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Ruanda-Urundi: 1887-1914

The highlands of Rwanda and Burundi, east of Lake Kivu, are the last part of Africa to be reached by Europeans in the colonial expansion of the late 19th century. Before that time local tradition tells of many centuries during which the Tutsi, a tall cattle-rearing people probably from the upper reaches of the Nile, infiltrate the area and win dominance over the Hutu, already in residence and living by agriculture.

Historical records begin with the reign of Rwabugiri, who comes to the throne in 1860 and eventually controls a region almost as large as the present Rwanda. His realm is organized on a feudal basis, with the Tutsi as the aristocracy and the Hutu as their vassals.

When first described by Europeans - and in particular by Speke, who encounters them east of Rwanda on his exploration to Lake Victoria - it is assumed that the distinction between Tutsi and Hutu is entirely racial. But this simple classification is blurred by intermarriage and by the custom of allowing people to become honorary members of the other group.

A more valid description of the Tutsi-Hutu divide is by class and occupation. The Tutsi are the upper class and are mostly herdsmen. The Hutu are the lower class and for the most part live by farming.

The first European to enter Rwanda is a German, Count von Götzen, who visits the court of Rwabugiri in 1894. The next year the king dies. With Rwanda in turmoil over the succession, the Germans move in (in 1897, from Tanzania) to claim the region for the Kaiser. At the same time they claim Burundi, a separate kingdom to the south. The entire area is treated as one colony, to be known as Ruanda-Urundi.

German rule in this most inaccessible of colonies is indirect, achieved mainly by placing agents at the courts of the various local rulers. So the German influence is not yet extensive when the region is taken abruptly from their hands after the outbreak of the European war in 1914.

A Belgian colony: 1914-1962

When Germany invades Belgium, at the start of World War I, the Belgians retaliate in a smaller way in central Africa. Belgian troops move east from the Belgian Congo to occupy (in 1916) Ruanda-Urundi. After the war the League of Nations confirms the existing state of affairs, granting Belgium in 1924 a mandate to administer the colony.

From 1925 Ruanda-Urundi is linked with the neighbouring Belgian Congo, but colonial rule takes a very different form in the two territories. The administration of the Congo is centred in Brussels, but in Ruanda-Urundi it is left in the hands of the Tutsi aristocracy. Indeed the Belgians, observing the distinction between Tutsi and Hutu, make it the very basis of their colonial system.

The Hutu are subject to the forced labour which disfigures many European colonies in Africa, but here it is the Tutsi who supervise them at their tasks. From 1933 everyone in Ruanda-Urundi is issued with a racial identity card, defining them as Hutu (85%) or Tutsi (14%). The remaining 1% are the Twa, the remnants of the original Pygmies indigenous in this area.

This Belgian attitude, setting in stone the distinction between the two groups and favouring one of them, prepares the ground for future violence (in earlier times racially based massacres have never occurred between Hutu and Tutsi). The predictable occasion for its outbreak is the rush towards independence in the late 1950s.

The problem is more immediately evident in Ruanda than in Urundi. In 1957 Hutu leaders in Ruanda publish a Hutu Manifesto, preparing their supporters for a future political conflict to be conducted entirely on ethnic lines. In 1959 the first outbreak of violence is sparked off when a group of Tutsi political activists in Gitirama beat up a Hutu rival, Dominique Mbonyumutwa (he survives the attack but the rumour of his death spreads rapidly in Hutu circles and is still believed today).

The resulting nationwide campaign of Hutu violence against Tutsis becomes known as 'the wind of destruction'. Over the coming months many Tutsis flee from Ruanda, including the 25-year-old hereditary ruler, the Mwami.

In elections in 1960 Hutu politicians score an overwhelming victory. Grégoire Kayibanda, one of the authors of the Hutu Manifesto, leads a provisional government for the interim period to independence.

In Urundi the Tutsi monarchy proves at first more resilient, both in holding on to the reins of power and in attempting a resolution of the Tutsi-Hutu conflict. When elections are held in 1961, they bring a landslide victory for a joint Hutu and Tutsi party. It is led by the popular Prince Rwagasore, the eldest son of the Mwami. He is assassinated a few months later, before independence has been formally achieved. But this disaster does not yet tip Urundi into ethnic violence.

Independence: from1962

The two parts of Ruanda-Urundi become independent in July 1962. There is pressure from the UN to federate as a single nation, but both opt to go their separate ways. Ruanda, in which ethnic violence has continued during 1960 and 1961, becomes a republic (automatically, since the young ruler has fled and has been formally deposed in his absence). The spelling of the name is changed to Rwanda.

Urundi, by contrast, becomes independent as a constitutional monarchy - but again with a change of name, to Burundi.

In the early years of Burundi's idependence the Mwami, Mwambutsa IV, presides over a government combining Hutu and Tutsi ministers. But the fabric of the nation crumbles in 1965-6. In January 1965 the Hutu prime minister, Pierre Ngendandumwe, is assassinated by a Tutsi gunman. In May 1965 elections bring a Hutu majority in the national assembly.

At this point the Mwami's even-handedness snaps. He disregards the election result and appoints as prime minister his Tutsi private secretary. The result is an attempted coup by Hutu officers. It fails (thirty-four of the rebels are captured and executed). But the incidents of these months lead rapidly to a transformed Burundi.

The immediate effect of the attempted coup is the flight abroad of Mwambutsa, leaving his 18-year-old younger son in Burundi. In July 1966 the prince deposes his absent father and takes the crown. But before the end of the year he too has been deposed by his prime minister, Michel Micombero.

A republic is proclaimed, and it is one in which the Tutsi are now unmistakably in power. The subsequent decades reveal that it is a power which they wield with ruthless brutality. The worst blot on Burundi's record is the ethnic slaughter unleashed upon the Hutu community in April and May 1972, in response to an attempted uprising. At least 100,000 people are killed, among them nearly all Hutus of the professional or educated class.

This is not the last such occasion. With an almost exclusively Tutsi civil service, discrimination against the Hutus becomes commonplace. If often provokes outbreaks of Hutu unrest. One such, in 1988 in the northern provinces of Ntega and Marangara, leads to another massacre of Hutus, bringing this time about 20,000 deaths.

Meanwhile the ruling Tutsi minority has itself proved extremely unstable, with three new republics in as many decades. A coup topples Micombero in 1976, bringing Jean-Baptiste Bagaza to power as president of the second republic. Another, in 1987, brings in the third republic and President Pierre Buyoya.

The new president makes a greater effort than his predecessors to deal with the nation's ethnic problem (part of the reason for the 1988 uprising and repression may be a disappointed Hutu expectation of rapid improvements under his new regime).

Buyoya takes steps to ensure a Hutu presence in his government. He sets up a commission to advise on ways of achieving a new sense of national unity. And he prepares the nation for its first democratic presidential election, scheduled for 1993.

Democracy glimpsed and lost: 1993-1999

The incumbent president, Pierre Buyoya, is expected to win Burundi's first multiparty presidential election in June 1993, but he is defeated by Melchior Ndadaye, leader of the main opposition party. Ndadaye's party, Frodebu (Democractic Front in Burundi), also wins a large majority in the accompanying legislative elections.

President Ndadaye, the first Hutu to be head of state in Burundi, forms a conciliatory government giving Tutsi politicians eight places out of twenty-two in his cabinet. But this hopeful development is soon frustrated. Within months Ndadaye is killed by Tutsis in an attempted coup.

The immediate result is extreme ethnic violence between Tutsi and Hutu. There are thousands of deaths on both sides (between 25,000 and 50,000 in all). Some 800,000 refugees flee the country.

Early in 1994 there are responsible attempts to heal these ethnic wounds. The national assembly elects a Hutu president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, who in turn appoints a Tutsi as his prime minister. But again disaster strikes. In April 1994 President Ntaryamira is in the aeroplane of President Habyarimana of Rwanda when it is brought down by a rocket, killing both men.

During the next two years the politicians attempt to maintain some measure of ethnic balance in government but they fail to prevent a succession of regional massacres of both Hutus and Tutsis. These are part of what is in effect a civil war between Hutu rebels and the predominantly Tutsi army. Some 200,000 die - an appalling number, but dwarfed by the disaster occurring over the border in Rwanda.

In July 1996 the Hutu president, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, attends a memorial service for 300 Tutsis butchered by militant Hutu. Amid angry scenes he has to flee for his life. A few days later the army seizes power and brings back as president Pierre Buyoya (voted out in 1993).

In response to this military coup (suddenly unfashionable in the Africa of the 1990s) sanctions are imposed on Burundi by most of the neighbouring states, including Rwanda.

During subsequent years there are on-and-off talks on the question of raising the sanctions. International agencies provide alarming reports of famine and disease. And civil war continues relentlessly between the army and the Hutu rebels. In 1998 peace talks begin at Arusha in Tanzania, sponsored by the OAU and chaired by one of east Africa's most distinguished elder statesmen, Julius Nyerere.