Civil War: Burundi (1972)

Chelsea Brown. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


The events in Burundi in 1972 were a watershed in the history of the nation, and they shaped its political future all the way to the present day. When this terrible time was over, nearly 200,000 people would be dead and hundreds of thousands more would be displaced as refugees in neighboring countries. The genocide in 1972 entrenched a system of fear that ultimately led to a series of reprisals and instituted a culture of mistrust between the Hutu and the Tutsi that has yet to be reconciled.

Prior to the 1972 war, Burundi was not a peaceful country. The struggle for independence and political manipulation by the Belgian colonizers intent on maintaining control over Burundi had produced many clashes. There were numerous conflicts over land, financial matters, and other political concerns. Ethnicity, however, had rarely been a cause for conflict by itself before the 1960s. That began to change after the assassination of Prince Rwagasore in 1961, which ultimately led to a conflict between a largely Tutsi government army and Hutu rebels protesting their treatment under the new regime. The war in 1972 lasted only a month, but it left an impression on the inhabitants that persists today.

Hard figures for casualties and the exact sequence of events are hard to come by. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 people—mostly Hutu and their Tutsi sympathizers—were massacred in 1972. In general, the rebels involved in the attempted coup are all dead. Many of the accounts of the events come from refugees who managed to escape to neighboring countries. Official representatives from the Burundian government have maintained that that there was a large group of rebels from inside Burundi and foreign fighters from neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Only one thing is certain: The events in 1972 were tragic and, unfortunately, part of a vicious cycle that had persisted for decades.

Country Background

Burundi is a small central African nation of roughly 11,000 square miles located on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and bordered by Rwanda, Congo, and Tanzania. It is divided into sixteen provinces that are headed by governors appointed by the president. The capital, Bujumbura, is relatively small for a national capital, with around 25,000 inhabitants at the time of the insurrection. Culturally, Burundians tend to prefer to live in small, fragmented groups in the hills that make up the country. Urban centers and villages are rare, with the exception of Bujumbura. The other areas in Burundi would hardly qualify as cities by Western standards, as they usually have around 10,000 inhabitants at most.

The Burundi kingdom was founded in 1680 and was colonized by Germany in 1896 as part of the combined Rwandan-Burundi state (Ruanda-Urundi). In 1916, the Belgians occupied Burundi, and it officially came under Belgian control on June 20, 1922, as part of the League of Nations mandate that divided African colonies among European nations. Releasing its formal ties to Belgium, Burundi became an independent monarchy under Prince Charles Ndizeye on July 1, 1962.

Even as a Belgian colony, Burundi maintained a high degree of self-rule. In fact, there were usually more missionaries in Burundi than colonial officers (Rake 1987, 47). Belgium preferred to rule indirectly, by supervising the Burundian princes and regional rulers and by educating the ruling classes. This had the unfortunate effect of creating an educated, ruling Tutsi minority that began to use its power to dominate the uneducated, agriculturally based Hutu. Despite the presence of elected positions and a king, Burundi was classified as a strong dictatorship before, during, and after the war. Even today, Burundi is considered to be in a dictatorial transition and has many elements of a military regime.

Burundi is a poor nation with few natural resources, although it does have large nickel deposits. It is also landlocked, making agriculture the primary economic sector. Coffee is the most important crop, accounting for 90 percent of exports. Consequently, the economy is subject to swings in world coffee prices. There is no notable manufacturing sector. A literacy rate of approximately 50 percent and government instability keep investments and economic expansion low (see Table 1 for GDP data). Burundi also has one of the highest population densities in Africa, with more than 400 people per square kilometer in the denser areas and more than 200 in the sparser regions. It is also one of the smallest nations in Africa—smaller than the state of Maryland. At the time of the 1972 conflict, the population of Burundi was over six million. Crowded conditions inside the country created considerable population pressures for grazing land, agricultural areas, and living space.

Three main ethnic groups make up the population of Burundi. The Hutu constitute roughly 85 percent of the population, the Tutsi account for approximately 14 percent, and the Twa account for the remaining 1 percent. There is a small contingent of Asians, Europeans, and Americans, but they account for a minimal percentage of the population. The majority of the population is Catholic (62 percent), with indigenous beliefs (23 percent), Muslim (10 percent) and Protestants (5 percent) rounding out the religious background. Kirundi and French are the official languages, but Swahili is occasionally used, especially in commercial transactions.

Conflict Background

Ethnic tensions in Burundi by themselves were not a significant problem under the monarchy or under colonial rule. Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa alike recognized the authority of the monarchy. When tension did arise, it was often the result of political infighting among regional princes, or it was over accession issues, rather than strictly ethnic confrontations. Despite the fact that the ruling classes were ethnically Tutsi, the constant fighting among the regional rulers required that princes have the support of the entire regional population, both Hutu and Tutsi (Lemarchand 1996). As the Hutu outnumbered the Tutsi, angering this population meant that the local monarch would lose legitimacy and resource support. Unlike neighboring Rwanda, the monarchy was not strongly associated with an ethnic dominance. The mwami (ruling monarch) enjoyed popular loyalty in Burundi regardless of his ethnic background.

Although the 1972 event was certainly one of the most devastating conflicts in Burundi’s history, it is not an isolated event; Burundi has a history of coups and internal conflicts. Although the most recent conflict prior to 1972 was in 1965-1966, the struggle for independence in 1961 produced internal infighting for political control, and there were several other minor (mostly regional) skirmishes during the colonial era.

The Hutu were dramatically underrepresented in government and were subject to repressive tactics under various Tutsi regimes. The 1972 war was fought for control over the government, but it was fought along ethnic lines and is categorized as an ethnic conflict. Estimates of the number of casualties range from 100,000 to more than 300,000, not including the hundreds of thousands of people who fled into neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zaire (Congo).

The military, funded from government revenues, was comprised of approximately 30,000 soldiers and was almost entirely Tutsi after a purging of Hutu in 1965. Government military tactics in the war included the usual assortment of repression techniques: the use of roadblocks to prevent movement, as well as beatings, jailing, and mass execution. All Hutu were suspect, as were any Tutsi who opposed their treatment. The Tutsi-dominated government was determined to maintain power in Burundi. Arms trafficking was, and still is, a problem in Burundi, and the government was able to acquire weapons without much difficulty (Human Rights Watch 1998).

The rebel army was not an organized fighting force and was composed of an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 individuals. The rebels used coordinated attacks on April 29, 1972, in the cities of Bujumbura, Gitega, and southern Burundi to attempt an overthrow. The rebels did not appear to have a clear leadership structure or hierarchy, and the attacks appear to have taken place with a nominal amount of leadership and planning. This assessment, however, is uncertain, as those suspected of involvement with the attacks were rapidly executed.

These attacks were a response to the continuing oppression of the Hutu and the denial of educational and career opportunities. Further fanning the flames were the Tutsi refugees from Rwanda who espoused an anti-Hutu rhetoric and advocated violence against the Hutu. This was especially problematic in the north, where the majority of the Tutsi refugees crossed the border from Rwanda.

There were considerable spillover effects from this and other Hutu-Tutsi conflicts in the Great Lakes region of Africa. One adage notes, “When Rwanda sneezes, Zaire and Burundi catch a cold.” As refugees flowed from Burundi and Rwanda into Zaire, Tanzania, and Uganda, they continued to fight and created ethnic tension in other areas. Neighboring countries also provided grounds for rebels to regroup and stage future attacks. Rough estimates put the number of displaced persons at more than 500,000 people.

The Insurgents

The rebel Hutus, after years of repression and denial of opportunity by the Micombero government, decided to stage a coup and establish Hutu control of the government. The rebels were not funded by any particular source other than day-to-day agricultural income. It appears that two military depots were attacked, and some small arms were taken during the night of April 29, 1972. Aside from some planning on the date and timing of attacks, there was little known coordination. The arms used in the attacks were mostly small handguns, machetes, and clubs—all things that the rebels already owned or were able to easily acquire. The rebel group did not appear to have external assistance, despite the account of the Micombero government stating that Zairian Mulelist rebels assisted with the plot. There is no evidence to support this, and if Zairian groups were involved, it was to a very small extent.

Sources: Marshall and Jaggers 2002.
War: Hutu rebels vs. Tutsi government
Dates: April 29, 1972-May 1972
Casualties: Estimated 150,000-200,000
Regime type prior to war: Military dictatorship (-7) (ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: Military dictatorship (-7) (ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP/capita year war began: US $774 in 1996 constant dollars
GDP/capita 5 years after war: US $857 in 1996 constant dollars
Insurgents: Hutu rebels
Issue: Ethnic security
Rebel funding: Agricultural income
Role of geography: Neighboring countries used to plan attacks
Role of resources: No natural resources used to fund either side
Immediate outcome: Government military victory: genocide of Hutu
Outcome after 5 years: Tutsi domination of government; reprisal killing
Role of UN: Some humanitarian assistance, no direct action
Role of regional organization: OAU investigation, no direct intervention
Refugees: Estimated 300,000-500,000
Prospects for peace: Recent years have seen improvements, but Burundi still experiences ethnic conflict.
Table 1: Civil War in Burundi


The geography in Burundi did not directly contribute to the conflict, although it played an indirect role. The region is hilly, with a relatively high elevation. This elevation keeps the climate comfortable, at a year-round temperature of about 73 degrees. With the exception of the low-lying region along the Lake Tanganyika shore, the country is free of pests that spread tropical diseases. Consequently, few Burundians died from tropical diseases—which increased the population pressure. In the present day, AIDS has taken a tremendous toll on the Burundian population, but in 1972, AIDS was not prevalent.

Burundi’s hilly geography did not hide bands of rebel groups as in other countries. The Hutu and Tutsi lived intermixed on the hillsides, with a slightly higher concentration of Tutsi to the north near Rwanda and a higher concentration of Hutu along the lake, where the climate is not good for cattle herding, a primarily Tutsi operation. The tremendous population has stripped Burundi of much of its natural forestation, as most of its wood is used for fuel. Despite having two national parks and nature reserves, Burundi is almost completely bereft of any wildlife outside these areas: Everything has been hunted for food, or its habitat has been destroyed.

Nearby countries, in particular Tanzania and Zaire, might have provided some shelter for rebels who were planning the attacks, but most of the insurgents were local and fought in their native areas. The insurgency was brief and lasted for only a week before government forces crushed the rebellion. Unlike other civil wars, where the geography increased the duration of the conflict or provided an advantage to one side or another, the geography in Burundi had little effect.


The tactics used by the rebels in this conflict were confined to general attacks on government buildings and an attempt by 40-50 people to take over the radio station near Bujumbura. There were no prior terrorist-style attacks, and the Hutu rebels did not use typical guerrilla tactics. Because the rebellion was so short and the reprisal killings so swift, the rebels did not have time to go into hiding.

The government, for its part, simply used the military to track down and kill all suspected rebels. After a period of about three weeks, most foreign governments agreed that the Tutsi-led military had eliminated most of the insurgents and was starting to indiscriminately kill Hutus with the aim of eliminating most of the ethnic group. Specifically targeted were Hutus with education or leadership skills. At this point, it is widely believed that Micombero had lost all control of the Burundian army to Tutsi officers with an extremist agenda.

Causes of the War

In order to understand the causes of the war, it is essential to understand the nature of ethnicity and race relations in Burundi. Burundi and its ethnic tensions are similar to, yet fundamentally different from, those in neighboring Rwanda. Prior to independence, Rwanda observed a strict ethnic split between the Hutu and the Tutsi. By contrast, Burundi had a much more fluid system. There was considerable mixing between the groups, and although the Tutsi tended to be well off socioeconomically, no strict division prevented either of the two groups from advancing socially.

In Kirundi, the word Hutu also means “peasant.” In Burundi, a Hutu could be anyone of a lower rank, regardless of his or her ethnicity. Likewise, a Tutsi was someone of a higher rank. Hutus were generally agriculturalists, whereas the Tutsi tended to engage in commerce or government work. In this way, a Hutu could become a Tutsi by rising socially or economically, and a Tutsi could become a Hutu through a change in profession or fortune. Education was a key factor in social mobility, for an education meant the possibility of working for the government, a key employer in this developing nation. The notion of ethnicity in Burundi was tied less to strict racial composition than to social standing within the community.

This began to change around 1961, just before independence. Prior to the 1960s, the ganwa, or the ruling elite, held most of the political power. Germany and Belgium ruled indirectly through the ganwa during colonial times. The ganwa were generally ethnic Tutsi, although most Burundians tended to see them as a separate ruling class rather than Tutsi or Hutu. One reason for this was that regional rulers were constantly fighting among each other for control of a particular region. Maintaining power meant that each ganwa required the support of the entire population of a region, both Hutu and Tutsi. Because the population of Burundi was 85 percent Hutu, the rulers had to have Hutu support. Hence, the ruler had a built-in incentive to treat the entire population well and not promote one group over another if he wished to maintain power. Consequently, the ethnicity of the ganwa was never really an issue.

Like most states with fragile institutions, the ganwa eventually found themselves too weak to govern a nation without outside help. Burundi had structured itself as a constitutional monarchy, with a parliament, a prime minister, and a ruling monarch from the ganwa. After independence, a young politician by the name of Prince Rwagasore saw an opportunity for political power. He began to talk of nationalist policies and founded the UPRONA (Union for National Progress), whose emergence was a turning point in Burundian politics. UPRONA was the first nationalistic party, and its electoral success stunned the pro-Belgian group that had expected to easily win.

The UPRONA was initially started as a party for all Burundians and included both Hutu and Tutsi. Rwagasore and UPRONA strove to keep ethnic tensions at bay and managed to create a semblance of cohesion among Burundians. In the first democratic elections of 1961, UPRONA won 80 percent of the vote, took 58 seats out of 64 in the National Assembly in the 1961 elections, and saw Rwagasore become Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the cohesion and relative peace brought by Rwagasore was short-lived; he was assassinated on October 13, 1961. His successor, Andre Muhirwa, ordered the execution of Rwagasore’s accused killers. This was the beginning of a terrible and bloody cycle in Burundian politics. Some believe that former colonial master Belgium had a hand in the assassination of Rwagasore in order to protect economic investments in the region (Scherrer 2002, 219). However, no formal evidence has ever been presented to substantiate this.

The membership of the parliament in the early days after independence was about half Hutus. After Rwagasore’s death, the parliament began to split among ethnic rather than regional lines. In 1961, the ethnic distribution of high-ranking civil servants (those at the level of director or above) was 43 Hutu, 83 Tutsi, and 4 others (Melady 1974). One can see that, although Tutsis were overrepresented at this time, nonetheless a considerable number of Hutus participated in government.

The assassination of Rwagasore created a power vacuum, and a crisis of leadership formed in the UPRONA. It was at this time that ethnicity became a major issue in Burundian politics. A bitter struggle for the leadership of UPRONA ensued between the Hutu and the Tutsi. Ultimately, the Tutsi succeeded. Rwagasore’s death also created a legitimacy crisis for the government as a whole, and the monarchy was exiled a few years later. In 1965, the monarchy became an obstacle to aspiring politicians of all ethnicities. A Hutu rebellion against the monarchy was unsuccessful but demonstrated how little respect Burundians now had for the ganwa.

This attempted coup was staged because the appointed Hutu prime minister, Pierre Ngendandunwe, was shot to death on the day he announced his cabinet in the fall of 1965. The mwami, or king, refused to appoint another Hutu to take his place. A Hutu appointment was naturally expected, as they had won twenty-three out of thirty-three seats in the National Assembly. Instead, Leopold Biha, a Tutsi, was appointed. This was a shocking setback for the Hutus.

The coup began when a group of armed Hutu military men drove to Biha’s house, knocked at his door, and shot him at point-blank range. This group also tried to force its way into the royal palace, where it met unexpected resistance. The ramifications of the attempted coup would be more numerous than perhaps even the planners of the coup attempt realized. Not only was the coup unsuccessful, but the Tutsi now had a reason to remove all Hutu from government and military positions on suspicion of plotting against the government. Consequently, the Hutu lost all reasonable expectation of participation in government, and a purge of Hutu from the military officer corps and higher levels of government service began. This unsuccessful rebellion and the weakness of the monarchy cleared the way for Tutsi domination of the government and UPRONA. One year later, in 1966, the Tutsis and UPRONA proclaimed the First Republic under Tutsi President Michel Micombero.

After the failed 1965 coup, militia groups began to form, especially as offshoots of the UPRONA. The JNR (Jeunesse Nationaliste Rwagasore), the youth wing of the UPRONA, initiated UPRONA’s militant, anti-Tutsi stance. The JNR, later the JRR (Jeunesse Revolutionnaire Rwagasore), became devoted to Tutsi domination and also began to espouse the violent defense of Tutsi domination. It was only in Burundi that the youth groups were the source of violent, extremist, anti-Western positions (Lemarchand 1996, 62). The JRR membership consisted of secondary school and university students, dropouts, and unemployed youth. Other Tutsi extremists were spurred to action by the coup attempt and the desire to eliminate potential Hutu leaders.

Three weeks after the assassination of Prime Minister Biha, the government handed down eighty-six death sentences and executed any Hutu official or military officer thought to be associated with the plot. This basically gave the Tutsis complete control of Bujumbura, as well as control over a majority of other regions in the country.

The purge of the military eventually allowed the army to become an instrument of Tutsi domination. In the weeks after the attempted coup, “hundreds of officers were massacred by their commanding officers” (Lemarchand 1996, 86). In addition, a height-by-width requirement was implemented as a way to exclude any Hutu from joining the military in the future (Greenland 1976). It was after these purges that a group of students appear to have taken to the bush with the intent to garner support for a major insurrection against the Tutsi-dominated government.

By 1967, only three out of twenty regional directors were Hutu, and the rest of the government was completely Tutsi dominated. The idea of a “Hutu threat,” or potential repression by a Hutu majority, also played a role in intra-Tutsi conflict. Rival Tutsi factions used the Hutu threat to keep politicians from taking moderate positions. This rhetoric, of course, made the Tutsi population anxious, for they took the embellished talk as factual.

President Micombero was from the Bururi region in southern Burundi. Rival Tutsi groups from the north and south began to fight over power in the mid-1960s. Micombero began to distrust the northern Tutsis, thinking that they might be loyal to the monarchy rather than to the First Republic. He also began to think that certain members of his cabinet were plotting to restore the monarchy. This belief was reinforced by other southern Tutsis, who wished to remove a few of their political rivals. Micombero began to eliminate the northern Tutsis from his cabinet and other high-level government positions, and he consolidated power solidly within the southern group of Tutsis. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the government and senior military positions consisted almost entirely of southern Tutsi. Almost without exception, the Hutu had been eliminated from military and government service.

The presence of a Hutu regime and majority rule in nearby Rwanda also could have further inspired Hutu discontent. This sense of ethnic politics in Rwanda spilled over to the tactics of Burundi politicians. Many people were attracted to the idea of a Hutu republic, as they were the majority ethnic group. The Tutsi became further threatened when the Catholic Church began organizing Hutu trade unions and guilds. The Tutsi saw this as a direct threat to their traditional commercial domain and an imposition on the Tutsi lifestyle and role in society.

Around this time, there was also an influx of Rwandan refugees from the Tutsi massacres that took place in 1959-1960. These refugees settled mostly in the northern part of Burundi, near the Rwandan border. These refugees spread fear of Tutsi elimination and frequently spouted anti-Hutu rhetoric. The fact that such a small minority as the Tutsi controlled the government made President Micombero gravely concerned about maintaining power while limiting the potential for coup attempts by the Hutu or a rival Tutsi group.

The Congo rebellion in eastern Zaire also had some minor spillover effects. Rebel groups begin to use Burundi as a staging ground for attacks in Eastern Congo and Rwanda. This provided some trafficking of small arms and military training, although there is not a lot of evidence that rebel Hutu groups benefited from this.

The Hutu were starting to realize that they were systematically being denied advancement opportunities through purges of the civil service and the military, and they were also discovering that the education limits placed on them would limit the advancement of coming generations. Their position in society was now confined largely to the agricultural peasantry. By the early 1970s, the Hutu had come to the conclusion that the only option they had was violent insurgency. A coup attempt began on April 29, 1972, after a short period of planning.

The Ibo plain was the site for most of the Hutu uprising. This area was predominately Hutu, as the tropical climate is not suited to raising cattle, a typically Tutsi pastime. This region was also known for its instability, particularly near the city of Rumonge. Although the instability was not of an ethnic nature, it nonetheless created a tense environment for the area’s inhabitants. The Ibo plain was also one of the few places in Burundi where tropical diseases and health care were serious concerns.

Several months prior to the attacks, there were unusual movements of Hutu teachers to Tanzania. This caused some worry in the Tutsi administration. Some Tutsi even began to warn their Hutu neighbors that a move against the Hutu was coming (Lemarchand 1996). During these few months, some arbitrary arrests were made among the Hutu populations, and a few isolated incidents were reported. Like many other aspects of this conflict, however, the details are sketchy and uncertain. The actual intentions of the group, the tactics that were planned, and the operation of the rebel group are unknown.

The insurrection appeared to have some planning, as all the Hutu teachers in the Nyanza-Lac region fled to Tanzania several days before the attacks began. In response to the flight of the teachers, the regional government decided to hold a meeting of provincial administrators in Rumonge on April 29 to discuss the situation. That meeting was the spark that lit the fire of Hutu rebellion.

The following was a cable from Michael Hoyt, the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Bujumbura, to the State Department concerning the 1972 attack by the Hutu (Lemarchand 1996):

Bands of Mulelist Hutu enter Burundi during the past week from Tanzania and started slaughtering in Nyanza-Lac and particularly Rumonge, April 29. Trouble spreads to Bururi where many soldiers at military training camps killed. Small arms may have been taken. News reports suggest many officials in Bururi province also killed and fighting continues throughout. We have reliable reports Burundi armed forces machine gunning groups of insurgents from the air. Members similar to the same band arrived Bujumbura attacked vehicles in the evening April 29. Bands of people yelling Mulelist slogans.

The Mulelist slogans came from a revolutionary movement in Zaire in the mid-1960s led by Pierre Mulele. The Mulelist movement led an initially successful rebellion in the Kwilu region of Zaire. The utterance of these slogans by the Hutu rebels allowed the Burundi government to blame foreign fighters for part of the rebellion. It is possible that Burundian Hutu fighters might have adopted Mulelist slogans and dress in an effort to cover up the true origination of the planning. This failed miserably, however, as the government soon began to exterminate all Hutus regardless of their level of participation in the rebellion.

On that day, April 29, between 7:00 and 8:00 in the evening, “armed Hutu insurgents, numbering anywhere from 300-500, attacked government posts and military installations in Rumonge and Nyanza-Lac”(Lemarchand, 1996, 91). Simultaneously, similar attacks were launched in Bujumbura and the Gitega region. Approximately forty rebels had the intention of attacking and gaining control of the radio station in Bujumbura. When they were unsuccessful, they took control of an intersection in the city, burned two cars, and killed a small number of people in the cars. The rebels in Bujumbura were very quickly eliminated, and the city was calm again after only a few hours.

The situation was different in Rumonge and Nyanza-Lac. The Hutu insurgents who attacked the military training camps now had control of the grounds, and they slaughtered every Tutsi in sight. The Hutu rebels also killed any Hutu who refused to participate in or aid the rebellion. At this point, roughly 3,000 people were estimated to be dead, most of them Tutsi.

Some of the insurgents, after learning of the nonsuccess in Bujumbura, retreated to a commune in Bururi and proclaimed a Hutu republic. Less than one week later, the Burundian government crushed the rebellion and regained control over all areas of Burundi.

The government pointed to two possible reasons for this rebellion (of course, they did not consider repression of the Hutu to be a possible cause). Publicly, the government blamed the exiled King Ntare for preparing an invasion of foreign forces in an attempt to return to power. This explanation was convenient, as during the short Hutu siege, King Ntare, who was back from exile and under house arrest in Burundi, was assassinated by government officials. The other explanation was that Hutu officials within the government had concocted a master plot to take control of the government.

The real situation is far murkier and probably contains elements of both reports. Rene Lemarchand describes it as a highly unstable coalition among three groups: a handful of Hutu students from the south, a shadow Mulelist presence in Zaire, and possibly a few Hutu elites in Bujumbura. According to testimony, “the insurgency was the brainchild of four people, three of whom were students at the University of Burundi, and a former Deputy who had been incarcerated and later released” (Lemarchand 1996, 93). Little else is known about the leadership of the insurgency, but it is thought that these people attempted to create a coalition of Hutu support, which appeared to be well received among middle-class Hutu. This was the group that had lost the most during the civil and military purges of the late 1960s.

The repression of the Hutus began almost immediately after the attacks in Bujumbura and Gitega. It took almost a month, however, before much of the world realized that genocide was taking place. Martial law was imposed throughout Burundi, along with nighttime curfews. The genocide continued until August 1972, by which time almost every Hutu with any form of education, even a secondary school education, was dead.

After the first month, militia groups, in particular the JRR, began to indiscriminately kill Hutus throughout Burundi. More extremist elements of military also began to view the complete elimination of the Hutu race as necessary for the survival of the Tutsis. President Micombero had effectively lost control of the military. Greenland notes that killing Hutus was encouraged as good citizenship. Radio broadcasts aired the message “hunt down the python in grass,” or kill all the Hutu who threaten your existence (Greenland 1976, 98). In the 1970s, killing was considered “all but a civic duty” (Evans 1997, 22).

In the south, near Bururi, all Hutu were suspect and murdered, without exception. At the university, Hutu students were beaten to death or taken and executed. All Hutu elites and any potential elites were systematically eliminated. Even churches were not spared; many Hutu priests were massacred in the weeks following the April 29 attack. The government’s intent was not only to eliminate potential Hutu leaders but also to spread terror throughout the country as a deterrent to any future uprisings and to teach the Hutu a lesson that would be remembered. Unfortunately, this lesson is still remembered, and the Hutu and Tutsi of Burundi came to see each other as a threat to survival.

After the 1972 ethnic cleansing, Tutsi domination of Burundi was assured, at least in the short term. Bereft of any educated elites, leaders, or even people with the ability to read and write, the remaining Hutu were firmly under Tutsi control.


Conflict Status

The actual conflict persisted for only a week before government forces decisively won over the rebel Hutu groups. The repression and genocide lasted another two months, until roughly August 1972. Hundreds of thousands of refugees left Burundi, and some are still waiting to return. More than two decades of sporadic conflict followed the 1972 genocide, flaring up particularly in 1993. Unfortunately, civilians were often the target of various rebel groups, as were humanitarian organizations (Scherrer 2002, 236).

A transitional government was established by then-president Buyoya in 2001 to promote a shift to a multiethnic democracy. Elections in late 2005 resulted in the selection of former Hutu rebel leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, as president. At his inauguration, he swore to “ban all ideologies of ethnic division and genocide” (Reuters 2005). President Nkurunziza appointed a cabinet that was 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi, as is required by Burundi’s new constitution. Since 1998, Burundi has been increasingly peaceful and is making some progress in its transition to full democracy.

Duration Tactics

The conflict was relatively short, as the Hutu rebels groups were small compared to government forces. It appears that the Hutu rebels felt that the larger Hutu population could make up for the small number of armed insurgents, or, conversely, they anticipated that many more would rise up and join the insurgency. Regardless, the Hutu rebels were outnumbered and outgunned. They did not have the resources, the numbers, or the military tactics for a successful or long-lived insurgency.

External Military Intervention

No other nations were willing to intervene in what they felt was an internal matter. Anticolonial sentiment among the Africans prevented Western nations from intervening, and the desire for autonomy (and lack of need) kept the Burundian government from appealing for support. The Hutu rebels may have received some support from foreign rebel groups, but other African nations strongly and publicly supported the Micombero government.

Conflict Management Efforts

The OAU (Organization for African Unity) conducted an investigation of events, and the Tanzanian Prime Minister, Rashidi Kawawa, along with Somali Vice President General Kulmil, made formal visits to Bujumbura. All findings were in favor of the Burundian government. The only African leader to directly criticize the actions of the Burundi government was Rwandan President Kayibanda, a Hutu.

The United Nations provided humanitarian assistance, but African delegates to the UN stressed that the conflict was an internal African matter, implying that international intervention was unnecessary and unwanted. The UN mission to Burundi confirmed that there had been killings but was unable to take any action to stop the atrocities.

Since then, and especially after the horrific genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994, the world has taken greater notice of the problems in the African Great Lakes region. Burundi has had a variety of cease-fire agreements, negotiated by a wide range of entities, including the United Nations, and brokered by people such as Nelson Mandela. The conflict attracted significant international attention only in 1996, when the Burundi army and militias became a part of the Congolese conflict.

In addition to the cease-fire agreements and military action, there have been attempts to settle the conflict politically through power-sharing agreements. These agreements resulted in the formation of the transitional government headed by Buyoya in 1998 and ultimately culminated in the 2005 elections.


The genocide in 1972 was short but grisly, and its effects can be observed even today. The most notable result of the 1972 killings was a cycle of instability, reprisal, and indiscriminate murder. An attempted transition to democracy in 1992 resulted in a dark period during which the legitimacy of the government and the constitution were questioned. After a military dictatorship sprang up to fill the power vacuum, the stage was set for another round of genocide in 1993. It is no coincidence that these massacres were of Tutsi in the northern portion of Burundi, near the border with Rwanda, where a larger-scale genocide of Tutsi would occur only months later.

For years, Burundi would again be inflamed with ethnic killings. The events of 1972 and 1993 spilled over into neighboring Tanzania, Congo, and Uganda; rebels used these states as a base for attacks in Rwanda and Burundi. The refugee outflow from Burundi also created problems for its neighbors, as refugee camps were a major source of rebel recruits and provided training grounds for fresh attacks.

Burundian citizens have borne most of the suffering during the civil war years and its aftermath. Despite all the rancorous conflict, a small civil society has still managed to emerge, and political parties are forming where rebel organizations used to exist. Although Burundi still spends more on defense than on education, agriculture, and health combined, there are signs of hope. UNICEF estimates that approximately 59 percent of boys and 48 percent of girls are enrolled in school. High school fees are a major reason that school attendance rates are so low. New president Pierre Nkurunziza has promised to provide free primary education for each child. Higher rates of education and further economic development are certain to increase the quality of life for many in Burundi.

In July 2005, Burundi approved plans for a UN-led truth commission to investigate the crimes that were committed during four decades of civil war. Relatively free elections and a multiethnic government also have raised hopes that Burundi’s future will not resemble its past. After almost forty years of strife, Burundi’s people must begin to heal the scars of the past and demand a better future.