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.

Protesters who are against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term march towards the town of Ijenda, Burundi, June 3, 2015.
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

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.

The latest round of ethnic violence exploded in 1993, when Tutsi soldiers derailed a transition to majority rule by assassinating the newly elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. That murder sparked a decade-long civil war, killing an estimated 300,000, both Hutu and Tutsi.

The lesson—that ethnicity is best defused by acknowledging and addressing it—should be applied more broadly and especially to neighboring Rwanda, which has an almost identical ethnic mix.

Gradually, the international community fostered a peace process by imposing sanctions, offering mediation, and deploying peacekeepers. Yet, forging a peace agreement proved daunting, since it required simultaneously addressing three contradictory concerns: Hutu demands for majority rule, Tutsi fears of retribution and exclusion, and the pathological role of ethnicity in politics. Nelson Mandela, the lead mediator for three years, needed to utilize all of his moral authority, charisma, and experience to accomplish that unlikely hat trick.

The outcome, Burundi’s 2005 democratic Constitution, gave the Hutu their long-sought goal of majority rule. At the same time, to alleviate the minority’s physical insecurity from surrendering control, the power-sharing deal gave the Tutsi half of the positions in the army and police, as well as in the senate. The accord also guaranteed the Tutsi one of two key security posts—minister of the army or police—and reserved one of two vice presidential slots for a Tutsi from one of the group’s traditional political parties to ensure a legitimate representative.

The minority’s anxiety about political exclusion was further addressed by guaranteeing the Tutsi 40 percent of the slots in the cabinet and national assembly, and one-third of all mayoral posts, ensuring their over-representation at all major levels of governance. Since constitutional amendments require an 80 percent vote, and major legislation a two-thirds super-majority, the Tutsi effectively obtained a legislative veto on vital issues, protecting them against the tyranny of the majority.

A United Nations peacekeeper at a mass grave in Gatumba, Burundi, August 16, 2004. More than 160 Tutsi refugees hacked, shot and burned to death in a massacre by Hutu Forces.
Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters

Perhaps the most important innovation in the peace deal was a requirement that each political party run a multi-ethnic slate of candidates in each prefecture, for election by proportional representation. For example, a traditionally Hutu party now needed to insert a Tutsi in every third slot in its list of parliamentary candidates, so that if it won nine seats, three would go to Tutsi. As a result, politics stopped revolving around the existential battle between Hutu and Tutsi, and instead focused on the electoral competition between Hutu-led parties. Since these parties could succeed only through ethnic inclusion, there was little incentive for extremist rhetoric. The ethnic identities of Hutu and Tutsi were not eroded—if anything, the power-sharing system reinforced them—but they lost political salience.

As the leading Belgian scholar Filip Reyntjens explains in his chapter of my new book, Constitutions and Conflict Management in Africa: Preventing Civil War Through Institutional Design, “Burundi’s main divide is now between parties rather than ethnic groups, and when violence occurs it is political rather than ethnic.” Overcoming the country’s primary political cleavage—the ostensibly ancient hatred between Hutu and Tutsi—and doing so within barely two decades, is an absolutely stunning achievement of conflict management through constitutional reform. No humanitarian military intervention has ever prevented genocide so successfully.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela holds on to South African Minister of Intelligence Lindiwe Sisulu as he arrives in Bujumbura, Burundi April 30, 2003.
Antony Njuguna / Reuters

Burundi, of course, still faces serious challenges. The former Hutu rebels who came to power in the 2005 elections turned out to be corrupt and authoritarian. That has fostered low-level political violence and, since 2010, a boycott by opposition parties of presidential and parliamentary elections. This year’s nascent rebellion, in response to Nkurunziza’s term-limit violation, has resulted in dozens of deaths. To avert escalation of such violence, the international community should encourage the opposition to focus instead on the next election cycle—when even the president admits he is term-limited—and use foreign aid to pressure the government to conduct a free and fair election.

But what is most notable, in light of Burundi’s history of genocidal bloodletting, is the absence of violent ethnic extremism in the current crisis.

The lesson—that ethnicity is best defused by acknowledging and addressing it—should be applied more broadly and especially to neighboring Rwanda, which has an almost identical ethnic mix. Regrettably, in Rwanda, the minority Tutsi regime still clings to power, by denying the existence of ethnicity and outlawing even the mention of Hutu and Tutsi. That effort to erase history and identity has backfired, however, by exacerbating the seething resentment among Rwanda’s Hutu majority. Indeed, until the Rwandan regime embraces Burundi’s example of majority rule and minority inclusion, Rwanda will remain central Africa’s true genocidal powder keg.

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