Burundi's Ethnic Strife Rekindles

Emotions flare as the new Hutu government purges minority Tutsi office-holders

ALTHOUGH Burundi is one of Africa's smallest countries, it has one of the highest death tolls from ethnic violence in the world - more than 100,000 people killed since 1972.

Now, with a new government settling into power after the country's first democratic elections, the threat of conflict again looms large.

Since independence from Belgium in 1962, political power has been mostly in the hands of military leaders of the Tutsi, a minority ethnic group that makes up only 14 percent of the population.

In June, however, the presidential candidate of the Hutu, who constitute an 85 percent majority, beat Tutsi incumbent Pierre Buyoya. Mr. Buyoya had initiated democratic reforms and, in a rare act in Africa, accepted his defeat.

But like a sleeping lion, the Army remains in the hands of the Tutsi. The purge of many Tutsi officials by the new Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, risks provoking a military coup and restarting ethnic massacres, according to diplomats and some Burundi analysts.

In an interview with the Monitor, President Ndadaye said he is under pressure from the Hutu majority to clamp down on the Tutsi. He won about 60 percent of the vote. His party, Front for Democracy in Burundi, won 65 of 81 seats in the July legislative elections.

``The minority has to share power with the 85 percent of the people who were previously excluded from power,'' Ndadaye said.

``The population wants native people whom they know,'' he added, referring to the Hutu majority.

There have been two attempted military coups this year, one before the election, one after. Ndadaye acknowledged the risk of another coup, and not just from the Tutsi military faction suspected of being behind the recent attempts.

``It could come from another group,'' he said, without further explanation.

On the other side of the ethnic equation, militant Hutus are pushing for an ever greater purge. They resent the appointment of a Tutsi prime minister, Mrs. Sylvia Kinigi, and have attempted coups against some previous Tutsi regimes.

``We're on a tightrope without a net,'' says government spokesman Jean-Marie Ngendahayo, a Tutsi.

The Tutsi purge, a Western diplomat here warns, ``could lead to a dangerous situation if they go too far.'' There is a definite risk of another military coup, says a diplomat from another country.

A leading Burundi journalist, Innocente Muhozi, says the purge could reignite tensions between the country's main ethnic groups. ``If they [the new government] continue to play the ethnic game, the massacres could reoccur,'' he says.

Mr. Muhozi, also president of the Association for the Protection and Promotion of Freedom of Expression in Burundi, claims the Ndadaye regime is ``too hurried'' in purging the Tutsi from government ``because their victory was so large.''

Although nine of the 23 members of Ndadaye's Cabinet are Tutsi, he has sacked most of the nation's Tutsi governors, mayors, heads of schools, and the directors and some technical staff of enterprises the government partially owns.

Most have been replaced by Hutus, and critics claim many of the replacements are poorly qualified.

But government officials downplay the risk of a coup. The Tutsi Army realizes Hutus are not easy to defeat, says Mr. Ngendahayo. He cites Hutu attacks against the then-Tutsi government in 1991 and 1992.

According to Amnesty International, as many as 100,000 people, mostly Hutus, were killed in ethnic strife in Burundi in 1972, and thousands since then.

The military may now consider democracy practical, says Wili Kuhn, a Belgian economist working for the government and a longtime resident here.

``I think they [the Army] realize they can't rule by coup dtat. If a coup dtat comes, a lot of donors will stop the aid,'' he says.

Mr. Kuhn is optimistic about Burundi's future. After decades of ethnic strife, ``I think people are really thinking of living together,'' he adds.

Bujumbura businesswoman Murekerisoni Leocadie says, ``We have to get beyond ... tribalism.'' People ``fear the extremists who can plunge our country [back] into ethnic war,'' she says.

In recent weeks, there have been isolated killings and harassment of Tutsis by Hutus, including some by Hutu refugees returning to land the Tutsis seized years ago. Ndadaye has set up an arbitration commission to try to settle such land disputes.

Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted economic growth has slowed to just slightly below the population growth rate of 3.2 percent, says Kuhn. From a streetside cafe near the center of town, one sees signs of affluence - new Toyota pickups, for example - and poverty - homeless boys sleeping under a tree.

The German government has agreed to provide an additional $12 million in aid to Burundi as a ``democratization bonus,'' Kuhn says.

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