the 1960s, Belgium facilitated independence for the United Nations (UN) mandate territories of Rwanda and Burundi in 1962.

Both countries had a similar pre-colonial background. Approximately 84 percent of the population in both countries were Hutus. But they were dominated by the Tutsi people who constituted around 15 percent of the population. The Germans whose colonial rule lasted from 1891 to 1919 and the Belgian administration—for first the League of Nations and then the United Nations—governed through indirect rule; thus, the Tutsi monarchial structures were their instruments of governance. Ancient rivals between the tall Hamitic-Semitic Tutsis and the overwhelming Bantu Hutu peoples evolved into deep alienation between the two communities. German and Belgian authorities prevented serious outbreaks of ethnic violence between the two communities. There were no serious ethnic clashes during the periods of German and Belgian rule.

Independent Period

This situation changed as the two nations approached independence. The Hutus in Rwanda in 1959 overthrew the Tutsi monarchy. Thousands of Tutsis were killed and almost 200,000 fled to Uganda. The independent government of 1962 was strongly Hutu controlled. Tutsis were not welcomed in the government of Rwanda.

Burundi began its independence with a Tutsi-dominated government in 1962. Within a few years, several hundred Hutu leaders were executed. In 1972, over 10,000 Tutsis were killed in an unsuccessful coup d’etat attempt by the Hutus. The Tutsi government reaction was immediate and severe. Around 150,000 Hutus were killed.

Ethnic alienation and violence have been the core characteristics of independence since 1962. In Burundi it is estimated that in the six-year period of 1993-1999, Hutu-Tutsi violence took at least 250,000 lives.

Shocking Events of 1994

The record of ethnic violence in both countries from 1962 to the mid-1990s was overshadowed by the tragic events of 1994 in Rwanda.

On April 6, 1994, Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira were killed in the airline crash of the Rwandan President’s personal plane. They were returning from a successful conference in Tanzania with a plan to end ethnic violence in their two countries. The plane evidently was shot down by Hutu Rwandan extremists not pleased with the ethnic reconciliation plans of the two Presidents.

Within hours of the plane crash, a campaign of killings was launched against the Tutsi community in Rwanda. Over 500,000 people were killed in a few months. This is a minimum number. It may be closer to 800,000. There is no doubt that the killings against the Tutsis were an act of genocide.

The 1998 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to which the United States is party sets forth the criteria for determining when genocide is committed. The requirements are that the killing is committed against the same ethnic religious or racial group and that there is a plan—a clear intention to destroy the targeted ethnic, religious, or racial group.

By mid-May 1994, slightly more than a month after the downing of the plane transporting the Rwandan and Burundian Presidents back to Kigali, a United States government memo prepared on May 16 stated the existence of genocide in Rwanda: “There can be little question that…genocide was committed in Rwanda.” The report went on to state, “Tutsi children, along with their parents, are being mutilated and killed. In one town, pregnant women at a maternity clinic were massacred. International humanitarian agencies estimate from eight to forty percent of the Tutsi population may have perished.”

The same report also states, “There is substantial circumstantial evidence implicating senior Rwandan government and military officials in the widespread, systematic killings of ethnic Tutsis and to a lesser extent, ethnic Hutus who supported power sharing between the two groups.”

The Response of the United States

In view of the 1998 Convention on Genocide, what was the response of the United States, a signatory of the Convention?

While the world media reported on the killings and the diplomats of the US and the European powers informed their governments on a daily basis about the killings of the Tutsis and the moderate Hutus, the Department of State hesitated to classify what was going on in the bloody weeks of April and May 1994 as genocide.

The documentation released by the US government under the Freedom of Information Act clearly establishes that the leadership of the Department of State and the National Security Council staff were reluctant to acknowledge that genocide was taking place. Why?

A declaration that genocide was taking place would have placed enormous pressure on the US to consider working with the European powers to militarily intervene to stop the massacres. But there was no national will in the United States to do this.

This lack of will or concern about the nightmare going on in an area, where there were no vital US interests, resulted in senior staff engaging in legalisms and other tactics to postpone the inevitable judgment that genocide had occurred in Rwanda.

In a world of pure geopolitics, one would be critical of the reluctance of the United States to recognize the genocide that was taking place. If the genocide had been taking place in Europe or in another vital interest area, would the major powers have been so reluctant to intervene? In my opinion intervention would have taken place.

The implications are clear; the United States and the major European countries are not prepared to intervene with their military in states and areas where they do not have vital interest concerns. The world’s only superpower however will commit itself to diplomatic negotiations and humanitarian relief in non-vital interest trouble spots.

The US did not commit itself to military intervention in the case of Rwanda or Burundi, and it is very unlikely that this will change. The Bush Administration has been clear and firm that the United States will remain cautious about any military intervention that does not involve vital US interests.

Since this is the case, consideration should be given on how to prevent another bloodbath in either Rwanda or Burundi. It must be recognized that all the factors are present for another bloodbath in both of these countries. Deep, historic alienation between the Hutu and Tutsi communities has been aggravated by the recent violence.

Re-examine Past Decisions

Since Rwanda and Burundi became independent in 1962, there has either been ethnic violence in these countries or the fear that it would break out. For the first seven years of independence, fear of ethnic violence permeated the country. In 1969, I was appointed as the US Ambassador to Burundi. I studied the history of the country before reporting for duty in the capital city of Bujumbura. 

My instructions were to work with the Tutsi-dominated government in terms of influencing them to practice pluralism and to assure that the predominant Hutu community was participating in the government. Progress was being made until the spring of 1972 when the country was hit by an economic crisis with the falling of coffee revenues.

An unsuccessful attempt by the Hutu majority to overthrow the Tutsi-controlled government resulted in around 10,000 Tutsis being killed. The response of the government was immediate and severe; around 150,000 Hutus were killed. Following the bloodbath, I recommended to the US government that consideration be given to supporting a plan that the two communities be separated. Once the deep hatred and alienation was ameliorated, the separation could be ended.

My basic theme was that reconciliation could not be imposed. It must come willingly from the people themselves. Temporary separation has saved millions of lives in modern history. Two recent examples were the separation of Malaya and Singapore and the separation of the Greeks and Turks in Cyprus.

My proposal was turned down as too expensive and impractical. Since then Burundi and Rwanda have either been in the midst of genocide, recovering from one or anticipating one.

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was another holocaust. One way to prevent these ethnic clashes in the future would be to maintain foreign military forces there. This would turn the countries into protectorates. It would be a flashback to the German and Belgian governance period when their military forces prevented ethnic clashes.

Now the countries are independent. There is little chance that the reluctance of the United States and the major European countries to intervene in these African states will change. What can be done?

One solution for the time being is to separate the two communities; another one is to establish a de facto protectorate with African states providing the military force.*

I have followed the situation closely since my service in Burundi. I fear that another violent clash will occur in both Rwanda and Burundi unless steps are taken now. Every letter that I receive from the people in the two countries or who are knowledgeable about the events are fearful of another ethnic clash.**

*Editor’s Note: The New York Times of October 12, 2001, reported that five African heads of state joined leaders of Burundi’s main rebel groups in a regional summit meeting in Pretoria, South Africa, aimed at “forging a power-sharing government between the Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi. The talks, led by the former South African President, Nelson Mandela, centered on the creation of a protection force to ensure the safety of politicians returning from exile to take part in the new interim government in the Burundi capital of Bujumbura.”

**Author’s Note: Data on the 1994 events were made available through the Freedom of Information Act as released by the United States Department of State.

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