By Stephen Buchanan-Clarke, Consultant in the Justice and Reconciliation in Africa Programme, IJR
This month the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) held a three day workshop in Bujumbura, Burundi; the focus of which was to help develop an effective communications strategy for Burundi’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The workshop commenced just one day after the 42nd anniversary of the death of Prince Rwagasore, Burundi’s national liberation hero. The workshop forms part of an on-going partnership between the IJR and the Burundi TRC, and is an aspect of a wider regional reconciliation initiative being undertaken by the Institute. In addition to commissioners from Burundi’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the workshop was attended by a cross-section of the country’s journalists from radio, TV, and print media. Zenzile Khoisan, a former senior investigator for the South African TRC, joined the IJR team. He led a team which successfully investigated numerous high profile cases of the South African TRC. These included death squads, disappearances, torture, intelligence structures and military projects such the chemical and biological warfare programme of the apartheid government.
Burundi has had an extremely turbulent modern history. After World War II, international pressure mounted for Belgium to prepare Burundi for independence. The Union pour le progress national (UPRONA) was established, headed by King Mwambutsa’s popular son, Prince Louis Rwagasore, who quickly established a broad-based constituency with strong representation among both Hutu and Tutsi. Established in opposition was the rival Parti démocrate-chrétien (PDC), who took a strong anti-communist stance. This appealed to the Belgian authorities, who gave them their support. In preparation for independence national elections were held in 1961, in which, contrary to the hopes of the Belgium government, UPRONA won, securing 80% of the votes and 58 of the 64 seats in the legislature. Prince Rwagasore was appointed Prime Minister, but on the 13 October he was assassinated by agents of the PDC. This assassination attempt was most likely carried out with Belgian assistance. However, this important part of Burundi’s modern story has yet to be fully uncovered.
The assassination of Prince Rwagasore not only stripped Burundians of their most beloved leader but destroyed the ethnic cohesion between Hutu and Tutsi, something the Prince had worked hard to achieve after years of colonial rule had highly politicized this divide. Since then, the country has experienced episodes of severe conflict including several coups and total civil war in 1993. The signing of the Arusha peace accords in 2000, facilitated by Nelson Mandela, brought a tenuous end to the conflict. It also established Burundi’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the mandate of bringing “to light and establish the truth regarding the serious acts of violence committed during the cyclical conflicts which cast a tragic shadow over Burundi from independence…