New Internationalist


October 1988

new internationalist
issue 188 - October 1988


[image, unknown] Landlocked in the centre of Africa, Burundi's farmers cultivate steep hillsides, producing food for their own needs and coffee for export. Few of its five million people live in the dilapidated dusty capital, Bujumbura, with its sandy streets and small shops. This is one of Africa's most rural and most densely populated countries, and one of the poorest in the world.

Colonized first by the Germans and then by the Belgians, Burundi was born into violence. Just before Independence in 1962, Prince Rwagasore, the eldest son of Burundi's tribal king, and leader of the main political party, was assassinated.

One tribe, the Hutus, make up 85 per cent of the population, but they are excluded from power by the minority Tutsis. In 1972, the Hutus rebelled, killing about 2,000 Tutsis. The Tutsis retaliated by massacring some 100,000 Hutus, wiping out all those who had been educated. In August this year violence flared up again when the Burundian army (mainly Tutsis) slaughtered at least 5,000 unarmed Hutu peasants, with the aid of modern weapons. More than 35,000 refugees have fled.

In September 1987 a bloodless military coup ousted President Jean Baptiste Bagaza from power, but the new President, Major Pierre Buyoya, is in a similar mould. He and his military council are following largely the same policies as their predecessors, and there are only a handful of Hutus in high positions.

The major change Burundi has seen since last September is the relaxation of restrictions on the Catholic Church. During colonial days, the Church, led by Belgian priests, ran all schools and most health services. Post-independence governments have tried to reduce the Church's power and influence, and under President Bagaza that policy turned into a campaign against Catholics. He banned Mass except on Sundays, expelled scores of foreign priests, and closed down church primary schools, causing consternation amongst the 80 per cent of Burundians, mostly Hutus, who are Catholic. President Buyoya has earned popularity by reversing this trend, and by releasing some political prisoners.

Despite that spiritual fillip, life is becoming more difficult for peasant farmers faced with diminishing arable land and reliance on one export crop. The government has adopted an ambivalent approach to development, promoting private sector enterprises with the help of the World Bank and the US government, while maintaining a rigid one-party system where the state holds considerable power over people's everyday lives - for instance ordinary people are not allowed to leave their villages even on a visit without permission. Burundi remains a sad secretive place, where memories have left a legacy of mistrust and fear - manifest again in the recent eruption of violence and bloodshed.

Lindsey Hilsum

Leader: President Major Pierre Buyoya

Economy: GNP per capita $230 (US: $16,690)
Monetary unit: Franc, tied to the US dollar.
Main imports: machinery and equipment, also petroleum products.
Main exports: coffee, tea and cotton fabrics; shipped via Tanzania and Kenya.
Expansion of sugar production planned to reduce reliance on coffee. Most land used for subsistence crops: cassava, bananas, sweet potatoes, pulses, maize and sorghum. Cattle rearing and fishing important. Some nickel, cobalt and uranium.

People: 4.9 million

Health: Infant mortality 196 per 1000 live births (US 10 per 1,000).

Culture: Most Burundians are Hutus (agricultural people of Bantu origin),dominated by the smaller Tutsi group (pastoralists of Hamitic origin). There are also some pygmies, the Tuas.

Religion: most people practise traditional religions, although there is a high percentage of Christians and a minority of Muslims. Languages: Rundi, Kirundi and French are the official languages. Swahili is the commercial lingua franca.

Sources: Africa Review (1987); Third World Guide (1984-85); State Of The World's Children (1988).


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Dominant group controls more wealth.

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Large foreign debt, IMF controls.

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Unacknowledged role in farming.

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Military one-party state; tight control of people's lives.

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39% men, 15% only for women.

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Minority ruling Tutsis curb freedoms of majority Hutus.

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Very low.
43 years for women,
40 for men.

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previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page [image, unknown]

This feature was published in the October 1988 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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