In its long, bloody history of violence since achieving independence in 1962, Burundi has witnessed several watershed moments. Potentially it now faces its latest. The Gatumba massacre on 18 September 2011 demonstrates the unresolved problems simmering beneath the surface and that threaten to completely derail attempts to consolidate 'peace' and finally implement transitional justice. For a country of little geopolitical importance and whose post-civil war ills are barely deemed newsworthy, the threat of a return to civil war has attracted the attention of an otherwise uninterested international press. The manner in which Burundi deals with this latest round of escalating violence, together with its commitment to genuine transitional justice, are crucial to finally addressing impunity after decades of violence.

The memorial to assassinated Burundi President Melchior Ndadaye

“I promise that the criminals will be arrested and brought to justice … within a month”. That was the vow of Burundi's President, Pierre Nkurunziza to the families of those massacred at a bar in Gatumba, just outside Bujumbura near the border with DR Congo. This vow, however, has been heard before by generations of Burundians, nearly all of whom have lived their own 'Gatumba'. In fact, since the almost instant scramble for power after independence, successive waves of cyclic violence have left an indelible mark on Burundi's history. This violence has been met with almost total impunity. Most Burundians thus know better than to expect prompt, legitimate and impartial justice of the kind promised by the President, and are well-versed in the language of broken promises of their leaders.

Fragile democracy

Profound under-development, endemic corruption and a lack of security are just some of the consequences of nearly fifty years of violence and impunity.
Profound under-development, endemic corruption and a lack of security are just some of the consequences of nearly fifty years of violence and impunity. Despite two post-war elections in 2005 and 2010, Burundi remains a fragile democracy - the latter term only loosely applicable after the intimidation, political assassinations and other resorts to war-time tactics that characterised the recent election periods.

This fragility has been expressed in ethnic terms, reflected in the requirements under Burundi's constitution for the main institutions to be based on a power-sharing arrangement between the Hutu and Tutsi. Yet, a reading of the past only through the lens of ethnicity is both misleading and dangerous; the context of structural factors that can be traced as the roots of the violence and the fact that the violence of recent years hinges on political identities rather than merely ethnicity, belies simplistic reasoning. The approach to power-sharing is nonetheless intended to guarantee that state power is not disproportionately wielded by one of the two main ethnic groups.

History of violence

Indeed, Burundi's history demonstrates the consequences of the absence of such an arrangement. After just three years of independence gained in 1962, during which the Hutu Prime Minister was assassinated, a group of Hutu officers led an attempted coup, only to be brutally put down by the Tutsi-dominated army, on the watch of Captain Michel Micombero. Subsequent violence against the Tutsi population led to reprisal attacks by the army against Hutu communities, the 1959 Hutu Revolution and massacres of Tutsi in Rwanda no doubt fuelling the violence. After more unrest, Micombero declared himself as President in 1966 after a coup that abolished the monarchy.

For the Hutu collective memory, the events that followed in 1972 represent one of the most significant moments in Burundi's post-independence history, and against which all other violence is measured, even today. Responding to another violent Hutu uprising, the military regime this time deployed the army to systematically target the Hutu elite, with the complicity of the police and judiciary. After around four months, the majority of educated Hutu had disappeared - either massacred or driven into exile. Several more years of violence and human rights violations followed, including two further coups. When Major Pierre Buyoya took over as President in 1987 following the second of these coups, Burundi had become accustomed to the suppression of political opponents and to the one-party system established with the Tutsi-dominated Uprona party in the driving seat. However, the increasing suppression only fuelled radicalisation of the opposition and by the early 1990s the emergence of the Palipehutu rebels forced Buyoya to adopt a 'Charter of National Unity'.

A brutal civil war pitched Hutu rebels groups against the Tutsi security forces and Tutsi militias.
Spurred by the rhetoric of unity and growing political space for opposition, a new constitution was written and approved in 1992. The constitution afforded Burundians the opportunity of a multiparty system, which they duly took, electing the first Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye, in 1993. Hopes of progress were soon dashed however, when Ndadaye was assassinated after just 100 days in office by a group of Tutsi army officers attempting another coup. In the violence that followed, large numbers of Tutsi were murdered. For the next ten years Burundi entered a period of its history known locally as 'La crise' in which a brutal civil war pitched Hutu rebels groups against the Tutsi security forces and Tutsi militias. Fractures within rebel ranks led to factional splits, adding to a sense of anarchy.

Uneasy peace

By the late 1990s, pressure was growing for a resolution of the conflict and in 2000 the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement was signed. Significantly however, the two largest rebel groups, the CNDD-FDD and the FNL remained outside of the agreement. Nevertheless, a ceasefire between the CNDD-FDD and the transitional government was signed in 2003, and just two years later Pierre Nkurunziza was elected President of a CNDD-FDD-dominated government.

 Member of the CNDD-FDD rebel forces surrenders his weapon and ammunition

Disarmament and demobilisation of rebels began in earnest, and by 2006 a peace agreement was signed between the government and still-active FNL rebels, leading to the group’s disarmament and transformation into a political party in 2009. By the 2010 elections, all of the main former rebel groups were now registered political parties. However, each opposition party including the FNL pulled out of the Presidential race citing fraud, and FNL leader, Agathon Rwasa fled to DR Congo claiming threats against his life. Unsurprisingly, Pierre Nkurunziza won a second term as President.

Culture of impunity

The violence witnessed in Burundi has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians
The violence witnessed in Burundi has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, with the events in 1972 and 1993 recognised as genocide (though 1972, unlike 1993, has yet to be legally determined as such). In addition, millions have been displaced by the violence, either internally or across the borders of neighbouring countries. In spite of several highly dubious prosecutions, total impunity has been maintained across ethnic and political divisions, for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, not to mention other serious human rights violations. This festering culture of impunity, resulting from a legacy of abuse, underpins and exacerbates wider constraints to development in Burundi.

Whilst the Arusha Agreement laid out a framework for combating impunity, as of today little progress has been made towards the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms and other approaches to dealing with the past and ensuring non-recurrence. In fact, the current legal framework in Burundi creates a de-facto amnesty until the establishment of such mechanisms. In practice, despite a concession achieved in 2007 for the holding of National Consultations on transitional justice (delayed until 2010), and the government’s commitment to the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the beginning of 2012, the very real risk exists that the process will be manipulated to guarantee continued impunity. It should be recalled that the transformation of rebel groups into political parties means that at every level of the state, those responsible for past crimes maintain positions of power.

Recent violence

The evolution of the conflict away from its expression in ethnic strife is a fact confirmed by the political assassinations and extra-judicial killings today taking place.
It is against this backdrop that insecurity and low-intensity violence has continued, and the Gatumba massacre was perpetrated. The evolution of the conflict away from its expression in ethnic strife is a fact confirmed by the political assassinations and extra-judicial killings today taking place. Whilst by no means a bastion of ethnic harmony, ambitions for political power are now the main determinant of violence, a fact which further sheds light on the origins of the post-independence violence. Indeed, according to the FNL, civil society and even Burundi’s newly-created Human Rights Commission, a covert plan known as Safisha (meaning 'cleanse' in Swahili) exists for targeting political opponents of the CNDD-FDD, according to which 60 people were killed in May alone - the number increasing month-by-month. As a result of this plan bodies are once again being discovered dumped into Burundi's rivers and Lake Tanganyika. Less than a week before the massacre on 12 September, the FNL released a memorandum claiming an on-going genocide by the CNDD-FDD. By contrast, though responsibility has yet to be determined, the suggestion that the victims at Gatumba were supporters of the CNDD-FDD lends itself to accusations levelled against the FNL for the massacre.

Politically motivated violence and reprisal attacks are increasing, with the risk that assassinations of senior officials and the massacre at Gatumba could be used as a pretext for further violence. Although President Nkurunziza has labelled previous attacks as mere “banditry” and dismissed the threat of the FNL, the Human Rights Commission has expressed concern over the “resurgence of violence and armed groups”. According to some experts, and although a clichéd assessment, levels of unemployment - particularly among demobilised former rebels - and poverty may mean that the taking up of arms is an attractive proposition, easily exploitable by armed groups.

As the technical committee tasked with advising the government on the composition and mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gets ready to present its recommendations in October, the need for political reconciliation in the country remains a critical objective. The bodies at Gatumba are testament to this.