Burundi: Belgian colonial rule (1916 - 1962)

Updated April 2010

After the outbreak of the First World War the Belgians invaded and occupied Urundi-Ruanda, ejecting the Germans and ruthlessly quelling native resistance (Institute for Security Studies 2005). The territory remained under military occupation until 1923 when, in terms of the Treaty of Versailles, it was allocated to Belgium as a mandate territory under the League of Nations (Bentley & Southall 2005, 32; Bayefsky.com 1992). The Belgians continued the German strategy of indirect rule, effectively governing Urundi and Ruanda as separate territories through the agency of their monarchies (Bentley & Southall 2005, 32).

In Urundi the power of the princely oligarchy (ganwa), and particularly that of the Bezi royal lineage, was consolidated and the dominance of Tutsis over Hutus was reinforced (Oketch & Polzer 2002, 92; Mthembu-Salter 2008, 152). To cement the loyalty of the Tutsis (the "natural rulers; Oketch & Polzer 2002, 93) they entrenched the ethnic divisions created by the Germans by ensuring unequal access to educational opportunities, creating a class of literate, "westernised", aristocratic Tutsis to rule over the illiterate, "traditional", peasant Hutus (Kimber 1996). Tutsis in general, and the Bezi in particular, had privileged access to mission schools, facilitating their rapid conversion to Catholicism, which provided them with the literacy required to enable them to occupy the rungs of the colonial bureaucracy (Bentley & Southall 2005, 37; Mthembu-Salter 2008, 152; Kimber 1996).

Largely excluded from education and the Civil Service, the Hutus were strongly subordinated to the Tutsi elite and subject "a draconian system of forced labour whereby mostly Hutu were drafted to work for the state without pay" and subjected to land expropriation often with inadequate compensation (Bentley & Southall 2005, 37). As soon as resistance had been broken the Belgians set about cementing administrative control and making the new territories pay their way (Institute for Security Studies 2005). They imposed poll taxes and forced labour obligations which were brutally extracted, burdens which fell particularly heavily on the impoverished Hutu peasantry (Kimber 1996; Oketch & Polzer 2002, 124). They further used the German system of indirect rule to enforce the planting of cash crops, especially coffee, and the implementation of poll taxes in cash was designed to encourage coffee planting to raise cash to pay taxes, and to force those who could not do so to offer their labour on the mines of the Belgian Congo, as much as to raise revenue for the colonial administration (Oketch & Polzer 2002, 93, 124).

Belgian rule was thus initially a development of what the Germans had done before them. Over time direct intervention became more frequent and wide reaching and the extraction of wealth more naked and violent. Not surprisingly there were peasant uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s (Kimber 1996). In the 1930's as Belgium intensified extraction so it was forced to rule more directly through its own structures and administrators, which in turn undermined the power of the monarchy and traditional socio-political structures, while creating a growing class colonial administrators drawn largely from the Tutsi ganwa class (Oketch & Polzer 2002, 92). In 1933 the distinctions between Tutsi and Hutu were formalised and entrenched by the issue of ethnically based identity cards (Oketch & Polzer 2002, 93).

In the period after World War II, and especially in the 1950s, according to Bentley and Southall (2005, 40), "the arrival of a new generation of [Belgian] priests and administrators who were more open to egalitarian ideas and democracy did bring about a reorientation of attitudes towards the Hutus, who were now increacingly favoured by policies in church and state". In reaction to demands for independence on the part of the Tutsi elite the Belgians attempted to win the support of the Hutus in their efforts to stay. The Belgians abolished the traditional feudal relations between Tutsi and Hutu and began to redistribute cattle, thus negating the basis of traditional caste distinctions between Hutu and Tsutsi (Institute for Security Studies 2005).

Moreover, as they developed from 1959 onwards, with the devolution of legislative power to an indirectly elected legislative council, the new structures were modelled on those on Belgium, leading to the import of practices such as universal suffrage, party based elections and the answerability of authorities to the electorate (Bayefsky.com 1992; Bentley & Southall 2005, 41). This was supplemented by the formation of a territorial guard, which was to become the basis of a national army, recruited from Hutus and Tutsis (Bentley & Southall 2005, 41). Elections, which had been conducted with open voting, were reformed to mandate secret ballot - so removing voting by Hutus from public (i.e. Tutsi) scrutiny and encouraging the growth of Hutu ethnic parties (Bayefsky.com 1992). These measures were seen by Tutsis as a direct threat to their long-term rule over the majority of the population, and so also therefore to their wealth, power and physical security (Bentley & Southall 2005, 41). This sense of vulnerability was underpinned by massacres of Tutsis in Rwanda and a flood of refugees southwards in their wake in 1961 and subsequently (Bentley & Southall 2005, 41).

Prince Louis Rwagasore, eldest son of the Mwami (King) Mwambutsa IV formed the Unite pour le Progrès National (UPRONA) in 1957 a vehicle to defend the privileges of the ruling Bezi, but the rapid deterioration of the situation in Rwanda led to the repositioning of UPRONA as a trans-ethnic nationalist party (Bentley & Southall 2005, 42). Unnerved by this tide of popularism, the colonial authorities branded UPRONA communist and threw their weight behind the rival Christian Democratic Party (Parti démocratique chrétien - PDC) led by the Bezis' rival lineage the Batare, whose programme promised a more Belgium friendly government after independence (Mthembu-Salter 2002; Bentley & Southall 2005, 42). In preparation for independence elections were conducted in September 1961, in which UPRONA won 80% of the vote and 58 of the 64 seats in the new National Assembly, as well as control of most of the communes (see 1961 Legislative Assembly election results for details; Institute for Security Studies 2005; Mthembu-Salter 2008, 152). When PDC agents assassinated Prince Rwagasore on 13 October the Belgians were widely suspected of complicity, but without his charismatic leadership UPRONA was weakened by ethnic driven factionalism (Mthembu-Salter 2002; Bentley & Southall 2005, 42; Kimber 1996). On 26 November 1961 a new Constitution was promulgated that gave wide powers to the King and under which Burundi attained independence on 1 July 1962 (Bayefsky.com 1992).


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