HISTORY OF BURUNDI

BURUNDIRuanda-Urundi: AD 1887-1914

The highlands of Rwanda and , east of Lake Kivu, are the last part of to be reached by Europeans in the colonial expansion of the late 19th century. Before that time local tradition tells of many centuries during which the Tutsi, a tall cattle-rearing people probably from the upper reaches of the Nile, infiltrate the area and win dominance over the Hutu, already in residence and living by agriculture.

Historical records begin with the reign of Rwabugiri, who comes to the throne in 1860 and eventually controls a region almost as large as the present Rwanda. His realm is organized on a feudal basis, with the Tutsi as the aristocracy and the Hutu as their vassals.

When first described by Europeans – and in particular by Speke, who encounters them east of Rwanda on his exploration to Lake Victoria – it is assumed that the distinction between Tutsi and Hutu is entirely racial. But this simple classification is blurred by intermarriage and by the custom of allowing people to become honorary members of the other group.

A more valid description of the Tutsi-Hutu divide is by class and occupation. The Tutsi are the upper class and are mostly herdsmen. The Hutu are the lower class and for the most part live by farming.

The first European to enter Rwanda is a German, Count von Götzen, who visits the court of Rwabugiri in 1894. The next year the king dies. With Rwanda in turmoil over the succession, the Germans move in (in 1897, from Tanzania) to claim the region for the Kaiser. At the same time they claim Burundi, a separate kingdom to the south. The entire area is treated as one colony, to be known as Ruanda-Urundi.

German rule in this most inaccessible of colonies is indirect, achieved mainly by placing agents at the courts of the various local rulers. So the German influence is not yet extensive when the region is taken abruptly from their hands after the outbreak of the European war in 1914.

A Belgian colony: AD 1914-1962

When Germany invades Belgium, at the start of World War I, the Belgians retaliate in a smaller way in central Africa. Belgian troops move east from the Belgian Congo to occupy (in 1916) Ruanda-Urundi. After the war the League of Nations confirms the existing state of affairs, granting Belgium in 1924 a mandate to administer the colony.

From 1925 Ruanda-Urundi is linked with the neighbouring Belgian Congo, but colonial rule takes a very different form in the two territories. The administration of the Congo is centred in Brussels, but in Ruanda-Urundi it is left in the hands of the Tutsi aristocracy. Indeed the Belgians, observing the distinction between Tutsi and Hutu, make it the very basis of their colonial system.

The Hutu are subject to the forced labour which disfigures many European colonies in Africa, but here it is the Tutsi who supervise them at their tasks. From 1933 everyone in Ruanda-Urundi is issued with a racial identity card, defining them as Hutu (85%) or Tutsi (14%). The remaining 1% are the Twa, the remnants of the original Pygmies indigenous in this area.

This Belgian attitude, setting in stone the distinction between the two groups and favouring one of them, prepares the ground for future violence (in earlier times racially based massacres have never occurred between Hutu and Tutsi). The predictable occasion for its outbreak is the rush towards independence in the late 1950s.

The problem is more immediately evident in Ruanda than in Urundi. In 1957 Hutu leaders in Ruanda publish a Hutu Manifesto, preparing their supporters for a future political conflict to be conducted entirely on ethnic lines. In 1959 the first outbreak of violence is sparked off when a group of Tutsi political activists in Gitirama beat up a Hutu rival, Dominique Mbonyumutwa (he survives the attack but the rumour of his death spreads rapidly in Hutu circles and is still believed today).

The resulting nationwide campaign of Hutu violence against Tutsis becomes known as ‘the wind of destruction’. Over the coming months many Tutsis flee from Ruanda, including the 25-year-old hereditary ruler, the Mwami.

In elections in 1960 Hutu politicians score an overwhelming victory. Grégoire Kayibanda, one of the authors of the Hutu Manifesto, leads a provisional government for the interim period to independence.

In Urundi the Tutsi monarchy proves at first more resilient, both in holding on to the reins of power and in attempting a resolution of the Tutsi-Hutu conflict. When elections are held in 1961, they bring a landslide victory for a joint Hutu and Tutsi party. It is led by the popular Prince Rwagasore, the eldest son of the Mwami. He is assassinated a few months later, before independence has been formally achieved. But this disaster does not yet tip Urundi into ethnic violence.

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