Burundi originated in the 16th century as a small kingdom in the African Great Lakes region. The main ethnic groups in the country are the Twa, a Pygmy hunter-gatherer population, Hutu and Tutsi. Hutu constitute the largest proportion of the population, the Tutsi represent a significant minority and the Twa today represent about 1% of the population.
European explorers and missionaries made brief visits to the area as early as 1856, it was not until 1899 that Burundi became a part of German East Africa, along with Rwanda and Tanganyika. Burundi and Rwanda (as the mandate of Rwanda-Urundi) were awarded to Belgium after World War I, when Germany lost its colonies. The Belgians administered the territory through indirect rule, building on the Tutsi-dominated aristocratic hierarchy.
Following World War II, Rwanda-Urundi became a United Nations Trust Territory under Belgian administrative authority. The trust territory guidelines required that territories be prepared for independence and majority rule, but it wasn’t until November 1959 that Belgium committed itself to political reform and legalized political parties. This came after Burundi’s ruler Mwami Mwambutsa IV requested Burundi’s independence from Belgium and the dissolution of the Rwanda-Urundi union. In the following months, Burundian political parties began to advocate for the end of Belgian colonial rule and the separation of both states. 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. Rwagasore served as Prime Minister from 28 September 1961 until his assassination two weeks later. Burundi became independent in July 1962 and separated from Rwanda.
After independence, Tutsi King Mwambutsa IV established a constitutional monarchy comprising equal numbers of Hutus and Tutsis. However in 1965 the assassination of the Hutu prime minister set in motion a series of destabilizing revolts, and a group of Hutu army officers unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the regime by attacking the royal palace in the heart of the capital. In a series of repressive measures, 38 Hutu officers were arrested and shot two days later; again, on 28 October, ten leading Hutu politicians were summarily tried and executed; in the following weeks, 86 death sentences were handed down by improvised military tribunals.
The monarchy was formally abolished in November 1966 and a predominantly Tutsi government took power. Tutsi elements became dominant in the army and the government, while Hutu elites were virtually denied participation in the institutions of the State. By 1967, out of nine provincial governors, only one was Hutu.
In September 1969, rumors of another Hutu-engineered coup led to the arrest and execution of scores of influential Hutu personalities. When a Hutu-led insurrection objecting to the systematic exclusion of Hutu was launched in 1972, the government responded with a set of harsh measures estimated to have claimed the lives of 150,000 to 300,000 Burundians, mostly Hutu. This has been called a “selective” genocide because those targeted were overwhelmingly educated Hutu.
In the aftermath of the 1972 violence, an elite Tutsi clique consolidated their grip on power. The UPRONA political party, though originally the multi-ethnic, became the symbol of Tutsi hegemony and military rule in Burundi. A one-party state was maintained for two decades despite numerous failed coups originating within the army. Violence continued throughout this period culminating in the 1988 massacres that led to the deaths of thousands of Hutu and to at least 30,000 fleeing the country.
Due to growing concern from the international community, in 1993 Burundi held their first multiparty elections that saw the first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. He was assassinated 3 months later in October 1993, in a failed coup attempt, violence perpetrated against Tutsi civilians in the immediate aftermath of his assassination has been referred to as genocide by a UN Commission of Inquiry. The Rwandan Genocide in 1994 further aggravated the conflict in Burundi by triggering additional massacres of Tutsis.
A decade of civil war followed where an estimated 300,000 people were killed in clashes and reprisals between both ethnic groups and 1.2 million people were displaced. 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. Not all rebel groups agreed to sign the peace treaty, and the CNDD-FDD agreed to sign and join the government only in November 2003. The last remaining rebel group, the FNL, continued to reject the peace process until signing a cease fire agreement in 2006 and officially disarming in 2009.
In 2005, Pierre Nkurunziza, became the first post-transitional president. He was elected by the National Assembly and Senate through the means of indirect presidential elections. In 2015, he announced that he would seek a third term in office despite a two-term limit in the constitution, arguing that his first term in the transitional period did not count towards the limit. This argument was rejected by the opposition. Protests and violent repression created a political and economic crisis, pushing over 400,000 Burundians to flee the country. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi to investigate into human rights violations and abuses committed in the context of the crisis, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of sexual violence.
In a constitutional referendum in May 2018, Burundians voted to approve an amended constitution that ensured that Nkurunziza could remain in power until 2034. However, he later announced that he did not intend to serve another term, paving the way for a new President to be elected in the 2020 General Election. On 20 May 2020, Évariste Ndayishimiye, a candidate who was hand-picked as Nkurunziza’s successor by the CNDD-FDD, won the election with 71.45% of the vote. Nkurunziza passed away in 2020.
Although international attention has shifted away from the situation in Burundi since 2015, reports of serious human rights violations and repression continued. The Commission noted that although the level of political violence decreased immediately after the 2020 elections – and with the country appearing to be “on the road to normalization” – the human rights situation remains “dire”.