50 years since Burundi genocide: the endless horror of western imperialism

Fifty years ago, on 29 April 1972, violence between Hutus and Tutsis broke out in Burundi. This was the latest round of ethnic conflict in the African Great Lakes region, and marked the beginning of a genocide of up to 300,000 people. Western imperialism bears direct responsibility for the horrors of the spring of 1972. They didn’t lift a finger to stop it, and in some cases, they actively supported it. Today, while western imperialists cry crocodile tears over Ukraine, they bury the history of the far greater abominations they perpetrated just 50 years ago.

The events of 1972 were a legacy of colonialism. The territory known as Rwanda-Urundi was colonised by Germany in 1899, at the height of western colonisation on the African continent. Germany had only emerged as a unified nation state 30 years previously, and its empire was limited to whatever the older imperialist powers hadn’t already snapped up. Fifteen years prior to Germany’s colonisation of Rwanda-Urundi, for example, the Belgian King Leopold II had taken personal ownership over the larger and more profitable neighbouring Congo.

The growing tensions between the imperialist powers over how the world should be divided up led to the First World War in 1914. And in 1916, Belgian troops from Congo overran the Germans in Rwanda-Urundi, seizing control of the territory. Belgian rule was confirmed by the Treaty of Versailles and a League of Nations mandate in 1922.

Divide and rule

Belgian rule in Rwanda-Urundi was every bit as brutal as in Congo. The imperialists introduced coffee as a cash crop, which was cultivated by forced labour and exported back to Europe. Farmers were made to grow a certain number of coffee trees each, enforced by onerous legislation and heavy taxes.

But imposing their domination over the population was no easy task for the imperialists. Prior to colonisation, social cohesion in this region had been strong, and in 1884, its armies succeeded in defeating an army of slave traders.

Twa Rwanda Urundi Image Jessie Tarbox Beals Missouri History Museum Prior to colonisation, social cohesion in Rwanda-Urundi had been strong / Image: Jessie Tarbox Beals, Missouri History Museum

To secure their control, the Belgian ruling class had to use the tried-and-tested method of imperialism: divide and rule. They applied such methods in a particularly pitiless and disruptive way.

The two major social groupings in Rwanda-Urundi were the Hutus and Tutsis, the former comprising around 85% of the population, and the latter 15%. There were differences between these groups, but there was much continuity between them too. Neither had a traditional claim to authority, although Tutsis were disproportionately in positions of authority. Neither conferred a superior social status. The relationship between the two groups was a complex one, with regional divisions and socio-economic status also playing a part.

Whatever the exact relationship between Hutus and Tutsis, there are no accounts of serious conflict between them prior to colonisation.

The Belgian colonisers decided to consolidate their rule by pitting the two groups against each other. They introduced racism to achieve this. In the 1920s, the Belgians brought over ‘scientists’ to measure skull sizes and other biological traits of the population. On the basis of this so-called ‘research’, they claimed that Tutsis had larger heads, were taller, and had lighter skin, and that this gave them a superior racial status.

They based themselves on the racist and now totally discredited Hamitic hypothesis, advanced by the British explorer John Hanning Speke. In 1863, he argued that the Tutsis were descended from the biblical figure Ham, and were therefore a branch of the Caucasian race that had migrated from the north of Africa. With lighter skin than the darker-skinned “Negroids” who populated sub-Saharan Africa, they were placed higher on the racial hierarchy used to justify the horrific crimes of colonialism.

From the early 1930s, ethnic identity was listed on the paperwork of every person, and ID cards were issued to distinguish between Tutsis and Hutus – who, contrary to the claims of the ‘race scientists’, could not be distinguished based on appearances. The Belgian rulers began excluding Hutus from positions of power, and promoting the Tutsi minority as the sole instrument through which to implement their rule.

By 1929, 20% of regional chiefs were Hutus, and by 1945 the figure was 0%. At the beginning of the 1950s, 31 out of 33 members of the Conseil Supérieur du Pays were Tutsi, as were 544 out of 559 regional sub-chiefs.

Hutus were excluded from education and condemned to a lifetime of forced manual labour on the coffee plantations. The only alternative open to them was taking holy orders at one of the subsidised Catholic seminaries.

The Groupe Scolaire school was established by the Belgian colonial administration in 1929. This was a school through which the population could achieve a measure of education and status under the colonial regime. It was fiercely biassed against Hutus. In 1949, of every 100 students who enrolled at the school that year, just 14 were Hutus.

For three decades, the Belgian imperialists reinforced and deepened the artificial racial divide they had created between Hutus and Tutsis. They destroyed the internal cohesion that had characterised Hutu-Tutsi society prior to colonisation. They whipped up fear, division, and hatred to secure coffee for the European market.

What kind of independence?

By the late 1950s, the ground was shaking beneath Belgian imperialism. Independence for the colonies was becoming an inevitability. Pan-African ideas in particular were unifying the West’s colonial subjects against imperialism. This threatened to undermine the Belgians’ methods of ‘divide and rule’ by which they had maintained their dominance.

Independence was coming. The only question was: what kind of independence would be gained by the colonial countries? Events in Congo showed what the imperialists were willing to do to avoid the ‘wrong’ kind of independence.

Lumumba Image public domainAfter Lumumba’s party won the parliamentary elections in Congo, the country declared independence and the Belgian imperialists felt their profits slipping away / Image: public domain

In 1958, Patrice Lumumba and others, who had been building support for Pan-African ideas in Congo for years, founded the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). This was a pro-independence party with no particular ethnic base, and mass support throughout the country. Among other things, the MNC promoted the nationalisation of key economic infrastructure, which would take it out of the hands of foreign multinationals, providing real independence for the Congolese masses.

After Lumumba’s party won the parliamentary elections in June 1960, the country declared independence and the Belgian imperialists felt their profits slipping away. They therefore encouraged and facilitated mutinies in the army, and the secession of the wealthiest parts of the country.

This created a political crisis. The Belgian and US imperialists seized the opportunity to assassinate Lumumba and engineer a coup to replace him with someone they could rely on to allow them to continue plundering the country.

Meanwhile, over the border in Rwanda, the Belgian ruling class were making good use of the ethnic divisions they had built over many years to prevent a Lumumba-style figure emerging at all.

In 1957, the Belgian colonialists and the Catholic Church (who until this point had supported Tutsi oppression of Hutus) encouraged Grégoire Kayibanda to found the Hutu Social Movement in Rwanda and to write the Hutu Manifesto. The manifesto called for the “double liberation” of the Hutu people: from the white colonialists and from Tutsi oppressors.

The Belgian colonialists had ruled for decades through the Tutsi minority. But they now cynically calculated that after independence, it would be the Hutus who would take power through elections by sheer weight of numbers.

They therefore switched their allegiance and incited the Hutus against the Tutsis. The imperialists deliberately tied the question of race and ethnicity to the question of independence. This allowed them to cut across any Lumumba-style Pan-Africanism. Thus, they calculated, divide-and-rule tactics would continue to keep the country open to imperialist looting even after independence.

In late 1959, a Hutu uprising against the Tutsis broke out in Rwanda. The Belgian Governor of Rwanda-Urundi, Jean-Paul Harroy, placed Rwanda under military rule, in the person of the Belgian Colonel Logiest. Logiest announced that the duty of the Belgians was to “favour the Hutu element” and “disfavour the Tutsi element”.

The Belgian imperialists effectively declared war on the Tutsis. The Belgians and the Hutus destroyed thousands of homes. Tutsi chiefs were unceremoniously removed and replaced by Hutus. Up to 100,000 Tutsis were murdered, with an estimated 336,000 fleeing the country.

In the middle of 1960, with anti-Tutsi violence still ongoing, the Belgians organised elections which were overwhelmingly won by the militarised Hutu party, Parmehutu, with Kayibanda at its head. Satisfied that the country was sufficiently divided, the Belgians granted full independence to Rwanda in July 1962.

Discrimination, oppression and violence against the Tutsis continued with Belgian support. Belgium also maintained significant economic interests in the country. In 1963, the first Yaoundé Convention was signed establishing a free market between the EEC, which included Belgium, and 18 African ex-colonial states, which included Rwanda. For Belgian imperialism, this was the ‘right’ kind of independence.

Imperialist violence

Although Rwanda-Urundi was administered as one territory, the imperialists increasingly treated it as two distinct entities: Rwanda and Burundi. They were formally separated in 1960. This re-established the two separate kingdoms, which had existed prior to colonisation. But by 1960, separation was also a useful aid to the Belgian policy of divide and rule.

Burundi had its own independence leaders. Louis Rwagasore was a Tutsi, educated in Belgium, who became a prominent nationalist leader. Like Lumumba’s MNC, his party, the Union for National Progress (UPRONA), appealed to people from different regions and ethnicities.

Rwagasore Image public domainLouis Rwagasore – leader of Burundi's indipendence movement / Image: public domain

Rwagasore was a threat to Belgian imperialist interests, just as Lumumba had been. His ‘national unity’ independence threatened to offer an alternative to the frenzied ethnic hatred tearing Rwanda apart. The Belgians could not afford to have Hutus and Tutsis united, because then their combined fire would be turned against the imperialists.

The Belgian colonialists put Rwagasore under house arrest in 1960, but under pressure eventually released him. His party, UPRONA, won a crushing majority in the 1961 elections in Burundi. Of the UPRONA members elected, 25 were Tutsis, 22 were Hutus, and four were of mixed parentage.

Rwagasore was overcoming the ethnic divide cultivated by Belgian imperialism for decades, and he was resisting being pushed down the path taken in Rwanda. On 28 September 1961, Rwagasore became Prime Minister of Burundi. Two weeks later he was assassinated at the instigation of Governor Harroy and other figures in the Belgian administration.

The political void and massive instability this assassination created was the opportunity the imperialists needed to stoke further tensions between Tutsis and Hutus. They were helped in this by the massive influx of Tutsi refugees fleeing to Burundi in order to escape the violence in Rwanda.

UPRONA began degenerating into a Tutsi supremacist party. The Burundian Tutsis increasingly looked with fear at a potential Belgium-Hutu alliance of the kind which had overthrown and massacred Tutsis in Rwanda in 1959. UPRONA’s raison d’etre became preventing the repetition of such events in Burundi, which it attempted to do through brutal oppression of the Hutu population.

A legacy of instability and violence

It was in this context that Burundi gained independence from Belgium in 1962. Decades of colonial rule had created a region with violent instability and ethnic divisions. This continued and intensified throughout the 1960s.

In 1963, the king of Burundi appointed a Hutu Prime Minister, who was assassinated by a Tutsi in 1965. Parliamentary elections in May 1965 led to a Hutu majority, but the king appointed a Tutsi as Prime Minister. The king’s attempt at a balancing act between Hutus and Tutsis only succeeded in alienating and radicalising both groups.

As a result, in October 1965 the Hutu-dominated police force launched a coup attempt, which failed. In reprisal, the Tutsi-dominated army purged Hutus from its ranks and launched a coup of its own in July 1966, which was successful.

In the coup of July 1966, the king was deposed and replaced by his teenage son. In November of that same year, the new king was deposed by another coup, carried out by the Tutsi-dominated army under Michel Micombero.


The growing tensions between Hutus and Tutsis, which had been set in motion by the imperialists, were reaching boiling point by the beginning of the 1970s. The result was the Burundian genocide of 1972.

On 29 April 1972, coordinated attacks were carried out by Hutus against Tutsis across the country. Around 2,000 men, women and children were killed in indiscriminate violence.

genocide Image prio.orgOn 29 April 1972, coordinated attacks were carried out by Hutus against Tutsis across the country – around 2,000 men, women and children were killed in indiscriminate violence / Image: prio.org

Micombero’s Tutsi military dictatorship responded by unleashing a genocide against the Hutu population of Burundi. The four Hutu government ministers were killed. 131 Hutu army officers were murdered, along with 500 rank-and-file Hutu soldiers, 2,000 civil servants, a dozen Hutu priests, and thousands of Protestant Hutu pastors.

In Bururi, the centre of the Hutu uprising, the army began systematically killing Hutus. In the major cities of Bujumbura, Gitega, and Ngozi, all skilled Hutu workers and intellectuals of any kind were loaded onto trucks and either shot or beaten to death, and their bodies thrown into mass graves.

At the University of Bujumbura and in the schools and colleges, Tutsi students were incited to attack their Hutu classmates. Many were beaten to death. Soldiers appeared in classrooms to read out lists of names of Hutu students who would be taken away and never seen or heard from again. One third of university students disappeared in this way.

Armed bands of Tutsis marauded through residential areas and took Hutus away at gunpoint by the lorryload. Excavators and bulldozers were busy every night for six weeks digging mass graves.

All in all, as many as 300,000 Hutus were massacred in Burundi in the spring of 1972. A similar number were displaced while trying to escape the violence. As a proportion of the population, this would be the equivalent of 5.5 million dead in Britain today, with the same number displaced. This unimaginable horror was the direct result of the crimes of Western imperialism.

Imperialist indifference

Were we to take the West’s hue and cry over Ukraine in recent weeks at face value, we would presumably have to conclude that the western imperialists have always intervened on the side of peace and justice wherever the need has arisen. But 50 years ago, when genocide was being perpetrated in Burundi, none of these powers lifted a finger.

In 1972, the USA was the largest purchaser of Burundian coffee, which accounted for 80% of all of Burundi’s foreign exchange earnings. At the time, the USA was internationally pressured to use this economic leverage to force the Tutsi regime to stop the genocide. The US imperialists refused.

As far as US imperialism was concerned, as long as neither Hutus nor Tutsis aligned themselves with the Soviet Union, they could go on killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians with impunity.

The United Nations sent a grand total of five people to Burundi to investigate the genocide. Needless to say, they achieved nothing. So passive was the UN that the government even requisitioned its trucks and used them to carry out the killings. Land rovers marked UNICEF were being used to transport Hutus to their deaths, while the UN stood idly by.

According to observers, one of the Western officials in the Burundian capital after 1972 to be held in highest regard by the regime was Marcel Latour, the head of the UN Development Programme in the country. The UN has always been a tool of imperialism. As long as the imperialists didn’t care what was happening in Burundi, the UN wasn’t interested either. And the Tutsi regime was very grateful.

The only imperialist power to raise concerns over the genocide was Belgium, because it was the Belgians’ Hutu allies who were being massacred. In expressing their concerns, the Belgian imperialists were attempting to navigate the conflict with one eye on their Rwandan interests. But another section of Belgian businessmen who operated in Burundi weren’t happy with the intervention of the Belgian government.

For this section of the Belgian ruling class, any amount of violence between Hutu and Tutsi was acceptable as long as they and their business interests weren’t kicked out of the country. These capitalists therefore put pressure on the Belgian ambassador to Burundi to tone down his protests about the genocide to preserve their business interests. And this pressure had an effect.

The most despicable role, however, was played by French imperialism. The French ruling class saw the genocide against the Belgian-backed Hutus as a chance to expand their own sphere of influence in Africa at the expense of Belgian imperialism.

Under the cover of the Société de Transports Aériens du Burundi, France supplied the Tutsi regime with military assistants and pilots. One observer explained: “French military assistants flew the regime’s helicopters. This airborne was crucial in routing out the rebels in the south…Frenchmen were holding the helicopters steady while Burundi soldiers were machine-gunning Hutu rebels out of the side windows”.

Alongside the head of the UN Development Programme, the only other Western official to be well regarded by the regime after 1972 was Henri Bernard, the French Ambassador. French imperialism clearly had some success in carving out a sphere of influence for itself in Burundi in 1972 – at a cost of 300,000 lives.

Learn from history and fight for the future

Violence between Hutus and Tutsis continued long after 1972, and still continues to this day. The Rwandan genocide of 1994, and the wars and ongoing conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo trace their roots back to the same source.

Fifty years on from the genocide of 1972, Marxists should continue to expose the crimes and hypocrisy of imperialism. Nothing has fundamentally changed. This is still how imperialism operates today.

Belgian imperialism in Rwanda and Burundi also has a lot to teach us about where racism comes from, and how it is deliberately used by the capitalist class to divide and rule the exploited masses. Figures like Lumumba in Congo showed the potential that exists for these tactics to be beaten. The histories of Rwanda and Burundi show what can happen if they are not.

Lenin said that capitalism is horror without end. The horror of the 1972 Burundian genocide reminds us of the justice and urgency of the fight against capitalism and imperialism, and for a socialist society.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.