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Burundi Ethnic Strife 1970-1974

In 1972 a Hutu revolt, in which many innocent Tutsi were killed, was followed by massive, systematic counter-violence by the Burundi Governmwit and army which left an estimated 100,000 Hutu dead and which quickly became a genocidal-type operation aimed at the physical liquidation of educated and semi-educated Hutu. The 1972 revolt generated a massive involuntary migration of 150,000 Hutu to neighboring states and resulted in a system in which the Tutsi successfully excluded the Hutu from all positions of power, influence, and wealth in the army, the civil service, the university, and secondary schools.

Although there are no reliable data, it is estimated that about 85 percent of the population is Hutu, and 15 percent is Tutsi. A third group, the Twa, constitutes less than one percent. These groups are usually called "ethnic groups" although they share the same culture, history and language (a language of the Bantu family, Kirundi, almost identical to the one spoken in Rwanda), and cannot be distinguished with any accuracy, even by the Burundians themselves, through physical or other characteristics. A person belongs to the same ethnic group as his or her father. Intermarriage between Hutus and Tutsis has traditionally been common.

The Burundi ethnic strife of 1970-1974 was a flare-up of violence which resulted from the ancient enmity that exists between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes.

Burundi, along with Rwanda, achieved full independence from Belgium in 1962. However, the country was not left with a viable administration. In October 1965 a group of Hutu military officers staged an unsuccessful coup d’état directed at the Tutsi-dominated government. The mutineers took a big gamble and lost. And the losses far exceeded the revenge Tutsis exacted upon the Hutu community. In addition to exterminating the entire first generation of Hutu military officers and political leaders, an estimated 5000 Hutu civilians lost their lives in the capital of Bujumbura alone at the hands of local civilian defense groups organized under the supervision of the Tutsi army and governor. A military coup deposed King Mwami in 1966. King Mwami's son, who led the coup, took the throne, but was himself deposed by another military coup in the same year. The weakened monarchy was overthrown in 1966 by then Prime Minister, Captain Michel Micombero. Now president, Micombero abolished the monarchy and declared Burundi a republic with himself as president.

Although Micombero’s government included Hutu cabinet ministers, the government firmly remained in Tutsi hands. Civil unrest continued throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Tutsi, who were still in power, fearing that the Hutu were planning an uprising similar to the earlier one in Rwanda, made a preemptive strike. They systematically killed a vast number of the Burundi Hutu-probably more than one hundred thousand, perhaps as many as two hundred thousand - while the world community hardly uttered a protest.

Other accounts relate that the Hutus launched an unsuccessful rebellion against the Tutsi minority's domination of the country in an attempt to restore King Ntare V to power. In April 1972, Hutus trained outside the country carried out a massacre of several thousand Tutsi men, women and children in the region adjoining Lake Tanganyika in the south, while other armed groups attempted attacks in Bujumbura, Gitega and Cankuzo. The Micombero regime responded with a genocidal repression that is estimated to have caused over a hundred thousand victims and forced several hundred thousand Hutus into exile. The rebellion led to 10,000 Tutsi dead and 150,000 Hutu were murdered a year later.

This rebellion triggered the flight of hundreds of thousands of Burundians. Hutus with any degree of education who did not manage to flee into exile were systematically killed all through the country, down to high school students. The repression, which went on for months, was denounced at the United Nations by the Government of Rwanda. In that country persecution of Tutsis was intensified, and a coup the following year led to the military dictatorship of Juvénal Habyarimana, who was to rule until his death in 1994. His regime continued the pogroms against Tutsis, who continued to flee the country by the thousands.

In contrast to the two previous rebellions, the 1972 uprising was organized on a much broader and more violent scale. The former US Ambassador to Burundi (1969-1972), Thomas Melady, described the 1972 Tutsi-Hutu strife as “ . . . one of the worst bloodbaths of this century – and one of the least known”. According to the U.S. Ambassador, “The severity of the Tutsi response was probably rooted in the fear that such a plot would result in the wholesale killing or expulsion of Tutsis”. It is reported that President Micombero and other Tutsi leaders felt there was a vast Hutu conspiracy to eliminate them once and for all.

In the aftermath of the repression in Burundi, Hutus were deprived of all effective political power, down to the local level. This situation did not change substantially under the dictatorship of Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, another Hima Tutsi officer who overthrew Micombero in 1976 and who, like him, led a one-party Government that drew support from the Eastern Block. However, no ethnic massacres took place under his rule.

Traditional tribal enmity flared up whenever there was a government too weak to control the hostilities. The Hutu and Tutsi were still at odds as sporadic warfare continued.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2016 17:17:48 ZULU