Rwanda’s Nyange and Burundi’s Buta – Lessons for Nation Building

It is the responsibility of the government to bring a new paradigm to break Burundi's vicious cycle of violence.

A recurring theme in the debates among us Burundians is our inability as a nation to move away from ethnic polarization and violence. Burundi’s independence hero, Prince Louis Rwagasore, had a dream: a thriving nation built around the concept of indivisible citizenship. He was brutally assassinated before he could realize it, and Burundi has been reeling from it since then. However, individual Burundians have proved capable of realizing cooperation and mutual protection across ethnic lines. The story of Buta heroes offers a glimpse into how Rwagasore’s dream Burundi can be actualised.

On 30 April 1997, during the civil war that opposed the then Burundi’s Tutsi-dominated army and Hutu rebel groups, Buta Seminary (a high school in southern Burundi, in the province of Bururi) was attacked by rebels. As survivors of the massacre that ensued recounted, rebels stormed the dormitory and asked students to separate themselves into Hutus and Tutsis. When the students refused to yield to the demand, the attackers decided to kill them indiscriminately.

They wanted to divide us, but we stayed together,” Fulgence Bizindavyi, one of the survivors, recalled.

The students’ decision to stay together was no accident. It was the result of months of dialogue, soul-searching and humanizing tales between the students. As a result, even as the country slipped further into civil war, the students were able to distance themselves from the madness that prevailed across the country. It was also an intentional, educational process initiated and encouraged by the elders in charge of the Seminary. Many of the students would go on to tell how, only after six months of this learning process, they were able to overcome the fear and mistrust among them, as well as the prejudices they previously held against one another.

“I had the impression that the children had forgotten that they were Hutu or Tutsi. They were first and foremost brothers, Burundians,” father Zacharie Bukuru, the then director of the Seminary, recalled. “They were able to vomit this poison [of ethnicity] that had taken hold in their heart,” he said.

What’s impressive and moving about this episode is that the students not only overcame their differences, they chose death rather than being separated along ethnic lines.

This tragic event is not an isolated occurrence in the history of Burundi. If one cares to look closer, the country’s bloody post-independence history is marred with heroic feats of unacknowledged upright citizens who, at the risk of their lives, decided to save their friends, neighbours, and compatriots of different ethnicities who were being hunted down by the state security forces, state-backed Tutsi militias or Hutu rebels. 

Sadly, at the time, most Burundi elites from both sides of the ethnic divide never cared to pay attention to this phenomenon of inter-ethnic solidarity, which they viewed as an abnormality in the context of civil war.  Stuck in the logic of perpetual confrontation, they failed to acknowledge its positivity and the enormous potential it carries for the purpose of nation-building. As they gathered in Arusha, pressured by neighbouring countries and foreign powers to find a lasting solution to the country’s unending cycle of violence, they chose the easiest path but one that locked Burundians in the elite groups’ logic of confrontation: Arusha ethnic quotas.

This decision to institute ethnic quotas in the country’s administration, army, and political positions was in many ways a rejection of what the martyrs of Buta stood for. For one thing, it cemented the idea that Tutsis and Hutus of Burundi could not trust each other to ensure security for all, and to treat all citizens fairly. Burundians no longer formed one nation; they had become two nations living on the same territory. Therefore, quotas were deemed necessary for seemingly irreconcilable enemies. Arusha architects imagined a world in which these “nations” would live side by side, each holding enough military, administrative and political power to the extent that the prospect of mutually assured destruction would render peace the only viable option for the two. In other words, peace was to be the result of fear, rather than the outcome of humanizing processes in which Burundians, just like Buta heroes, would learn to transcend their differences, whether real or perceived.

Worst still, Arusha architects overlooked one frightening aspect. For ethnic quotas to be strictly and fairly enforced, the country would have to find a way to identify unequivocally and formally each Burundian by, for instance, providing citizens with identity cards bearing ethnic mentions. As a matter of fact, the government regularly conducts ethnic censuses in different institutions, ostensibly to ensure that the quota system is being respected. Workers are asked to state their ethnic identity during a process whose reliability is highly questionable. In a country of over 11 million souls where these so-called ethnic groups have no clear identity markers such as culture or language, one has to rely on someone’s words or physical features (as depicted and instituted by the colonizer) to assess the ethnic identity of any Burundian. Considering how such identity cards were weaponised in Rwanda in 1994 during the genocide against the Tutsi, the strict enforcement of the quota system, taken to its logical conclusion, would be another step in the wrong direction.

Moreover, one of the saddest aspects of Burundi’s political discourse remains the inability of the government’s critics to transcend the logic of the quota system. They denounce the government for failing to uphold the quotas. They have repeatedly published the names of public servants who they accuse of committing crimes. They point to the latter’s ethnic identity to drive the point home as to why these public servants, particularly in the security services, are allegedly engaged in criminality against their compatriots. In this, the critics too have failed to hear the gospel sung by Buta Heroes. It is fundamentally the values one is taught and which s/he chooses to live by that inform her/his behaviour. Clearly, if Burundi’s security forces were made of individuals who lived by the values which Buta heroes fought for, the quotas would appear offensive because they suggest that Burundians are inherently incapable of transcending sectarianism when dealing with their fellow compatriots. The attempt to resolve criminality through ethnic quotas is shallow because it conceives ethnic identity as a substitute for Ubuntu values, which is impossible.

All nations are built on myths that exalt togetherness and unity. Statues of heroes that embody these values are erected and their stories are repeatedly (re)told and taught in homes and schools to ensure that, generations after generations, citizens are compelled to emulate their heroic feats. As we commemorate the 28th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, it is worth taking note of how those who stood in defence of Rwandaness such as Nyange heroes are celebrated. They represent the ideal citizens. This shows that Rwanda has learned from its experience. Burundi has the opportunity to learn from its own experience too and to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

Most importantly, it is the responsibility of the government to bring a new paradigm to break the vicious cycle of violence. The latest outburst of violence in 2015 proved that the Arusha project is incapable of dealing with Burundi’s identity crisis. Whether the current government is willing and able to bring such a paradigm remains to be seen. In the meantime, Burundians who long for genuine healing and reconciliation will continue to curse the colonial state for consistently standing in their way.

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