Burundi is geographically at the heart of Africa but, sadly, has also been at the heart of African horrors in recent years. Here is a country of wonderful landscapes, from mountaintops to forests, huge lakes to tropical plateau. Yet this topographical patchwork mirrors Burundis cultural patchwork, one which has interwoven both Hutu and Tutsi tribal strands, often with violent consequences.
The agricultural Hutu and Tutsi have occupied Burundi for many centuries. The society was never highly centralised and proved unable to withstand the advances of the Germans during the scramble for Africa in the 19th century. The country subsequently became part of German East Africa. Shuffled around yet again after 1919, Burundi and neighbouring Rwanda were administered by the Belgians. During this time, the Belgians unfortunately demarcated the Hutu and Tutsi tribes further, believing the Tutsis to be superior to the Hutus and bestowing on the Tutsis better jobs and status. When both Burundi and Rwanda gained independence in 1962, Burundi’s chronic instability worsened, sporadically flaring up into mass violence and the massacre of tens of thousands, especially in 1972 and 1988 although it has never reached the scale of neighbouring Rwanda, where the same ethnic split prevails.
Politically, Burundi has also been split by several coups. Three occurred between 1966 and1987. President Buyoya seemed to herald positive progression in 1992, with a change of constitution and the introduction of multiparty elections for a National Assembly. Against widespread expectation, the incumbent President Buyoya representing the main Tutsi party was peacefully displaced by Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu banker who headed the Front for Democracy in Burundi. In October 1993, another military coup was unsuccessful but claimed the life of President Ndadaye. In January 1994, another Hutu, Cyprien Ntaryamira, took over but had an equally short tenure; returning from an overseas trip with Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, he was killed in a plane crash. This was the incident that set off the genocide in Rwanda. Burundi narrowly avoided the same fate, although tensions between Tutsi and Hutu sharply increased and the civil war that followed claimed 300,000 lives in Nelson Mandelas words a slow burning genocide.
Burundis situation is improving. President Nkurunziza, democratically elected in 2005, is engaged in peace talks and has announced applauded measures, such as that of introducing free education. However, there is still a danger of indiscriminate attacks from rebel groups in Burundi. Until these incidents are fully quashed, many will miss out on seeing the beauty of Burundi for themselves. Amongst the debris of human nature at its most vicious, nature itself in Burundi remains gorgeous and tranquil.