The first evidence of the Burundian state is from 16th century where it emerged on the eastern foothills. Over the following centuries it expanded, annexing smaller neighbours and competing with Rwanda. Its greatest growth occurred under Ntare IV Rutaganzwa Rugamba, who ruled the country from about 1796 to 1850 and saw the kingdom double in size.

The Kingdom of Burundi was characterized by a hierarchical political authority and tributary economic exchange. The king, known as the mwami headed a princely aristocracy (ganwa) which owned most of the land and required a tribute, or tax, from local farmers and herders. In the mid-18th century, this Tutsi royalty consolidated authority over land, production, and distribution with the development of the ubugabire—a patron-client relationship in which the populace received royal protection in exchange for tribute and land tenure.

European contact (1856)

European explorers and missionaries made brief visits to the area as early as 1856, and they compared the organization of the kingdom of Burundi with that of the old Greek empire. It was not until 1899 that Burundi became a part of German East Africa. Unlike the Rwandan monarchy, which decided to accept the German advances, the Burundian king Mwezi IV Gisabo opposed all European influence, refusing to wear European clothing and resisting the advance of European missionaries or administrators.

German East Africa (1899-1916)

The Germans used armed force and succeeded in doing great damage, but did not destroy the king’s power. Eventually they backed one of the king’s sons-in-law Maconco in a revolt against Gisabo. Gisabo was eventually forced to concede and agreed to German suzerainty. The Germans then helped him suppress Maconco’s revolt. The smaller kingdoms along the western shore of Lake Victoria were also attached to Burundi.

Even after this the foreign presence was minimal and the kings continued to rule much as before. The Europeans did, however, bring devastating diseases affecting both people and animals. Affecting the entire region, Burundi was especially hard hit. A great famine hit in 1905, with others striking the entire Great Lakes region in 1914, 1923 and 1944.

Belgian and United Nations governance (1916-1962)

In 1916 Belgian troops conquered the area during the First World War. In 1923, the League of Nations mandated to Belgium the territory of Ruanda-Urundi, encompassing modern-day Rwanda and Burundi, but stripping the western kingdoms and giving them to British administered Tanganyika. The Belgians administered the territory through indirect rule, building on the Tutsi-dominated aristocratic hierarchy.

Following World War II, Ruanda-Urundi became a United Nations Trust Territory under Belgian administrative authority. The trust territory guidelines required that the trust territories be prepared for independence and majority rule but it wasn’t until 10 November 1959 that Belgium committed itself to political reform and legalised the emergence of competing political parties.On 20 January 1959, Burundi’s ruler Mwami Mwambutsa IV requested Burundi’s independence from Belgium and dissolution of the Ruanda-Urundi union. In the following months, Burundian political parties began to advocate for the end of Belgian colonial rule and the separation of Rwanda and Burundi. The first and largest of these political parties was the Union for National Progress (UPRONA). UPRONA was a multi-ethnic party led by Tutsi Prince Louis Rwagasore while the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) was supported by Belgium, which was being ruled by the Christian Social Party, whose party leader, August de Schryver, was Minister of the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi from 1959 until 1960.

Burundi’s first elections took place on 8 September 1961 and UPRONA won just over 80% of the electorate’s votes. In the wake of the elections, on 13 October, the 29-year-old Prince Rwagasore was assassinated, robbing Burundi of its most popular and well-known nationalist. Historians have speculated over Belgium’s role in Rwagasore’s death and the two highest ranking Belgian colonial officials in Burundi (Jean-Paul Harroy and Roberto Régnier) were accused of involvement by Rwagasore’s convicted murder (Jean Kageorgis). The day after Kageorgis’ execution Burundi was granted independence.

Ndadaye was assassinated three months later, in October 1993, by Tutsi army extremists. The country’s situation rapidly declined as Hutu peasants began to rise up and massacre Tutsi. In acts of brutal retribution, the Tutsi army proceeded to round up thousands of Hutu and kill them. The Rwandan Genocide in 1994, sparked by the killing of Ndadaye’s successor Cyprien Ntaryamira, further aggravated the conflict in Burundi by sparking additional massacres of Tutsis.

A decade of civil war followed, as the Hutu formed militias in the refugee camps of northern Tanzania. An estimated 300,000 people were killed in clashes and reprisals against the local population, with 550,000 citizens (nine percent of the population) being displaced.[17] After the assassination of Ntaryamira, the Hutu presidency and Tutsi military operated under a power-sharing political system until July 1996, when Tutsi Pierre Buyoya seized power in a military coup. Under international pressure, the warring factions negotiated a peace agreement in Arusha in 2000, which called for ethnically balanced military and government and democratic elections.

Two powerful Hutu rebel groups (the CNDD-FDD and the FNL) refused to sign the peace agreement and fighting continued in the countryside. Finally, the CNDD-FDD agreed to sign a peace deal in November 2003 and joined the transitional government. The last remaining rebel group, the FNL, continued to reject the peace process and committed sporadic acts of violence in 2003 and 2004, finally signing a cease fire agreement in 2006.