Burundi: Post-election killings and civil war

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


A military elite whose influential members hailed from the hitherto obscure Hima clan, a Tutsi sub-group from the province of Bururi, dominated Burundi’s post-colonial political scene—though Tutsi represents only 14% of the population while Hutu comprise 85%. Tutsi domination began under Captain Michel Micombero (1965-1976), then carried on through his cousin Colonel Jean Baptiste Bagaza (1976-1987), and finally to another cousin, Major Pierre Buyoya (1987-1993 and 1996-2002).

Beginning in 1988, Buyoya’s regime embarked on a sweeping political reform that culminated in the June 1993 democratic elections won by his Hutu opponent, Melchior Ndadaye. While Buyoya candidly conceded defeat and handed power over to his opponent on July 9, 1993, in the end, the military veto prevailed over the popular vote. On October 21, 1993, President Ndadaye along with several top leaders of his party, FRODEBU, were assassinated by the army.

Atrocities (1993-2000)

As the news of the coup spread, a spontaneous uprising of the Hutu populations emerged throughout the country. Between October 21 and October 25, Hutu uprising movements left several thousand Tutsi slaughtered, particularly in the central and north-east part of the country. On its way to “restore order,” the army killed several thousand Hutu and forced others into exile, while also rounding up Tutsi civilians in IDP camps. As one mission of inquiry reported: “the army and the police used Tutsi and Twa civilians, both adults and students, to extend the reach of their attack.”[i]

Eventually, the scale of domestic counter-coup efforts and international pressure forced the army to surrender power to a civilian government on November 9, 1993. This did not end the violence. The pattern instead shifted from large-scale, overwhelming governmental force to a drawn-out, civil war, characterized by regular targeting of civilians. Over the course of the entire civil war (1994 – 2005), it is estimated that 150,000 civilians died.[ii]

According to a World Bank report, violence spread throughout the country from January 1994 – July 1996, with civilians regularly directed targeted or caught up in the fighting.[iii] Fighting was also heavy around the capitol, Bujumbura. Analysis by Filip Reyntjens and Stef Vandeginste[iv] describes the Burundian government’s early years of the conflict as characterized by radicalization within the political forces and use of force to intimidate any opposition, with the goal of consolidating control over the country in an attempt to eradicate any future efforts towards political liberalization, including a return to democratic elections. Reyntjens and Vandeginste also note that the number of Tutsi victims increased in the second part of 1995, as Hutu rebel groups began gaining ground and imposed their own administration over areas they controlled. As Chretien and Mukuri write, extreme violence became normal. People were killed viciously with public displays of torture and mutilation.[v]

Unlike previous periods of Burundi’s history, overwhelming violence perpetrated by the Army was incapable of defeating the Hutu rebellion, which, from this point forward, was able to hold ground. Below is an extended excerpt from research by Bundervoet, Verwimp, and Akresh describing the pattern of escalation of the conflict:

Guerrilla warfare activity first erupted in October 1994 in the northwestern provinces of Cibitoke, Bubanza, Bujumbura Rural and Ngozi. By early 1995, violence spread to the bordering Kayanza province, and by March 1995, massacres of civilians and confrontations between the army and rebel forces began in Karuzi, Bururi, Ruyigi and Muyinga. On March 27, 1995, Burundi’s interim president, Sylvere Ntibantunganya, announced the start of a genocide on Belgian television (Chrétien and Mukuri, 2000). By late 1995, acts of violence took place in the central provinces of Gitega and Muramvya and the northern province of Kirundo. The situation at the end of 1995 is depicted in Figure 2. By then, the conflict had spread to almost all of the provinces of Burundi, with the exception of Cankuzo (in the east of the country) and Rutana and Makamba (in the south of the country). On July 25, 1996, former president Buyoya seized power again in a bloodless coup d’état backed by the army. During the second half of 1996 and the first half of 1997, armed confrontations continued, especially in the provinces of Kayanza, Muramvya, Kirundo and Gitega. Meanwhile in April 1997, the Arusha Peace talks between the principal parties engaged in the conflict began. As of late 1997, insecurity increased again in Cibitoke, Bubanza and Bujumbura rural, provinces which remained unsafe until 1999.[vi]

While it is difficult, if not impossible, to confirm annual death tolls, it appears from qualitative research that the intensity of violence began to decline in 1998. However, intensity is a relative assessment—violence may have declined but remained within our scope for longer.

Under intense international pressure and with moderating factors in ascendance, in 1998 all-party talks were launched in Arusha, Tanzania.[vii] Various efforts at peace talks had been under way for some time, for example, the government had engaged in secret talks with the largest rebel group, the CNDD in Rome in 1997.[viii] But the 1998 talks signaled a new momentum for negotiation. Progress in the talks was slow, nonetheless, it appeared to have had some effect on dampening the violence at the time and ultimately resulted in a mediated solution to the conflict. On the rebel side, according to Lemarchand, “rebel fragmentation reached its peak” in 1998,[ix] which he argues contributed to the political transition. Whereas before this point, there was extreme polarization between the Tutsi and Hutu sides of the conflict, thereafter, insurgents adopted multiple positions that could no longer be simplified into opposing forces aligned solely along the ethnic divide.

Nonetheless, given the paucity of data, we extend the period of atrocities until 2000.


According to an investigation by human rights organizations, an estimated 50,000 were killed for the overall period following the assassination of Pres. Ndadaye.[x] Filip Reyntjens and Stef Vandeginste argue that an estimated 15,000 – 25,000 civilians were killed in 1995, mostly Hutu killed by the Tutsi dominated Army and militias.[xi]

Most estimates of the total fatalities caused by the civil war are based on human rights reports, if any source for the number is cited at all. All figures are broad estimates. The most frequently cited total estimate for the entire period of the conflict (1993 – 2005) is 150,000 – 300,000 civilian deaths, brought about by all causes, but largely a result of displacement, forced by the government or “voluntary” flight to refugee centers. Many deaths occurred in government “resettlement centers,” into which some 300,000 people were forced to live beginning in 1996 and dismantled under international pressure in 2000.[xii] We use the figure of 150,000 as a best low estimate of civilians killed or died in camps across the period of atrocities.


The Arusha peace negotiations, led by former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere (1996 – 1999), thereafter by former South African President Nelson Mandela, and supported by the African Union, regional leaders, the UN and the wider international community, reached an agreement in August 2000. Limited fighting and attacks against civilians continued thereafter, as talks with some rebel groups continued to unfold over the subsequent five years.


We code this case as ending through strategic shift. It occurred with the rise of domestic moderating forces and influenced by international actors. We further note that there was an element of mass popular killing in the beginning, that multiple victim groups were targeted by violence, and the initiators were not necessarily the primary perpetrators, and that a non-state actor, insurgents, was a secondary perpetrator of atrocities.

Works cited

Bundervoet, Tom, Philip Verwimp, Richard Akresh. 2008. “Health and Civil War in Rural Burundi” Policy Research Working Paper/Post-conflict Transitions Working 18, January. The World Bank.

Chrétien, J. P. and Mukuri, M. 2000. Burundi, la Fracture Identitaire. Logiques de Violence et Certitudes ‘Ethniques’, (1993-1996). Karthala. Paris.

Human Rights Watch, Fédération internationale des droits de l’homme, Ligue des droits de la personne dans la région des grands lacs, Organisation mondiale contre la torture, Centre national pour la coopération au développement, Nationaal Centrum voor Ontwikkelingssamenwerking, Novib. 1993. “The International Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in Burundi since October 21, 1993.” Final Report. Brussels, July 4.

Lemarchand, René. 2006. “Burundi’s Endangered Transition.” Available at: http://www.burundirealite.org/PDFs/13.pdf.

Reyntjens, Filip. 1999a. “Evolution Politique au Rwanda et au Burundi, 1998 – 1999.” May. Available at: http://www.ua.ac.be/objs/00111011.pdf.

Reyntjens, Filip. 1999b. “Talking or fighting? Political Evolution in Rwanda and Burundi 1998 – 1999.” Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.

Reyntjens, Filip and Stef Vandeginste. 1997. “Burundi: Evolution Politique en 1996 – 1997,” In L’Afrique des Grands Lacs. Annuaire 1997–1998, eds. Stefaan Marysse, and Filip Reyntjens, 1–13. Paris: L’Harmattan. Available at: http://www.ua.ac.be/objs/00110511.pdf.

Twagiramungu, Noel. 2016. “Burundi: The anatomy of mass violence endgames” in How Mass Atrocities End: Studies from Guatemala, Burundi, Indonesia, Sudan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq, ed. Bridget Conley-Zilkic, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wolpe, Howard. 2011. “Making Peace After Genocide: The Anatomy of the Burundi Peace Process,” Peaceworks 70, United States Institute of Peace. 


[i] HRW et al. 1993, 1.

[ii] Twagirgamunu 2016, 60.

[iii] Bundervoet, Verwimp, Akresh. 2008, 4.

[iv] Reyntjens and Vandeginste 1997.

[v] Chrétien and Mukuri 2000, 140.

[vi] Bundervoet, Verwimpand Akresh. 2008, 4.

[vii] Reyntjens 1999a, 21. See also Reyntjens 1999b, 44.

[viii] Wolpe 2011, 32.

[ix] Lemarchand 2006, 7.

[x] Human Rights Watch et al 1994, pp.176-180.

[xi] Reyntjens and Vandeginste 1997, 1.

[xii] Lemarchand, 2006, 10.

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