Burundian President Is Assassinated Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After becoming the first democratically elected president of Burundi and the nation’s first Hutu leader, Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated during a military takeover engineered by Tutsis. The assassination led to the bloody Burundi civil war, in which as many as 300,000 were killed.

Summary of Event

On October 21, 1993, a group of supposedly loyal soldiers escorted Burundian president Melchior Ndadaye and other high government officials to an army barracks, ostensibly to protect them from mutinying soldiers. There the soldiers executed them, along with several other officials and cabinet members, in a military coup that plunged the country into murderous ethnic chaos that escalated into a ten-year-long civil war. Assassinations and attempts;Melchior Ndadaye[Ndadaye] Burundi;civil war Revolutions and coups;Burundi Hutus Tutsis Racial and ethnic conflict;Burundi [kw]Burundian President Is Assassinated (Oct. 21, 1993) [kw]President Is Assassinated, Burundian (Oct. 21, 1993) [kw]Assassinated, Burundian President Is (Oct. 21, 1993) Assassinations and attempts;Melchior Ndadaye[Ndadaye] Burundi;civil war Revolutions and coups;Burundi Hutus Tutsis Racial and ethnic conflict;Burundi [g]Africa;Oct. 21, 1993: Burundian President Is Assassinated[08720] [g]Burundi;Oct. 21, 1993: Burundian President Is Assassinated[08720] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 21, 1993: Burundian President Is Assassinated[08720] [c]Crime and scandal;Oct. 21, 1993: Burundian President Is Assassinated[08720] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 21, 1993: Burundian President Is Assassinated[08720] Ndadaye, Melchior Kinigi, Sylvie Ntaryamira, Cyprien Ngeze, François Nkurunziza, Pierre

President Melchior Ndadaye was the first Hutu president in Burundi’s long history of political and economic domination by the minority Tutsi population. After the country gained its independence from Belgium in 1962, tensions between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority had led to frequent violence between the two ethnic groups. After several political upheavals, multiparty rule, established in 1992, brought about a new constitution that opened the way for general elections. As the Hutus were in the majority, it was not surprising that a Hutu would become president in a fair election and overthrow the decades-long domination of the country by the Tutsi.

Although the Hutus made up four-fifths of Burundi’s population, they had suffered discrimination from the Tutsis since before the Belgian colonial era (1916-1961). The Tutsis, a tall, lighter-complexioned people who had been skilled warriors, believed that working with a hoe, as the agrarian Hutus traditionally did, was demeaning. The fact that the Belgian overlords favored the Tutsis with more prestigious positions in the government than the Hutus were given also contributed to the Tutsis’ conviction that they were the rightful rulers of the country, that they were the lords and the Hutus were the vassals. So when a Hutu, Melchior Ndadaye, became leader of their newly independent country, the Tutsis had little doubt that things would change in Burundi, and not to their advantage.

President Ndadaye, however, an educated and moderate political activist, had no intention of taking revenge on the Tutsis for their years of mistreatment of the Hutus. He hoped to heal the divisiveness and antagonism between the two groups. His initial step in that direction was appointing a Tutsi woman, Sylvie Kinigi, as prime minister. Then he put members of the Tutsi Union for National Progress into one-third of all cabinet posts and into two regional governorships. He loosened government control of the press so that the workings of government and other important areas of Burundian life could be made known to the general public. To avoid the appearance of showing favoritism to Hutus who had for so long been squeezed out of important and/or lucrative jobs, he moved slowly against the entrenched discrimination against them.

However, when Ndadaye investigated some of the activities of the previous, Tutsi-dominated government, he found serious improprieties. His investigations rattled powerful Tutsi higher-ups and military men who realized that their finances would be affected and threatened when contracts and concessions approved by the Tutsi-led government were examined. Perhaps a large part of the increasing Tutsi dissatisfaction with his administration was his proposed reform of the Burundi military: He reassigned the national police and placed them under a command separate from that of the army, thereby diluting the control and power of certain Tutsi longtime leaders. He modified army recruitment regulations as a way to limit the number of Tutsi soldiers and officers and increase the intake of other ethnic constituents. Another part of their concern perhaps was his efforts to replace many of the Tutsi public servants with deserving but inexperienced Hutus. While this was long overdue, the Hutus had little experience dealing with the myriad problems facing Burundi, including dealing with the large numbers of returning refugees. The difficulties resulting from the Hutus’ ineptness were reported by the newly free press, consequently making the entire country aware. Tensions between Hutu and Tutsi increased.

Finally, on October 21, 1993, soldiers in the Tutsi-led army gathered President Ndadaye, the National Assembly president Pontien Karibwami, and its vice president Gilles Bimazubute, under the guise of protecting them from mutinying soldiers advancing on the presidential palace. Beer-drinking soldiers had surrounded the palace, and military tanks had even been used to break into the building. There was clearly a danger, and the president believed the soldiers accompanying him and his colleagues were loyal. He and the other administrators were escorted to an army barracks where several other officials and cabinet members had been assembled. There they were all summarily executed, with President Ndadaye being bayoneted to death.

Once the news of the executions was known, chaos and violence broke out. Hutus sought revenge on Tutsis, and the Tutsi-led army retaliated with force against Hutus. Civilians of both groups were targets. Students were taken from schools and burned alive or chopped to death with machetes. Some people ran for their lives, hiding under water in rivers. To stem the violence, leaders of the coup imposed a curfew. Recognizing the value of keeping the population ignorant of what was transpiring, they also cut telephone service and took over the state-run radio stations. To keep out foreign interlopers, they closed the international airport so no flights could go in or out. As Hutu civilians were clearly getting the worst of the violence, attacked as they were by well-armed soldiers, they were encouraged to flee to Rwanda, which huge numbers did.

François Ngeze, who had been interior minister under a previous president, was called on to become temporary head of state on October 21. After two days, he refused to work with the leaders of the coup and said that Prime Minister Kinigi should be given the authority to take control of the government. Even though she was a Tutsi, Kinigi, fearing for her safety, had taken refuge in the French Embassy. She accepted the responsibility but asked the United Nations for an international force to be deployed in Burundi to protect her and the other officials. She and they were suspicious of the Burundian army’s intentions. Although both the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. General Assembly condemned the assassination and coup, and the General Assembly demanded immediate restoration of democracy and the country’s constitutional regime, Burundi’s army commander refused to allow the deployment of outside forces.

Ultimately, more than 300,000 Hutu and Tutsi civilians were killed as the carnage escalated into a civil war that lasted for a decade. In 1999, five men were tried and found guilty in the assassination of President Ndadaye and sentenced to death.

Significance

Burundi has always been one of the poorest countries in Africa and was in even worse straits after decades of internal strife, what with uprooted refugees returning to find their homes gone or in shambles, the country’s economy battered, and simmering resentment among the various ethnic and political factions threatening to erupt at the slightest provocation. At the end of the barbaric hostilities ignited by Ndadaye’s assassination, Burundians, with the support of the United Nations, agreed to interim alternating rule by, first, a Tutsi administrator and then a Hutu until finally, in 2005, elections were held. In August, 2005, a former teacher and former rebel leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, was elected president with his promise to unite all Burundians and all political parties, to stop the ethnic rivalry, and to begin rebuilding the nation. Assassinations and attempts;Melchior Ndadaye[Ndadaye] Burundi;civil war Revolutions and coups;Burundi Hutus Tutsis Racial and ethnic conflict;Burundi

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lemarchand, René. Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Includes chapters devoted to the civil war that began in 1994. Focuses on the causes and consequences of the Hutu-Tutsi animosity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ould-Abdallah, Ahmedou. Burundi on the Brink, 1993-95: A UN Special Envoy Reflects on Preventive Diplomacy. New York: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2000. Discusses a U.N. envoy’s trip to Burundi to work with ethnic rivals for political progress and to stave off genocide. Difficult reading for the marginally interested reader. Focus is on the United Nations’ role in the Burundi situation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tuhabonye, Gilbert, with Gary Brozek. This Voice in My Heart: A Genocide Survivor’s Story of Escape, Faith, and Forgiveness. New York: Amistad, 2006. Autobiographical account by a Tutsi high school student of events in the aftermath of the October assassination of Burundi president Ndadaye.

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