In Burundi, Deceptive Calm Hides 'Volcano' of Hutu Dissent
BUJUMBURA, BURUNDI — The crowd cheered as six men held aloft a huge portrait of Pierre Buyoya, his face almost filling the map of Burundi in the background.
Even though demonstrations were banned immediately after the July 25 coup, announcements on national radio called on patriotic citizens to flock to this parade in support of the country's new Tutsi president.
But national radio broadcasts later failed to point out that those who joined the celebrations were hardly representative of Burundi's ethnic demography. (Eighty-five percent of Burundi's population is Hutu. Tutsis make up only 14 percent.) Tutsis danced in the streets, while Hutus stayed at home.
According to Mr. Buyoya, an Army major, this was not a "classical coup." He pointed to the Tutsi-led Army moving swiftly and discreetly to take control of the city without firing a shot.
"The action taken was meant to rescue the population.... We couldn't continue being party to this catastrophe in Burundi," he said at his first news conference after seizing power.
Flanked by armed soldiers, he promised to do everything he could to halt his Central African country's rapid downward spiral into ethnic violence. An estimated 150,000 people have been killed in Burundi over the last three years.
A deceptive air of calm reigned in the streets of Bujumbura, the capital, where shops and market stalls opened as normal and the traffic circulated unhindered by roadblocks. But the apparent normality in the city, dubbed "Tutsiville" by expatriates since the expulsions of thousands of Hutus from the suburbs last year, masked an uneasy uncertainly about the future.
"We're sitting on a volcano that could erupt at any time," says one Hutu student. "The Tutsis have taken everything. This coup has made it clear that what we have is mono-ethnic government, and the Hutus are going to fight it," he promises.
Observers say the long-expected coup merely reveals the reality - that Burundi's Hutu majority will continue to be excluded from all positions of influence in the Army and government by the tiny Tutsi minority.
Ousted Hutu President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, meanwhile, who has refused to resign, remains in hiding at the residence of the American ambassador, Morris Hughes.
Foreign powers were quick to denounce the coup, condemning the suspension of democratically elected government. Regional leaders, under the Organization of African Unity, are due to meet July 31 in Tanzania to condemn the coup as "illegal." On July 29, the UN Security Council condemned the actions that led to the coup and urged the restoration of constitutional government.
But there are some signs that Buyoya's new regime is winning growing, if unofficial, recognition. He met publicly with Western ambassadors at a hotel in Bujumbura earlier this week and asked them not to cut off relations with Burundi as a result of his coup. Ambassador Hughes said the most important thing for the US government was for the country to "maintain calm and peace."
Burundi's recent history provides ample reasons for concern that the country could explode into violence. In October 1993 Burundi's first democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated by Tutsi soldiers. His death sparked widespread massacres of Tutsis by Hutus in the countryside. Bloodshed continued as the Army carried out large-scale reprisal killings of Hutus.
Immediately following last week's coup, up to 150 people were reported to have been killed in the central region of Gitega. Hutu rebels, pursuing a strategy of economic sabotage, destroyed a rice plantation and a coffee factory at Mundebe. The Army retaliated with killings.
In a separate incident in Gitega, more than 20 Hutu college students were killed when their Tutsi classmates attacked the dormitories. Survivors said soldiers at the military post on campus did nothing to protect them. Informed sources said hundreds of Hutu students had fled secondary schools in the area after threats. Many of those who fled are expected to join the Hutu rebel forces led by an exiled opposition politician.
Intense negotiations are taking place in Bujumbura as the coup-makers seek to form a transitional government as soon as possible in the hope of winning domestic and international credibility.
It is likely that there are enough Hutus from the former government willing to collaborate and accept ministerial posts. Official recognition of Buyoya as president could then follow.
However, diplomats are pessimistic about the chances of a long-term solution to the ethnic problem. Most predict that the Hutu rebels will intensify their attacks as a means of undermining the new regime, which could lead to more massacres in the countryside.