Rwanda/Burundi Conflict


Rwanda and Burundi were, until World War I, occupied by the Germans, being a part of German East Africa. Captured by the Allied armed forces, they were administered as Ruanda-Urundi by Belgium under League of Nations trusteeship and, from 1945, under United Nations (UN) trusteeship.

The entity was split in 1959 into Burundi and Rwanda, and on July 1, 1962, the two countries became independent with the formation of the Kingdom of Burundi and the Republic of Rwanda. Both faced regular ethnic problems centering on the Tutsi-Hutu rivalry, with the Hutu forming 85 percent of the population of each country and the Tutsi being a much better educated minority.

In the year before Burundi became independent, there was political trouble that followed the UN-supervised elections of September 1961 that saw the Parti de l’Unité et Progrès National winning but their leader, Prince Louis Rwagsore, being assassinated several weeks later.


There was more instability when two prime ministers, Pierre Ngendandumwe and Joseph Bamina, were assassinated before an attempted coup d’état took place in October 1965. Thousands were killed as the government sought to maintain its power. However, it gave too much power to the army, which, in November 1966, overthrew the monarchy and established a republic under President Michel Micombero.

The last former king, Ntare V. Ndizeye, staged a coup attempt in 1972 but was killed in the attempt, which was immediately blamed on the Hutu—the government being drawn from the Tutsi minority.

As the Tutsi government sought revenge on its opponents, some 100,000 Hutu were massacred. In 1976 Micombero was overthrown in a military coup, and the new president, Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, tried to moderate the government and introduce reforms that stopped the oppression of the Hutu.

However, Bagaza was overthrown in 1987 in a coup d’état organized by Major Pierre Buyoya, who suspended the 1981 constitution and dissolved opposition parties. In August 1988 some 20,000 Hutu were massacred by the government, and many Hutu refugees fled to Rwanda.

In Rwanda, the monarchy was removed in 1959, before independence, and at independence, in 1962, the Hutu-led Parti du Mouvement de l’Emancipation Hutu—led by Grégoire Kayibanda—came to power.

There were massacres of some 20,000 Tutsi, and in 1973 Kayibanda was overthrown by General Juvénal Habyarimana, a former defense minister, who became president. He formed the Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour le Développement. It was not until 1978 that the constitution was restored; Habyarimana was relected in 1983 and again in January 1989.

It was the 1988 ethnic tensions in Burundi that sent large numbers of Hutu refugees from Burundi across the Rwanda-Burundi border. Many Tutsis also settled in Uganda, where they became Anglophiles, in contrast with the Rwandan and Burundi governments, which maintained connections with France.

Fighting in both countries came to a brief halt, and in April 1994, when negotiations to end the fighting were starting to make progress, the plane carrying Habyarimana back to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, was shot down with a French missile. All on board, including President Ntaryamira of Burundi, were killed. This was the opportunity that the extreme Rwandan Hutus were eagerly awaiting to try to take over control of Rwanda.

It is not known for certain who shot down the plane, but the Hutu government of Rwanda blamed the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF)—Tutsi rebels who were based in Uganda—while the RPF blamed the hard-liners in the government who did not want to share power. The killing of the president gave the extreme Hutus an excuse to unleash their Interahamwe militia on the Tutsis and moderate Hutus, killing up to 900,000 of them in horrific massacres.

Several UN solders were killed while protecting moderate politicians in Kigali, and the remainder of the UN forces was evacuated from the country. The UN Security Council—Rwanda was a member at the time—did nothing to try to stop the genocide, which only ended as the RPF forces won the civil war, capturing Kigali soon afterward.

The RPF inherited a devastated country and did their best to arrest the perpetrators of the genocide but hundreds of thousands of Hutus—extremists and their supporters—fled into the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Since the coming to power of the government of President Paul Kagame in Rwanda, there has been a concerted effort to rebuild the country shattered by ethnic tensions, war, and genocide.

With a large number of the intelligentsia of the country murdered or in exile overseas, Kagame has managed gradually to rebuild the infrastructure of the country and at the same time prosecute those guilty of horrendous atrocities.

The United Nations Security Council did adopt Resolution 977 in February 1995, setting up the International Criminal Tribunal based in Tanzania. The Kagame government has objected to it because it has refused to sanction the death penalty even for the most heinous of crimes.

Some of those caught in Rwanda, in some cases having been found guilty of murdering hundreds of people with machetes, have been tried and executed, with others jailed. In spite of the tensions and hatreds engendered by the war, the civil society is gradually being improved in Rwanda, with conditions also improving in Burundi.

Prior to the recent civil war, many tourists had visited Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. These numbers had increased following the film Gorillas in the Mist (1988) about Dian Fossey who lived with the gorillas and nurtured many of them, especially one known as "Digit". After the war it was revealed that most of the gorillas survived, and some tourist groups are, once again, visiting Rwanda.