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Burundi Briefing

July 19, 1996


Burundi has a population of some 5.8 million of which 85 percent are Hutu and 14 percent are Tutsi. Until recently, the Tutsis enjoyed an almost complete monopoly of political power and a disproportionate share of the country's limited economic resources and opportunities. Today, democratic elections have handed control of the Parliament and presidency to the Hutu majority. Even so, key components of the machinery of state-including the Cabinet, army, police, civil service and judiciary-remain dominated by Tutsis. This division of power has left Tutsis feeling vulnerable and Hutus unsatisfied, contributed to the sense of inter-ethnic tension, fear and mutual suspicion and rendered the country practically ungovernable. As the UN Secretary General reported in February 1996, "Much of the Tutsi minority, historically dominant, lives with the phobia of its physical elimination, while the Hutu majority demands proper political representation".


The current phase in Burundi's long-running crisis began in October 1993, when soldiers from the national army stormed the Presidential Palace and killed the country's first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye. The assassination of Ndadaye-who was also the first Hutu to hold the presidency-triggered three months of violent chaos during which more than 50,000 people from both ethnic groups were killed, 670,000 fled across the borders into Rwanda, Tanzania and Zaire and another 280,000 became displaced within Burundi.

The mood of the country has been tense eversince. The situation can be characterised as one of civil war. A Hutu rebellion-however sporadic and uncoordinated-is in progress against the vestiges of Tutsi power and privilege. The two sides in the conflict-the Tutsi-dominated national army and Hutu militias-rarely come face-to-face in battle. Instead army soldiers attack Hutu communities they claim are harbouring Hutu extremists while Hutu militia attack Tutsi communities in a spiral of tit-for-tat violence. While the number of killings escalates and there are increasing reports of major, orchestrated massacres, there is still no clear consensus among UN officials, governments and NGO staff in the field about where events will lead from here. There are real fears that Burundi may be on the brink of a genocide similar in scale to that which overtook neighbouring Rwanda in 1994. The mood in the country is tense and events are extremely difficult to predict.

Violence has contributed to a major refugee crisis. Approaching a million people-or 1 in 6 of Burundi's 6 million-strong population-have been forced to flea their homes in fear of their lives. More than 200,000 refugees from Burundi remain outside of the country while a further 900,000 or so are internally displaced. Many of those who fled across Burundi's borders have sought sanctuary in large UNHCR refugee camps in neighbouring Zaire. These camps are now coming under increasing scrutiny as it is clear that in many cases they are being used by Hutu militia leaders as recruiting and training grounds for Hutu forces. In the past year there have been many instances of cross border raids on Tutsi communities being launched from refugee camps in eastern Zaire.


The principle vehicle for dialogue to date has been the Nyerere/Carter peace process. Talks, facilitated by former Tanzanian president Mwalimu Nyerere and former US president Jimmy Carter have forced regional leaders to come together to face the worsening security and humanitarian situation in both Burundi and the region as a whole. Western governments continue to place great faith in these discussions, although Nyerere himself has admitted that he sees little prospect of achieving a political solution through dialogue.

The US has sent a stream of high-ranking diplomats and Administration officials to visit Burundi and to encourage the process of dialogue. Within the last few months Madeline Allbright, John Shattuck, George Moose, Brian Attwood and Tony Lake have all been to Burundi and two weeks ago the US announced the appointment of a new Special Envoy, former Congressman Howard Wolpe. From the European Union, Commissioner Emma Bonino has been to Burundi recently and a high-level Special EU Envoy has been appointed.

On June 25-at a meeting of regional leaders held at Arusha, Tanzania-the Burundi president and prime minister, for the first time accepted the need for an external security assistance force, made up of troops from neighbouring countries, to help quell the violence in Burundi. This followed months during which the Burundi government had strenuously opposed a plan put forward by the UN Secretary General to put together a multinational force to intervene in Burundi-if necessary without the consent of the Burundi government-and stop genocide developing.

In the West, fears were immediately voiced about the role of the proposed regional security assistance force and the risk that it might be co-opted by the Burundi military in its terror campaign against Hutu civilian communities. A technical committee made up of experts from the region was established to look at the issue of what form security assistance might take, how many troops would be involved and-crucially-what the force's mandate would be.

Three weeks or so later and the proposal for a regional security assistance force looks unlikely to go anywhere. The technical committee has still not reported with its recommendations. Meanwhile opposition to the proposal has grown within the Burundi government and caused a deep rift between the government and the army, who reportedly remain strongly opposed to the principle of external intervention. There are even reports that controversy over the Arusha plan may precipitate a military coup within the next few weeks, an event that would put extremists in charge of the government and extinguish any lingering hopes of reaching a negotiated settlement of the crisis.


The acceptance by the Burundi leadership of the need for external assistance in dealing with the crisis in Burundi may have created new possibilities for policy-makers but at the same time it has detracted attention away from several of the key, continuing problems that belie the Burundian crisis. ICG, which has up until now concentrated its advocacy effort on the fairly narrow issue of the need for contingency planning for a possible Chapter Seven intervention, will, over the coming weeks, be broadening its focus to include not just an assessment of the new proposal for a regional security assistance force but also a number of other issues whose resolution is vital to hopes of achieving peace and stability in the region.

There are essentially four policy areas/options that should form the focus of ICG's advocacy over the coming six to eight weeks. They are:

  1. Sustain regional dialogue

    By all accounts the Nyerere peace process is deadlocked. Nyerere himself said recently that if he said the talks were progressing he would be lying. Nevertheless it is the only show in town and the only channel for communication on the key issues which require a political solution if genocide is to be averted. ICG should try and maximise backing for the process, encourage Western governments to keep pressure on regional leaders to maintain their dialogue and ensure that requests for assistance that emerge from the dialogue are responded to promptly and appropriately.

  2. De-militarise the refugee camps

    There is ample evidence that many of the regions refugee camps, home to around two million refugees, are being used as recruitment and training grounds by militia groups. Cross-border raids are frequently launched from camps located near the border between Zaire and Burundi and, to a lesser extent, camps close to the border between Tanzania and Burundi. These camps could easily be used as planning and launch bases for a future genocide campaign. The four main problems that are fuelling the militarisation of camps are:

    • the lack of control by international agencies and local national governments of activity within the camps

    • the continued tolerance of military training in the camps

    • the withdrawal of education and other services (which has created an idle and bored population of young men with nothing to do except join in military activities); and

    • the continued presence of intimidators in camps whose aim is to prevent camp dwellers returning to their homes and maximise inter-ethnic fear and suspicion.

    ICG should lobby on the following platform:

    • Assert UNHCR control of the camps through increased international personnel and enforced registration

    • Clamp down on military activities including training, arresting and removing those responsible for organising such activities

    • Restore education, sport and social services to the camps

    • Separate intimidators and transport them to a separate facility (the Tanzanian government has already requested assistance undertaking this task, having identified a number of leading intimidators in a camp near the Tanzania/Burundi border).

  3. Monitor the regional security proposal

    The proposal to assemble a security assistance force composed of troops from neighbouring countries and mandated to reinforce the efforts of the Burundi military to quell violence has some advantages over previous proposals for a Chapter 7 intervention force, but it also has significant drawbacks. The effectiveness of such a force is in doubt, it would lack logistical and technical capabilities and, more importantly, it would lack independence from the Burundi military that would be necessary to prevent genocide if it does erupt in the coming months. Moreover, the force may never materialise. The proposal for regional security assistance has split the Burundi government from top to bottom and created a significant rift between the army and the government. ICG should monitor discussion of the proposal. If it does look like a viable policy option then ICG should seek to ensure that the force itself is given a restrictive mandate that does not permit it to be drawn into army attacks on civilians. If a satisfactory mandate can be agreed, ICG should consider lobbying Western nations for the necessary logistical support. If not, ICG should argue against Western involvement or support and concentrate on the finalisation of plans for a Chapter Seven intervention.

  4. Contingency planning must continue

    A Chapter Seven intervention must remain the international community's policy of last resort. Given the rising level of violence, the lack of political progress, the increasing instability of the Burundian government and the controversy over the recent call for regional security assistance, the last resort may be close at hand. The international community needs a detailed, credible and actionable plan so that it can mount an effective intervention at a moment's notice. ICG, in conjunction with other NGOs, have already made important headway in convincing senior Administration officials in the US of the need for such planning and of the case for the US taking responsibility for it. We should not wait until all other policy options have failed before continuing on this front. Pressure should be maintained on the US and on the European governments to carry out the planning, provide the necessary logistical, training, intelligence, transport and communications back-up and gather pledges of support from African nations to supply troops of the calibre required to operate effectively.

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