Burundi Commits Genocide of Hutu Majority

The atrocities begun by the government of Burundi against its own citizens, the Hutu majority, were implicitly condoned by African statesmen and ignored by the outside world.

Summary of Event

The historical background of the Hutu people (also known as Bahutu) is important. Burundi achieved independence from Belgium in 1962. It had a population estimated at about 3.5 million in the 1970’s and a land area of slightly more than ten thousand square miles. The original inhabitants of the Burundi region were probably the Twa (Batwa), a subgroup of the Twide pygmies. The Hutu compose nearly 85 percent of the population in Burundi. Another group, the Tutsi (also called Watutsi) arrived in the area later but dominated both the Twa and the Hutu. They composed about 14 percent of the population of Burundi. Genocide;Burundi
Burundi;Hutu genocide
Racial and ethnic conflict;Burundi
[kw]Burundi Commits Genocide of Hutu Majority (May-Aug., 1972)
[kw]Genocide of Hutu Majority, Burundi Commits (May-Aug., 1972)
[kw]Hutu Majority, Burundi Commits Genocide of (May-Aug., 1972)
Burundi;Hutu genocide
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[g]Africa;May-Aug., 1972: Burundi Commits Genocide of Hutu Majority[00730]
[g]Burundi;May-Aug., 1972: Burundi Commits Genocide of Hutu Majority[00730]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;May-Aug., 1972: Burundi Commits Genocide of Hutu Majority[00730]
[c]Human rights;May-Aug., 1972: Burundi Commits Genocide of Hutu Majority[00730]
Melady, Thomas Patrick
Micombero, Michel
Nyerere, Julius

The Tutsi dominated the Hutu for more than four hundred years. They came as invaders and quickly established themselves as the ruling class. The Tutsi were pastoralists (nomads with cattle as their chief commodity and status symbol) and warriors; in time they shaped and controlled a feudal society with the Hutu at the bottom. The two groups share a language, Kirundi. Educated members of the two groups, including literate peasants, speak French. The Tutsi regarded themselves as an elite minority, constantly on guard against real and imaginary plots by the Hutu majority. The Tutsi established a rigidly stratified society to retain their prestige and privileges.

Germany was the first European colonial power in the Burundi area. The Germans established indirect rule over the central African territory by permitting the Tutsi aristocracy to retain its dominance over the feudal structure. The Hutu, consequently, remained at the bottom. The Tutsi relished German colonialism and saw themselves as equals to the Germans; they revered the Germans for abetting their rule over the Hutu while being unconscious of the subjugated people’s plight.

An Allied victory in World War I led to Belgian military rule in Burundi in 1916, known then as Ruanda-Urundi. The area was of little economic value to the Belgians. They had hoped to trade Ruanda-Urundi for a piece of northern Angola to add to their southern colony of the Congo. This did not happen. The territory became a Belgian mandate under the League of Nations. The switch in European “ownership” of the territory had no salutary effect for the situation of the Hutu. Belgium copied the German practice of working through the Tutsi minority in governing the region. There was little or no economic incentive for the Belgians to settle in the area or to make any substantial investments in a subsistence economy that lacked even a rudimentary infrastructure. The economy was household-based, and villages were isolated from one another. Burundi did not offer Belgium a market for manufactures, and the region had almost nothing worth extracting for local use or for transport to Europe or the United States.

After World War II, Ruanda-Urundi was changed from a League of Nations mandate to a trust territory under the United Nations. This change had real importance, as the U.N. trust criteria required Belgium to prepare the population for self-rule. This meant majority rule. The new requirement threatened the Tutsi minority and gave the Hutu hope of doing through representative government what they had been unable to accomplish through armed conflict over the centuries.

Tutsi-Hutu relations were uncertain when limited self-government was granted by Belgium in 1961. The Belgian Foreign Office was hopeful that the monarchy would be a stabilizing institution in Burundi. In July, 1962, Belgium recognized Burundi as an independent monarchy. It was assumed by Belgium and by U.N. officials that the monarchy had considerable support among both the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Hutu generally had been neglected by their European colonizers in the educational system and in government service. A feudal society had, apparently, bred a docile and politically muted people.

A major setback for ethnic harmony and representative government in Burundi was generated by events outside the country, in neighboring Rwanda. Hutu and Tutsi accounted for similar proportions of the population of Rwanda as they did in Burundi. Selective genocide was launched in Rwanda by the Hutu elite against the Tutsi minority. Between 1962 and 1963, Hutus murdered twenty thousand Tutsis. It took a few weeks before news of the Rwanda genocide reached Burundi and the rest of the outside world. The Rwandan government never admitted the genocide of the Tutsi minority, claiming that only 870 people were killed.

An atmosphere of trepidation was created among the Tutsi in Burundi by the slaughter of their brothers in Rwanda. Whatever sanguine expectations were held by leaders of both tribes for a pluralistic and harmonious society were shattered by the Hutu killings in Rwanda. The Hutu, nevertheless, were making some political gains in Burundi. Hutus held twenty-three of the thirty-three seats in the National Assembly. The Hutu presence in government and in other institutions, such as the army, was symbolic rather than a genuine effort to reflect demographic reality. This fact was not wasted on educated Hutus, who were increasingly aware of their political potency.

Growing political awareness among the Hutu and enthusiasm to command Burundi society led to an attempted coup d’état in October, 1965. Tutsi revenge was quick, and attacks on Hutu leaders and people continued for more than a year. Eighty-six high-ranking Hutu officials were executed in late 1965; in all, between twenty-five hundred and five thousand Hutus were killed during this dress rehearsal for a more horrendous genocide of the Hutu people by the Tutsi.

On April 29, 1972, Hutu rebels, allied with Zairian exiles, attacked southern Burundi in an attempt to establish a Hutu-dominated republic. They struck at Tutsi soldiers and civilians in an attempt to overthrow the minority government. There had been ongoing antagonism between the two groups since Hutu plotters were foiled in a 1969 attempted coup. The 1972 attempted coup was better organized and was carried out at many points throughout the country, including the capital, Bujumbura. In the first week of fighting, between two and three thousand were killed on each side. Government sources erroneously claimed that the Hutu killed more than fifty thousand Tutsis. This government account maintained that the aim of the Hutu rebels was to exterminate the Tutsi race.

By mid-May, Tutsi soldiers had completed their military operations against the rebels. The threat to civil peace was over, but the killings of Hutus by the Tutsi authorities continued. Soldiers and paramilitary, as well as ordinary citizens, killed about three thousand Hutus in the first week of the fighting. At least two thousand Hutu government workers were arrested and later executed by Tutsi soldiers. Two dozen Hutu army officers were executed by orders of the Burundi government. Tutsi violence was generated by fear of losing political power and the possibility of a massacre of their people or expulsion from Burundi. President Michel Micombero encouraged this sentiment.

By mid-May, President Micombero had sanctioned a policy of selective genocide of educated Hutu. On May 10, U.S. ambassador Thomas Patrick Melady informed his country’s Department of State that the period of civil strife appeared to be over and that what the government was now doing approached an official government policy of selective genocide of elite Hutus. The Belgian government agreed with Ambassador Melady’s assessment. It declared on May 19 that the army was engaging in a “veritable genocide” and demanded that the killings stop.

Ambassador Melady was the first to appeal personally to President Micombero to stop the killings. Micombero told Melady that he had evidence detailing the Hutu’s intentions to kill “every mother and child of the Tutsi race.” He declined to produce the evidence. Melady’s main consideration, as expressed to Micombero, was simply to stop the killing. Africa, Melady observed, would lose its moral standing in the Third World; the genocide would also undermine black Africa’s condemnation of apartheid in South Africa.

The failure of the international community, including the Organization of African Unity Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the United Nations, to denounce the atrocities in Burundi gave a green light to other African governments wishing to use a “final solution” to historical intertribal rivalries. Ambassador Melady proposed to the U.S. State Department a three-pronged approach to stopping the genocide in Burundi. The United States should work first through direct contacts with African leaders, then through appeals to the OAU, and finally through the United Nations. Melady believed that if the United States rushed into the Burundi situation, it would face resentment for decades to come. The State Department acceded to Melady’s policy recommendation.


Genocide was almost a constant in the evolution of nation-states in Africa following the collapse of European colonialism. African states, more ethnically heterogeneous than Western European nation-states, exhibited paranoia about their independence and national security, and African leaders saw malevolent plots by the West against their independence. This misapprehension of world affairs handicapped African governments in confronting dangerous and complicated social, economic, and political problems within Africa. As a matter of fact, the United States and Europe by the 1970’s had generally agreed to refrain from intervening in the internal affairs of African states.

The OAU, founded in May, 1963, was considered by policy makers within and outside Africa as the legitimate forum for African states to settle African problems, although its charter outlawed military intervention in the internal affairs of other African states. The United States and European nations had on many occasions reaffirmed their determination to support the OAU members in controlling their own affairs. In the Burundi crisis, the OAU was inept. A fact-finding team dispatched by the OAU practically endorsed genocide of the Hutu by the Burundi government.

International efforts, especially those of the U.S. government, to get the OAU to mediate an end to the slaughter of Hutus in Burundi was a failure. During the critical months of June and July, when most of the killings took place, OAU leaders assured the outside world that Africans would stop the genocide in Burundi, if indeed it was occurring. The position of the OAU merely lengthened the genocide and did nothing to deter future bloodbaths. President Micombero was pleased with the OAU endorsement of his government’s policies: The OAU pledged full support for the Burundi government.

The United Nations sent a fact-finding mission to Burundi on June 22. On July 4, U.N. secretary-general Kurt Waldheim Waldheim, Kurt announced the findings of the team. Waldheim called for humanitarian aid to Burundi refugees and noted estimates of the dead that ranged from 80,000 to 200,000. The United Nations failed to devise any swift measures to stop the killing.

Numerous factors contributed to the eventual end of the genocide. Publicity by the United Nations of the atrocities probably played a role. The Tutsis in power also became convinced that the Hutus had been taught their lesson and no longer posed a threat to the power structure. Julius Nyerere, the president of Tanzania, invited President Micombero to Tanzania on August 6 and urged him to end the genocide. By then, the killing had slowed but not stopped.

Nyerere also took a more direct approach to an outbreak of atrocities in Burundi in May and June of the following year, 1973. He demanded that the OAU “concern itself actively” in the civil strife in Burundi. The OAU, Nyerere insisted, must mediate in Burundi to prevent another bloodbath. President Nyerere’s strong stance might have prevented another episode of genocide by the Tutsi against the Hutu in 1973. Genocide;Burundi
Burundi;Hutu genocide
Racial and ethnic conflict;Burundi

Further Reading

  • Bentley, Kristina A., and Roger Southall. African Peace Process: Mandela, South Africa, and Burundi. Cape Town, South Africa: Human Sciences Research Council, 2005. Focuses on the origins of civil war between the ruling minority Tutsi and the majority Hutu. Authors trace the efforts by South Africa to mediate between the warring parties.
  • Bowen, Michael. Passing By: The United States and Genocide in Burundi, 1972. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1973. A behind-the-scenes account of the State Department’s attempts to influence Burundi to stop the Hutu genocide.
  • Hatch, Charles J. Julius K. Nyerere. London: Becker & Warburg, 1976. Praises President Julius Nyerere’s efforts to start socialism in one country and his willingness to challenge the OAU’s doctrine of official apathy and opposition to intervention or public condemnation of atrocities within African countries.
  • Lemarchand, René. Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Explores the origins of ethnic conflict in Burundi.
  • _______. Burundi: Ethnocide as Discourse and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Informative account of historical events in Burundi. Focuses on the 1972 and 1988 massacres. Bibliography and index.
  • Melady, Thomas Patrick. Burundi: The Tragic Years. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1974. This American ambassador was the first to urge the diplomatic corps to pressure President Micombero to stop the killing. He was also involved in shaping U.S. government policy to bring a halt to the Tutsi genocide of the Hutu.
  • Newbury, Catharine. The Cohesion of Oppression: Clientship and Ethnicity in Rwanda, 1860-1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Examines the historical background to ethnic conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu and the impact European colonialism had on each group.
  • Tuhabonye, Gilbert, with Gary Brozek. This Voice in My Heart: A Genocide Survivor’s Story of Escape, Faith, and Forgiveness. New York: Amistad, 2006. Tuhabonye, a Tutsi, recounts his survival of a Burundi massacre in this moving autobiography.

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