[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Sunday, 27 February, 2005, 17:21 GMT
Burundi prepares to move on
By Rob Walker
BBC News, Bujumbura

Angele Ndabazaniye is sitting outside a hastily constructed shack in the village of Kabezi, south of Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. She is among hundreds of thousands of people displaced since Burundi's civil war erupted in 1993.

A Burundi woman displaced from her home
Burundi's displaced people simply want a chance to go home
"Our life here is bad. We have no shelter, we get sick and some of us even die," she said.

Angele had to flee when fighting between the Tutsi-led army and Hutu rebels reached her village. Both sides attacked civilians, she says.

"They know why they killed one another, but we don't know why they involved us, because we are not politicians."

Now she hopes she will soon be able to go home. A new constitution has been approved, designed to end the war and share power between Hutus and Tutsis.

Burundi has been scarred by extreme violence since it gained independence from Belgium in 1961.

Tutsis, who make up 15% of the population, were seen by the Belgians as superior to Hutus.

On independence, a narrow elite among the Tutsis assumed complete military and political power. When Hutus struggled for political freedoms, they were brutally repressed.

Finally in 1993, in elections held under international pressure, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, was voted in as president.

But within months, Ndadaye had been assassinated by Tutsi soldiers and Burundi descended into chaos. Hutu rebels took up arms and it is estimated that up to 300,000 people died in the ensuing civil war.

Compromise and guarantees

The new constitution aims to change all this.

"We expect to put in place a new system where all Burundians can elect their own leaders, from the village level up to the president," said Jean de Dieu Mutabazi, spokesman for Frodebu, one of the two main Hutu-based parties.

The text is a political compromise combining democracy with guarantees for the Tutsi minority. Tutsis will have 40% of seats in the national assembly and Hutus 60%.

Both ethnic groups will have an equal share in the army and the Senate.

Frodebu supporters at a rally
The mainly Hutu Frodebu party is campaigning for a yes vote

The deal has been enough to win over all but one of the Hutu rebel groups, and fighting has stopped across almost all of Burundi. Only the hardline National Liberation Forces (FNL) have so far refused to lay down their arms.

Burundians approved the new constitution in a referendum.

"The event in itself is amazing. My sense is, people will turn out enthusiastically," said Carolyn McAskie, head of the UN Peacekeeping mission in Burundi.

"It is the first opportunity for people to come and participate in what will be the structure of the government."

Fears of exploitation

Frodebu and the other main Hutu-based party, the CNDD-FDD, called for a Yes vote. But some Tutsi-based parties wanted voters to reject the constitution, claiming it will not give Tutsis enough guarantees when elections are held.

"The parliament risks being dominated by one or two parties from the same political and ethnic family - and that's dangerous. The hegemony of Frodebu and the CNDD risks being a dictatorship," said Gerard Nduwayo of the Tutsi-based Uprona party.

For the Tutsi military and political elite, approval of the new constitution will mean losing their grip on power.

"The fear is for their positions. They own houses, they own businesses - and all these things are the concern of people who are definitely going to lose power in the elections," said Alexis Sinduhije, head of the independent Radio Public Africa.

A Burundian registers to vote
Success in Burundi could offer direction to nations like Rwanda
Trying to reach agreement on a draft text for the constitution has involved an endless process of bargaining between Hutu and Tutsi parties.

But many Burundians believe that rather than representing their communities, politicians from both sides have tried to manipulate ethnicity for their own ends.

"They are going to always exploit the fear between Hutu and Tutsi. They're using ethnicity to get power, it's because they have failed in management of the country. So the new government should manage things in a way that everyone can benefit," said Mr Sinduhije.

Some fear that the new constitution, with its quotas for each group, could actually enshrine ethnicity in the future political system.

But Ms McAskie says there are provisions meant to guard against this. Parties that have been traditionally Hutu-based must ensure that at least one-third of their candidates are Tutsi and vice versa for parties that have been mainly Tutsi.

"The hope is that after they have discovered they can live in peace for the next five years, these percentages will fall away," she said.

"The parties will discover that they can put up a Tutsi or Hutu candidate with universal appeal."

High hopes, huge challenges

If Burundi can achieve this, it could offer a way forward to the troubled Great Lakes region.

Conflicts in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are estimated to have caused the deaths of five million people in just over a decade.

"If Burundi succeeds in guaranteeing a place for Tutsis, and eventually guarantees the possibility of power changing hands by democratic means, this could also prove to Rwanda that this is probably the way that will work best," says Susan Linnee of the International Crisis Group.

But the challenges which will face Burundi's post-transition government are huge.

Apart from managing a delicate political and ethnic balancing act, it will need to demobilise thousands of soldiers and rebuild a shattered and divided country.

In Kabezi village, Angele Ndabazaniye, like hundreds of thousands of displaced Burundians, is still waiting to return home. She says she does not know what is in the constitution. Her only concern is whether the war will is really over.

"We don't know what's going to happen. We'll just follow whoever is elected, because we don't know which of them can bring us peace."

Warning for Burundi's president
26 Jan 05 |  Africa
Burundi peace poll postponed
15 Oct 04 |  Africa
Tutsis boycott Burundi cabinet
03 Sep 04 |  Africa
Country profile: Burundi
26 Feb 04 |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific