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Civil wars

A better way to win power

by Floreana Miesen

In brief

A wedding in Burundi in 2007

A wedding in Burundi in 2007

A new World Bank report praises Burundi’s achievements in state-building and economic reform. In a study for the Berghof Foundation, Willy Nindorera reassesses the rocky road from armed struggle to peaceful elections. By Floreana Miesen

The World Bank report approvingly states that Burundi is “among the most active economies in the world”. Such success was only possible thanks to the end of the civil war. Nindorera tells the story of how Hutu rebels gave up their arms, renounced violence and organised peacefully.

In his view, conflicts in Burundi escalated because of blurry power relations after the country’s independence. When the colonial powers withdrew in 1962, tensions arose between Tutsis and Hutus. In 1972, radical Hutus killed over thousand Tutsi civilians. At the time,
the Tutsi-dominated army perceived itself as the protector of the minority population, Nindorera writes. Many Hutus, however, considered the army criminal and violent.

When the democratically elected president Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, was murdered in 1993, massacres raged between the two ethnic groups in Burundi. In April 1994, the aircraft carrying Ndadaye’s successor and the president of Rwanda was shot down. This attack triggered the Rwandan genocide with an estimated 800,000 dead.

In Burundi, the conflict did not escalate that fast, but it raged longer and cost about 250,000 lives. In 1994, Hutu rebels formed the Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie – Forces de Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD). Their main demands were the unconditional restoration of the rule of law in accordance with the results of the presidential elections of June 1993 as well as the reform of the Tutsi-dominated army.

According to Nindorera, the conflict in Burundi was marked by many different parties that did not pursue well-­defined goals. The young rebels lacked political and military experience. After several years, their struggle seemed increasingly futile, so negotiations became more attractive. In November 2001, a transitional government was created after Nelson Mandela mediated. From then on, negotiations took place in hostile mutual suspicion.

Members of the CNDD-FDD suffered from social inferiority, but eventually reached an agreement with the transitional government. Their demand for proportional representation in the army and in the political arena was met. From then on, reintegration of former combatants into society proved successful, according to Nindorera. Commitments were fulfilled and violence was avoided. In November 2003, the rebel movement CNDD-FDD formally became a political party. In 2005, it won the election. Meanwhile, some Tutsis have joined it, which is proof of pluralism. In Nindorera’s view, the rebel force’s change to a political party has been successful, even though the legacy of its violent past may still sometimes mark its appearance.

Floreana Miesen