Burundi is an east African country that shares its borders with Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Once an independent kingdom, Burundi was under both German and Belgian control until gaining its independence in 1962. Since then, the country has experienced civil wars and genocides, leaving its people as some of the poorest in the world. The political unrest here has been attributed to differences among its largest ethnic groups. This article takes a look at those ethnic groups and their role in the society today.
Hutu and Tutsi Ethnic Groups
The Hutus make up 85% of the population of Burundi. This ethnic group is thought to have arrived to the area over 1,000 years ago during the Bantu migration. They mainly speak the Kirundi dialect of the Rwanda-Rundi language, although French is generally used in business matters. The second largest ethnic group in Burundi is the Tutsis who make up 14% of the population. Researchers estimate that the Tutsi arrived to the already Hutu-inhabited area between 400 and 500 years ago. Traditionally, the Tutsi practiced livestock herding and, although the minority, they gained an elite class status in the region.
Minority Ethnic Groups
The Twa, which makes up less than 1% of the population, is an indigenous ethnic group that is believed to be one of the oldest cultures in the area. Traditionally, they practice a hunter gatherer lifestyle. When the Hutu arrived into the already Twa-inhabited areas, they became the dominant class. Other minority groups in Burundi include the Europeans, and South Asians, each less than 1% of the population.
European Colonial Rule
Before colonization, the indigenous groups had an unequal power structure. The long-existing Twa were the lowest ranking class and the minority Tutsi group had control of the majority Hutu population. By 1916, Belgians forces took over this area which previously had been under German colonial rule. The Belgians, believing the Tutsis were a superior race, fed into the indigenous power struggle by giving governing positions to the Tutsis. This led to increased hostility between the two ethnic groups. In 1959, the Burundi ruler, Mwami Mwambutsa IV, formally requested independence from Belgium. Independence was finally granted in 1962.
Independence, Civil War, and Genocide
The now-independent Burundi was ruled by a Tutsi king who attempted to encourage peace between the two largest ethnic groups by appointing the same number of Hutus and Tutsis to Parliament. The position of Prime Minister was given to a Hutu member, Pierre Ngendandumwe. In January of 1965, a Tutsi employed by the US embassy assassinated the Hutu Prime Minister. The following elections, in May of the same year, brought a Hutu majority to Parliament with a Tutsi Prime Minister. This appointment was not received well by the Hutu population thus increasing ethnic tensions. After a failed Hutu-led coup d’état, the Tutsi-controlled military overthrew the monarchy and established a military dictatorship, oppressing further the Hutu population.
In April of 1972, a Hutu rebel force attempted to gain control of the country. They were fought back by the Tutsi government, and the event led to a Hutu genocide. Estimates suggest that between 80,000 and 210,000 Hutu were killed and another several hundred thousand sought refuge in nearby countries. Political unrest continued through the 80’s and in 1993, another Hutu uprising resulted in the deaths of around 5,000 Tutsi peasants.
Current Relations Among Ethnic Groups
The United Nations' involvement has helped to ease tensions between the two largest ethnic groups, although sporadic fighting continues. Violence and opposition are largely led by the Hutu group, Forces for National Liberation. This uprising, along with an attempted coup d’état in 2015, have caused massive migrations of fleeing refugees. The country continues to report human rights violations. The economy has been nearly irreparably damaged and today, Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world.