Colonial-created Hutu-Tutsi divisions central to Burundi crisis

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BURUNDI has been advised by the East African Community to postpone its presidential election scheduled for this month to July 26 after weeks of massive protests that have left more than 30 people dead. About 112 000 others mainly Tutsi have fled to neighbouring countries, fearing a return to conflict in a nation where hundreds of thousands people died in a 12-year ethnical charged civil war that ended in 2005. Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura has been rocked by protest for the last five weeks which has left 471 people injured, as police and demonstrators engage in running battles. The recent unrest erupted after the country’s ruling party National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) which is considered to be Hutu, nominated President Pierre Nkurunziza as their presidential candidate. President Nkurunziza’s term, being perceived by the opposition and rights groups as his second term, the maximum allowed by the constitution, ends on August 26. However, since the amendment limiting power to two terms was introduced after his first term, the president’s supporters argue he can still serve another term. Article 96 of the Republic of Burundi 2005 constitution provides that, “the president of the republic is elected by universal suffrage for a mandate of five years renewable one time”. The president has held office for 10 years now. Burundi’s opposition leaders and Western funded rights groups insist that the president is ineligible for another term. The President and his supporters are arguing that the first term he served (five years) was under “Title XV: Of the particular provisions for the First Post-Transitional Period” of the 2005 constitution. Therefore, Nkurunziza argues, the first five years he served under Title XV, do not count for purpose of Article 96. The constitutional court of Burundi ruled that Burundi’s constitution does not bar the current president from standing for another term, which would be his last term. On the other hand, a former ally of the President who attempted a coup, Major General Godefroid Niyombare two weeks ago is still on the run, although three of his colleagues have been arrested. Belgium, the ‘former’ colonial master and the country’s closest political ally has suspended its financial aid of €4 million for the electoral process in Burundi, arguing the country is not in a position to have elections. While on the surface the situation in Burundi is defined in terms of political tensions and constitutional crisis, it cannot be fully understood without examining ethnic issues. Underlying the current chaos is the historical conflict between Hutus and Tutsis, the two dominant ethnic groups in Burundi, and its relevant role today. Since its independence in 1962, Burundi a densely populated country has experienced prolonged periods of conflict, including assassinations, coups and ethnic massacres. Between 1993 and 2005 more than 300 000 people were killed in the ethnic conflict, marked by massacres between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi communities. During the same period, one million people, a quarter of the population, sought refuge in neighbouring countries such as Rwanda, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Tanzania. Prior to Burundi’s colonisation by Germany and later Belgium, Burundi was a single society in which Hutu and Tutsi lived together, spoke the same language, shared religious beliefs and intermarried. Although a distinction was made between Hutu and Tutsi, these were neither tribes nor ethnic groups. Rather, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was a fluid one, based on a combination of ancestry and socio-economic status, including the ownership of cattle. The Tutsi, comprising 16 percent of the population, were politically and economically dominant.  Hutus were mainly cultivators and known as the ‘masses’ in comparison to the Tutsis who were predominantly herdsmen and therefore considered the ‘elite’. Despite the Hutus being subservient, their relationship with the Tutsi was relatively comfortable. The Tutsi are much taller and thinner in physique than the Hutu. Of course there were disagreements between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, but the animosity between them grew substantially since the colonial period. The arrival of the German colonialist in the late 1800s upset this social equilibrium and did a lot to engender the future tensions between the two tribes. Belgians’ regime in 1916 following the defeat of German, served to add to the problem, as they endorsed the Tutsi’s power over the Hutus as a means of controlling the country. Belgian policy was openly racist. As happened in Rwanda, the Belgians perpetuated Tutsi domination in Burundi over the Hutu majority population. The Belgians considered the Tutsis to be superior to the Hutus. They considered the Tutsis as more like themselves; therefore, they took them under their wing and educated them and brought them up to be the upper class of society. In the 1930s Belgium instituted identity cards that distinguished Hutu from Tutsi, thus requiring everyone to be classified according to their ethnicity and making these categories official. Their worst contribution was racial science. The Belgians further increased the divide between the Hutus and Tutsis through the use of the eugenics. Skull measurements showing larger brain size, greater height, and lighter skin tones all reaffirmed the Tutsis’ superiority over the Hutus, by providing proof of their apparent greater purity and closer ancestry to Europeans. Hutu resistance was brutally suppressed. Amputations and other mutilation were standard punishments decreed by the Belgian authorities, and administered by Tutsis. By the 1940s thousands of Hutus had fled to Uganda.  Later on when the Belgians realised that the Tutsi had nationalistic and communist values, they started supporting the Hutu and claimed that the Tutsi had come from Egypt and had exterminated and subjugated Hutu people in Rwanda and Burundi. When Burundi became independent in 1962, despite their majority, 84 percent of the population, the Hutu had few government or military posts and were discriminated against at all levels. In the period the Hutu made several attempts to gain majority rule, inspired by the victory of the majority Hutu population in neighbouring Rwanda. There were apparently Hutu-led coups in 1965 and 1969 which were crushed by Tutsi officers and which increased Tutsi dominance. In 1972 increasing tensions led to Hutu uprisings in Bujumbura and the provinces of Rumonge, Nyzanza Lac and Bururi, in which 2 000 Tutsi were reportedly killed. In retaliation the Tutsi-controlled government began reprisals which resulted in the deaths of between 100 000 and 150 000 Hutus. In the following years, Hutu disseminated anti-Tutsi propaganda leading to further massacres in 1988. In 1993, the army mainly composed of Tutsi massacred thousands of Hutu. In a decade of civil war that followed, an estimated 300 000 people, both Hutu and Tutsi were massacred. And today with Hutu-Tutsi divisions central to the situation in Burundi, the fear is that it will become more overtly prominent and spread throughout the Great Lakes region in Africa. The African Union must act accordingly on Burundi.

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