Burundi: German colonialism (1890 - 1916)

Updated April 2010

In the partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference (1884-1885), the European powers allocated the territories of modern Rwanda and Burundi to Germany (Bentley & Southall 2005, 32). In 1890 the kingdom (called Urundi) and the neighbouring kingdom of Ruanda (Rwanda) were formally incorporated into German East Africa, but only in 1896 was the first military presence established in Usumbura (Bujumbura) and in 1899 was Urundi-Ruanda constituted as a military-administrative district administered from German East Africa (Institute for Security Studies 2005; Bentley & Southall 2005, 32). The process of German occupation was facilitated by inter-dynastic power struggles within the royal family, between the Bezi and the Batare, which the Germans exploited by siding with the Bezi in exchange for their recognition of German rule (Mthembu-Salter 2008, 152; Bentley & Southall 2005, 36).

Due to a lack of manpower and resources the Germans retained all existing social and political structures and rule was exercised through the monarchy and its existing state formations controlled by the Bezi lineage, effectively modernising and further centralising the existing state (Mthembu-Salter 2002; Bentley & Southall 2005, 36). Alongside this the German's attempted to bolster the power of the chiefdoms to counter the growing power of the monarchy by empowering the subordinate chiefdoms, thus further solidifying the caste system that had emerged over the previous half century, with a wealthy Tutsi minority dominating a dispossessed Hutu majority (Mthembu-Salter 2002; Bentley & Southall 2005, 37). In line with late nineteenth and early twentieth century Social Darwinian thinking, the German's viewed Burundi's caste structure as reflecting a past in which the Tutsi "were descended from superior and more advanced people who had migrated, variously, from Ethiopia, ancient Egypt, Melanesia or Asia Minor, or even the lost continent of Atlantis, and they had carried monarchical institutions with them and superimposed them upon the original Hutu and Twa inhabitants" (Bentley & Southall 2005, 33).

The effect of this pseudo-scientific discourse was to reconstruct castes as ethnic identities and to provide a racist justification for relations of domination and subordination and of minority Tutsi control of wealth, privilege and power at the expense of the majority Hutus (Bentley & Southall 2005, 37; Oketch & Polzer 2002, 92). This creation of mutually exclusive ethnic identities, and their coupling with differentiated access to control of resources and opportunity, put into motion the forces of social conflict that would tear the Burundian polity apart (Oketch & Polzer 2002, 92, Global Internally Displaced Person Project 2005).

The introduction of a money-based economy had an unforeseen disintegrative effect on traditional social structures, since wealth accumulation and social status no longer depended primarily on the ownership and distribution of cattle. In cash economy participation the distinctions between Tutsi and Hutu that the Germans had sought to develop and enforce were not merely irrelevant, they were emphatically negated (Institute for Security Studies 2005, Bayefsky.com 1992, 92-93). Of particular significance here was coffee as a cash crop, which was introduced by missionaries and was promoted by the German authority as a means of generating revenue (Oketch & Polzer 2002, 123).

The short period of German rule was brought to an end with the outbreak of World War I and the subsequent Belgian occupation of Burundi in 1916, but their system of indirect rule and their transmutation of socio-economic groups into ethnicities were inherited and advances by their Belgian successors (Bentley & Southall 2005, 37; Oketch & Polzer 2002, 92).


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