hroughout Burundi’s history since independence, intermittent bouts of political turmoil have escalated tragically into genocide between the country’s Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. Many international observers warned that this year would be no different. The country was hit by a succession of political shocks starting in the spring, when President Pierre Nkurunziza ignored the constitution’s two-term limit to announce that he was running again, on grounds that his first term should not count because he had been appointed rather than elected. His defiance triggered mass protests in April, an unsuccessful military coup in May, a call from the opposition in June to boycott the July election, and an incipient rebellion.
This summer, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that Burundi was “on the brink of devastating violence.” A UN human rights panel alarmingly warned of “mass atrocities.” And yet, those predictions have not borne out. Burundi made it through the controversial elections, and Nkurunziza was inaugurated for a third term in August—without the country erupting into ethnic violence.
How Burundi accomplished such a feat might surprise those who believe that preventing genocide requires humanitarian military intervention. Instead, in this case, ethnic violence was averted through ingenious political reform, which offers important lessons for managing ethnic conflict elsewhere, particularly next door in Rwanda.
The story begins with the ethnic balance of power at Burundi’s independence in 1962. A small Tutsi minority, only 15 percent of the population, ruled by monarchy over the Hutu majority. In 1965, Tutsi forces responded to a coup attempt by slaughtering much of the Hutu elite. Oppression of Hutu continued, spurring a rebellion in 1972 that provoked a much larger retaliation: the Tutsi killed an estimated 200,000 Hutu in about four months. In 1988, the Tutsi government overreacted yet again to localized inter-ethnic violence by killing thousands more Hutu.
Protesters who are against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term march towards the town of Ijenda, Burundi, June 3, 2015.
The latest round of ethnic violence exploded in 1993, when Tutsi soldiers derailed a transition to majority rule by assassinating the newly elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. That murder sparked a decade-long civil war, killing an estimated 300,000, both Hutu and Tutsi.
Gradually, the international community fostered a peace process by imposing sanctions, offering mediation, and deploying peacekeepers. Yet, forging a peace agreement proved daunting, since it required simultaneously addressing three contradictory concerns: Hutu demands for majority rule, Tutsi fears of retribution and exclusion, and the pathological role of ethnicity in politics. Nelson Mandela, the lead mediator for three years, needed to utilize all of his moral authority, charisma, and experience to accomplish that unlikely hat trick.
The outcome, Burundi’s 2005 democratic Constitution, gave the Hutu their long-sought goal of majority rule. At the same time, to alleviate the minority’s physical insecurity from surrendering control, the power-sharing deal gave the Tutsi half of the positions in the army and police, as well as in the senate. The accord also guaranteed the Tutsi one of two key security posts—minister of the army or police—and reserved one of two vice presidential slots for a Tutsi from one of the group’s traditional political parties to ensure a legitimate representative.
The minority’s anxiety about political exclusion was further addressed by guaranteeing the Tutsi 40 percent of the slots in the cabinet and national assembly, and one-third of all mayoral posts, ensuring their over-representation at all major levels of governance. Since constitutional amendments require an 80 percent vote, and major legislation a two-thirds super-majority, the Tutsi effectively obtained a legislative veto on vital issues, protecting them against the tyranny of the majority.