History of Burundi

Of all the sad stories of Africa, the history of Burundi has one of the saddest. The average person born in tiny Burundi can statistically expect to live to be no older than 43 on average, although the 2012 official figure is 57.5 years for males and 61.2 years for women. Not only AIDS, but tuberculosis and malnutrition, long since done away with elsewhere, ravage the country. Nearly constant civil war over the last few decades has helped to make this possible, and also killed quite a few people on its own. As in neighboring Rwanda, ethnic strife being dominant Tutsis and poorer Hutus has done much to make a lasting stability and prosperty impossible. Also as in much of the rest of Africa, this instability can be traced almost entirely back to malicious influence of Europeans, chiefly the Belgians, but also the Germans, and even, to some extent, the United Nations.

Pre-Colonial Burundi

It is widely believed that the first people to live in Burundi were the Twa, a pigmy people who are primarily hunters and gatherers, though they are also famed for their pottery.

Today, however, the Twa make up only one percent of Burundi’s population. In the 14 th century, the Hutu invaded and conquered the Twa. They forced their language and customs on the natives as well.

The Tutsis invaded in the 15 th century, establishing a unified kingdom. They also established the social pyramid that endures to this day: the minority Tutsis running the government as well as trade and other positions of power, with the majority Hutus primarily confined to farming, and the Twa marginalized as a relatively tiny minority. There was, however, intermarriage among Hutus and Tutsis, much more so in the area that is now Rwanda.

The Tutsis established a sort of feudal rule. Tutsi kings, called mwamis, each had distinct kingdoms in what is now Burundi and also what is now Rwanda. They were supported by chiefs and subchiefs. Each chief and subchief ruled an umusozi, which was essentially a fiefdom. In the hilly landscape of Burundi, an umusozi typically consisted of a single hill.

The Tutsis established society according to the ubugabire system, according to which most of the Hutu were made serfs. Their land and the product of their labor were controlled by the Tutsis. The Tutsis, meanwhile, fought amongst themselves for power, with ganwas, who were a sort of sub-kings, fighting to take over from the mwami.

Europe Colonizes Burundi

This region of sub-Saharan Africa, unlike North Africa and the coastal regions of Africa, was the last part of Africa to be targeted by Europeans for subjugation. No Europeans ever even saw the area until 1858, when the British explorers Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke arrived. Austrian explorer Oskar Baumann and German Count Gustav Adolf von Götzen came in the 1890s. Roman Catholic church established missions not long afterward.

The Germans later became dominant, incorporating Burundi (then called Urundi) and Rwanda (then called Ruanda) into German East Africa. The Germans kept the Tutsi rulers in power.

The Belgians took over from the Germans during WWI. The League of Nations let Belgium keep Burundi after Germany’s defeat in WWI. The area became known as the Territory of Ruanda-Urundi. Through all this, the Belgians also kept the Tutsi in power. The serf system of ubugabire was never touched, even though slavery, serfdom, and other forced labor had been widely repudiated in the West, where forced labor was believed to have ended.

At the end of World War II, Ruanda-Urundi became a United Nations trust territory, but the Belgians were essentially left to run the show. The Belgians in turn continued to support mission education and also ruled through the local Tutsi chiefs. In 1955, the Belgians finally moved to end the ubugabire system, though they only pressured the Tutsi rulers to phase it out gradually.


While independence was rocky for many African colonies, it was especially difficult for Ruanda-Urundi.

The Hutu protested their oppression as second-class human beings more and more. In 1959, it led to violence in Ruanda. The Tusi king of Ruanda fled to Burundi, to be followed by another 200,000 Tutsi.

On July 1, 1962, the UN Trusteeship Council made Burundi an independent constitutional monarchy under a Tutsi king, Mwami Mwambutsa IV. Fearing a Hutu uprising such as had occurred in neighboring Rwanda, the Tutsi rulers entered upon a reign of terror, killing thousands of Hutus. Hutu refugees then flooded into Rwanda, though enough Hutu remained behind to establish a Hutu majority in the legislature by 1965. Yet despite the Hutu legislative majority, the country essentially remained in the grip of a Tutsi power structure.


The situation deteriorated rapidly as the Hutu became disenchanted with the situation, and the Tutsi became more fearful of the people they ruled over. A failed Hutu police coup led Mwami Mwambutsa to flee the country, to be replaced by another Tutsi, Captain Michel Micombero. His own son, Mwami Ntare V, deposed him in a coup not long afterward. But only four months later Micombero led a successful coup to take back his position. He declared Burundi a republic, appointed himself president, and established a National Revolutionary Committee.

An April 1972 Hutu uprising massacred at least 100,000 people, most of whom were in fact Hutu. Even more Hutu fled the country as refugees.

Micombero held power until a 1976 coup, that installed a Supreme Revolutionary Council, which in turn made Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza president. Bagazi forbade all other parties in 1981, and even forbade Catholic masses to be performed when the church opposed him.

In 1987, there was another coup, led by Major Pierre Buyoya, that overthrew Bagaza. Bagaza had some early success in stabilizing the country by bringing warring factions together, but this was quickly undone. In 1988, the army, led by Tutsis, massacred at least 5,000 Hutu. Buyoya tried to calm the country by appointing a Hutu prime minister and including Hutu in the cabinet. He also arranged for Burundi to have its first democratic presidential election under a true multi-party system.

The elections brought to power a Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, who was shortly assassinated by segments of the Tutsi military loyal to former dictator Bagaza. Cyprien Ntaryamira, a Hutu who replaced Ndadaye, tried to reign in the Tutsi military officials responsible, but he died in a mysterious 1994 plane crash along with the president of Rwanda, who was also in the plane. Sylvestre Ntibantunganya was named acting president of Burundi.

The suspicious crash set off waves of fury among Hutu in both Burundi and Rwanda. Rwanda was plunged into the worst violence it had ever known, in a period that the international press came to call genocide. Rwandan refugees flooded Burundi.

Meanwhile, massacres continued in Burundi; since 1993 right through the present day, more than 150,000 people have been killed and 700,000 displaced. The world has mostly cast its attention toward Rwanda, where the number of deaths was much greater.

Amidst this situation, ex-president Buyoya took power in a coup in 1996. A few years later, he began a system of carefully splitting government power between Hutus and Tutsis. The system of power-sharing continues to this day under new administrations. But, so does the Hutu-Tutsi violence, not to mention AIDS, tuberculosis, and numerous other diseases that have conspired to give Burundi one of the shortest life expectancies on earth.

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