Throughout Burundi’s history since independence, intermittent bouts of political turmoil have escalated tragically into genocide between the country’s Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. Many international observers warned that this year would be no different. The country was hit by a succession of political shocks starting in the spring, when President Pierre Nkurunziza ignored the constitution’s two-term limit to announce that he was running again, on grounds that his first term should not count because he had been appointed rather than elected. His defiance triggered mass protests in April, an unsuccessful military coup in May, a call from the opposition in June to boycott the July election, and an incipient rebellion.
This summer, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that Burundi was “on the brink of devastating violence.” A UN human rights panel alarmingly warned of “mass atrocities.” And yet, those predictions have not borne out. Burundi made it through the controversial elections, and Nkurunziza was inaugurated for a third term in August—without the country erupting into ethnic violence.
How Burundi accomplished such a feat might surprise those who believe that preventing genocide requires humanitarian military intervention. Instead, in this case, ethnic violence was averted through ingenious political reform, which offers important lessons for managing ethnic conflict elsewhere, particularly next door in Rwanda.
The story begins with the ethnic balance of power at Burundi’s independence in 1962. A small Tutsi minority, only 15 percent of the population, ruled by monarchy over the Hutu majority. In 1965, Tutsi forces responded to a coup attempt by slaughtering much of the Hutu elite. Oppression of Hutu continued, spurring a rebellion in 1972 that provoked a much larger retaliation: the Tutsi killed an estimated 200,000 Hutu in about four months. In 1988, the Tutsi government overreacted yet again to localized inter-ethnic violence by killing thousands more Hutu.
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