In the spring of 1972 the small (10,747 sq miles), overpopulated (7 million), poverty-stricken State of Burundi experienced massive bloodletting. Burundi’s agonies did not begin nor end with what is sometimes referred to in Burundi as ikiza, the “scourge”. Nonetheless, there is nothing in the country’s turbulent history comparable to the scale of the 1972 killings. Although the number of victims will never be known, estimates range between 150,000 to 300,000 (Kiraranganya, 1985: 76) To reduce a complicated drama to its simplest common denominator, the vast majority of those killed were of Hutu origins, representing approximately 80 per cent of a total population then numbering approximately four million; the perpetrators were drawn overwhelmingly from the Tutsi minority, accounting for some 15 per cent of the population, its representatives holding full control over the armed forces and the government.
Not all Tutsi were perpetrators, however, nor were all of the victims Hutu. Hutu and Tutsi were both victims and perpetrators — but each at separate time intervals and with very different scales of involvement. The triggering factor behind the bloodbath was a Hutu-led rural insurrection aimed at seizing power from the ruling Tutsi minority. The fulcrum of the rebellion was in the southern province of Bururi, its leadership consisting of a small group of radicalized Hutu intellectuals, most of them operating from neighboring Tanzania. To the extent that it claimed an ideology, its overtones were militantly anti-Tutsi. In a matter of days, hundreds (possibly thousands) of Tutsi lives were lost. The ensuing repression, however, went far beyond the province most directly affected by violence; its avenging furor swept across the entire country and lasted for months after it had been brought under control.
Its extensiveness and extreme brutality against all Hutu elites have prompted some commentators to refer to a “selective genocide” (Lemarchand, 1974). Yet, to this day, scholars disagree as to whether the 1972 killings should be described as a double genocide, a selective genocide, a genocide or a case of ethnic cleansing run amok. Despite the wealth of data made available by recent research (Chrétien and Dupaquier, 2007) many of the questions raised by these tragic events defy a simple answer.
Like Rwanda, its neighboring “false twin” to the north, pre-colonial Burundi was an archaic kingdom, hierarchically organized, where kingship served as the main focus of popular loyalties. Unlike Rwanda, however, where a Hutu uprising destroyed the monarchy shortly before independence, its formal political organization underwent relatively few changes under German (1896-1916) and Belgian colonial rule (1916-1962). And while both have experienced frightening levels of ethnic violence, the 1972 drama never received anything approaching the extensive media exposure generated by the far more devastating Rwanda genocide. Furthermore, while there is little doubt about the genocidal quality of the Rwanda bloodbath, the case of Burundi has been the source of intense controversy both within and without the country.
To properly grasp the complexity of the events leading to the carnage, something must be said of the regional context. Burundi has many things in common with Rwanda besides a one hundred kilometer boundary: both States share strikingly similar ethnic configurations, social customs and languages. Therefore, it is not surprising if their histories, though propelling their societies in radically different directions, should have influenced each other to a degree unparalleled in any other two States in the continent. The critical difference between their post-independence trajectories lies in the rise to power of distinctive ethnic hegemonies. While Rwanda crossed the threshold of independence as a Hutu-controlled republic, until 1966 Burundi stood as a constitutional monarchy ruled by a government of mixed origins. These contrasting itineraries have had a profoundly divisive impact on the society of Burundi. For if the Rwanda model served as a powerful pole of attraction for many politically conscious Hutu, for the Tutsi elites the same model was a source of intense fear. For a growing number of Hutu republicans, Rwanda was the ideal political formula for Burundi; for the Tutsi it was the embodiment of a nightmare scenario, to be avoided at all cost.
The nightmare almost became reality when, on October 19, 1965, a group of Hutu gendarmerie and army officers unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the regime by attacking the royal palace in the heart of the capital city (Lemarchand, 1994). Although the mutiny quickly collapsed, this did not prevent the outbreak of inter-ethnic violence in the countryside. As armed bands of Hutu vented their anger against innocent Tutsi civilians, hundreds were reported killed in and around Muramvya, north of the capital. In a series of repressive measures, 38 Hutu officers were arrested and shot two days later; again, on October 28, ten leading Hutu politicians were summarily tried and executed; in the following weeks, 86 death sentences were handed down by improvised military tribunals. The next major purge occurred in September 1969, when rumors of another Hutu-engineered coup led to the arrest and execution of scores of influential Hutu personalities. By then the Hutu leadership had been virtually decapitated.
While the attack on the royal palace made dramatically clear the danger of a Hutu take-over, the inherent weakness of the monarchy was cruelly demonstrated when, in the wake of the coup, King Mwambutsa quickly fled to Switzerland, leaving the throne vacant. The accession of Mwambutsa’s heir to the throne on July 8, 1966, under the name of Ntare, did little to restore the prestige of the Crown, or assuage Tutsi fears. After a brief trial of strength between the government, headed by Captain Michel Micombero, and the King, the monarchy was formally abolished on November 28, 1966, making Ntare’s reign the shortest in the history of the country. With the advent of the First Republic and the appointment of a predominantly Tutsi government, Tutsi elements became dominant in the army and the government, while Hutu elites were virtually denied participation in the institutions of the State. By 1967, out of nine provincial governors, only one was a Hutu; the mayors (administrateurs communaux), likewise, were overwhelmingly Tutsi. The army high command would soon follow suit.
The steady rise of Hutu-Tutsi enmities, accompanied by the more or less systematic exclusion of Hutu from the institutions of government, must be seen as a central element in the background of the 1972 killings. Their timing, however, draws attention to another underlying fault-line. Cutting across Hutu-Tutsi polarities was another major social cleavage, involving Tutsi vs. Tutsi. At the root of this intra-ethnic struggle was the long-standing, traditionally based opposition behind the Tutsi-Banyaruguru and the Tutsi-Hima: the former, considered to be closer to the court, were generally seen as ranking considerably higher in the traditional pecking order. With the rise to power of the army, however, something of a reversal of status occurred in this hierarchy of rank and privilege. The real holders of power within the army and the government, including President Micombero, were Tutsi-Hima, many from the Bururi province in the south, which served as a major recruiting ground for the armed forces. Ethno-regional tensions rose rapidly in 1971, as a number of leading personalities of Banyaruguru origins were accused of fomenting a plot to bring back Ntare to the throne.
It is not by chance that the outbreak of a Hutu-led insurrection, in late April 1972, happened at the height of the Hima-Banyaruguru crisis. In the months preceding the Hutu uprising, the government seemed to be tottering on the brink of anarchy. Already in July 1971, charges of conspiracy were brought against a group of leading Banyaruguru personalities, and on January 14, 1972, a military tribunal issued nine death sentences and seven life sentences. With rumors of plots and counterplots spreading across the land, the ruling Hima clique, headed by Micombero, saw its legitimacy plummet. It was precisely when the government’s popularity was at its lowest ebb that the insurgents chose to strike. Ironically, nothing could have done more to solidify its ethnic underpinnings than the looming threat of a violent Hutu uprising.