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Burundi's Survival Depends on Regional Peace

In the past three years, the small Central African state has achieved remarkable progress in fostering reconciliation between the two formerly warring ethnic groups - the Hutus and the Tutsis. Nevertheless, analysts link Burundi's long-term prospects for peace to developments in the entire region.

International donors recently pledged $170 million in aid to war-ravaged Burundi. The aid will be used to help feed the country's drought-stricken population, repatriate refugees, improve health care and education, build good governance and restore the rule of law.

Howard Wolpe is Director of the Africa Program and Leadership Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and one of the leaders of the international effort to rebuild Burundi. He says a recent drought has aggravated living conditions in the country, which is already ravaged by years of ethnic violence of the 1990s.

Burundi is Struggling to Avert Famine

“The country has needs at every level and in every sector. It is literally one of the most impoverished countries on the face of the African continent. It is very land short. It has a great need to try to improve its agricultural productivity. Its school system and all the social structures, basically, were decimated by the conflict. And so there are tremendous needs in the areas of education, health care and training generally -- training for governance,” says Wolpe.

Ethnic tensions between Burundi's majority Hutu population and the Tutsi minority escalated into widespread violence after the assassination of the country's first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu in 1993. More than 200,000 Burundians perished during the conflict that spanned almost a dozen years. Hundreds-of-thousands were internally displaced or became refugees in neighboring countries. An internationally brokered power-sharing agreement between the Tutsi-dominated government and the Hutu rebels in 2003 paved the way for rebuilding Burundi.

Many analysts agree that in the past three years Burundi has made more progress toward peace and reconciliation of its ethnic groups than its neighbors Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Power Sharing Essential to Success

Rene Lemarchand, author of the book Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide, says the success is due to carefully planned power sharing. Tutsis, who make up only about 14 percent of Burundi's population and Hutus who account for about 85 percent, get almost equal representation in the government, police, army and other institutions.

“The president is a Hutu -- his name is Pierre Nkurunziza -- but he is assisted by two vice-presidents, a Hutu and a Tutsi. In the government, 60 percent are Hutu and 40 percent are Tutsi. In the National Assembly, the ratio remains the same. The Senate is 50 percent Hutu and 50 percent Tutsi. And last but not least: the army is to be divided between Hutu and Tutsi on a 50-50 basis. And it is here, I think, that lies the key to this successful transition,” says Lemarchand.

During the 1990s, the army in Burundi used to be an instrument of terror in the hands of Tutsi minority, but as Rene Lemarchand says, it now promises to turn into a neutral and professional institution. He adds that the country's major political parties are also composed of members from various ethnic groups.

Human Rights Violations Still Widespread

But many problems remain. For example, says political scientist Rene Lemarchand, one rebel group, the Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People - National Liberation Front or FNL, still refuses to reconcile with the government.

“It is not a group that has the capacity to destabilize the system, but its nuisance value should not be underestimated because it could also re-ignite ethnic enmities. And this is why the government is now taking very seriously the threat of the FNL and will now mobilize the army against it in hopes of breaking the back of the rebellion. But whether it can do so or not is not entirely clear”, says Lemarchand.

Many observers have also reported serious violations of human rights in Burundi. Juliane Kippenberg, a representative of the African Division of Human Rights Watch in Germany, says both the government and the rebels have committed serious crimes against the civilian population.

“We've had a case recently of a woman who was murdered and her body badly mutilated at the beginning of February, probably because she refused to provide food to the FNL. And the government is obviously trying to fight against this rebel group, but in the course of doing that it is also committing very serious abuses against people suspected of collaboration with the FNL or people who are saying they've deserted the FNL,” says Kippenberg.

Juliane Kippenberg says there are numerous reports of summary executions and torture committed by the police and government forces. Human rights groups demand more efforts by the government to bring to justice the perpetrators of these crimes and free access to detention facilities for international observers.

Economic Growth Hinges on Regional Peace

Burundi has a subsistence economy, largely dependent on exports of coffee and tea. Only half of its children go to school, and approximately one in ten adults has HIV/AIDS. Food, medicine, and electricity are in short supply.

Howard Wolpe of the Woodrow Wilson Center says that Burundi's economic development won't be possible without regional cooperation.

“And I think the hope is that the country will gradually begin to expand industries that are tied to its agricultural base, such as food processing of various types. But it really is a struggle to identify a very positive economic future for Burundi unless the entire region can be stabilized and Burundi can begin to take advantage of its participation in a broader regional economic framework,” says Wolpe.

Many analysts say Burundi's long-term peace prospects depend on what happens in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Renewed clashes between Tutsis and Hutus in either country could spill across Burundi's borders, igniting a new cycle of violence and suffering. Africa specialist Howard Wolpe says the international community must make every effort to secure peace and stability throughout the region. In the meantime, he says, Burundi's progress toward peace may serve as an incentive to its neighbors.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.