Ndadaye, Melchior 1953–1993
Melchior Ndadaye 1953–1993
Former president of Burundi
The tiny but densely populated African nation of Burundi has been torn by bitter ethnic violence since the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye in October of 1993. A civilian, Ndadaye was a member of the majority Hutu ethnic group and became the first president of Burundi to be elected to office. Long an opposition leader who called for an end to the political and military dominance of the minority Tutsi peoples, he was expected to usher in a new era of democracy and equality in the strife-torn nation.
Instead, Ndadaye’s assassination in a military coup has sparked a new and more intense round of brutalities between the Tutsi and Hutu peoples in Burundi, as well as a state of near-anarchy in the government ranks. “Rivers clogged by bodies with their hands bound, locked rooms crowded with the charred corpses of school-boys, homes left eerily empty. These are some of the nightmarish images of life in Burundi since the … assassination of … Ndadaye,” wrote Jeff Sharlet in Nation. “The conflict is… a calculated struggle for land and power, with all sides increasingly willing to, as a Burundian slogan of vengeance puts it, Strike at the level of the ears.”’
High hopes attended Ndadaye’s arrival as president of a newly democratic Burundi. Favored overwhelmingly by the Hutu, he was seen in many quarters as a Ghandi-like figure who championed equal opportunity, nonviolent resolution of conflicts, and the equalization of economic and political opportunity in Burundi. The alternative view, held by the entrenched Tutsi military and political leadership, considered Ndadaye a starry-eyed novice who lacked the training and political seasoning to manage Burundi’s affairs. Whatever the case may have been, Ndadaye held office for only three months, and his brutal slaying opened an ethnic Pandora’s box that may lead to further violence, famine, and vast expatriation in the central African nation.
Burundi, a mountainous country about the size of the state of New Hampshire, is located in central Africa, bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east, Zaire to the west, and Lake Tanganyika to the south. It is one of the poorest countries on the continent and one of the most densely populated, with some six million inhabitants.
At a Glance…
Born in 1953 in Burundi; assassinated October 21, 1993, at the presidential palace, Bujumbura, Burundi; married, with children. (According to the Office of African Affairs at the U.S. State Department, which CBB contacted in March of 1994, further personal information on Ndadaye remains classified.)
Exiled political dissident, 1972-83; founder of UBU (a worker’s party in Rwanda), 1975; employed in credit department of a private bank, 1983-92; founder of Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU), 1986; elected president of Burundi on FRODEBU ticket, 1993.
Africa Report correspondent Catharine Watson noted that Burundi is also “the most polarized country in Africa.” Black ethnic tensions reach back across the centuries, to a time even before European colonization began.
Prior to 1600, the region including both Burundi and Rwanda was populated by the Hutu—farmers of Bantu origin—and the Twa—nomadic hunters of “pygmoid” stock. The Tutsi peoples arrived from the Horn of Africa in the early 1600s. Taller on average, the cattle-herding Tutsis settled among the established Hutu and Twa populations and initiated a rule as an aristocratic minority. Watson explained: “A Tutsi who gave a Hutu a cow became his master. The Hutu and his children became his serfs, obliged to work without pay and render tribute in kind. Serfdom endured in Burundi and Rwanda until the 1950s.”
European colonials found this situation to their advantage. The Belgians ruled Burundi through the Tutsi aristocracy and solidified that ethnicity’s monopolization of power. The “divide and conquer” tactics included the encouragement of discrimination in education (favoring the Tutsis) and the establishment of sanctions against political parties that crossed ethnic lines. Ironically, the situation in neighboring Rwanda was reversed; the Hutu gained ascendancy and marginalized the Tutsi population. This tense situation between the two ethnic groups—both under colonialism and after Burundi achieved independence in 1962—eventually led to dramatic instances of ethnic violence in both nations.
Ndadaye, of Hutu origin, was born in Burundi in 1953. As a youngster he profited from a temporary thaw in tribal relations that enabled him to get an education in his homeland. His hopes for mainstream success in his country were encouraged in the first years of Burundi’s independence, as Hutu representatives won a majority in the parliament and seemed poised to enact reforms. Then, in 1965, Mwambutsa IV, the Tutsi monarch who had ruled since independence, refused to institute a majority government. Some prominent Hutu soldiers attempted a coup against the ruler, and the first round of bloodshed began. Members of the Hutu elite, including intellectuals, politicians, and military personnel, were particularly singled out for massacre, and a general Hutu insurrection was put down by the Tutsi-led military.
Worse violence followed several years later, in 1972. This brief civil war was sparked by yet another coup attempt, aimed at the dictatorship of Michel Micombero. Micomb-ero’s forces easily defeated the coup leaders—among them the deposed monarch Ntare V, son of Mwambutsa—but the unrest spread to the common people, and fighting erupted all over the country. This time Ndadaye was old enough to participate in the political events of his country, and he did, working on behalf of the Hutu cause until he was forced to flee into exile in Rwanda. Ndadaye spent the next eleven years in Rwanda and became well known among the Burundian political dissidents living there. Had he not left Burundi when he did, he might have been among the estimated 50,000 to 200,000 Hutu who lost their lives during the period.
Ndadaye returned to Burundi in 1983 and took a job in the credit department of a provincial bank. His life seemed conventional enough to all outward appearances; he was one of the fortunate few Hutu white collar workers. However, he had not lost his dedication to democracy in his homeland. Ndadaye was an active participant in nonviolent underground activities that sought to put pressure on the administration of President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, who had seized power in November of 1976. One of these covert activities was the formation of a new political party, the Front for Democracy in Burundi (known by the acronym FRODEBU). At the time when FRODEBU was founded by Ndadaye and other Burundian Hutu intellectuals, the nation’s sole legal political party was the Union for National Progress (UPRONA), headed by Bagaza.
Another coup d’état shook Burundi in 1987, when the army removed Bagaza from power and installed Pierre Buyoya as president. A Tutsilike his predecessors, Buyoya nonetheless announced a platform of national unity and called for an end to ethnic violence in Burundi. His pleas were in vain. In August of 1988 a new round of bloodshed began in Burundi’s northern provinces. Buyoya sent the national army—dominated completely by Tutsis—to quell the unrest. Later, in an effort to preserve his reputation as a reformer, Buyoya allowed a contingent of Western journalists to examine charges of military atrocities in the affected areas. The journalists concluded that atrocities and mass killings had occurred, and, after much debate, a death toll of 5,000 Hutu and 500 Tutsi was established.
The Hutu of Burundi called the 1988 incident a “massacre.” For the first time, Melchior Ndadaye stepped forward as an official spokesman for his people. With a group of 27 Hutu leaders, he signed an open letter to Buyoya demanding an open inquiry into the events in the provinces. The president responded by throwing Ndadaye and his confederates into prison. When the global human rights group Amnesty International complained about those tactics, Buyoya released Ndadaye. Although he had spent only a few months in confinement, Ndadaye emerged as a national hero, a champion not just for Hutu rights but for multiparty democracy as the means to end Burundi’s turbulence. “In prison, I always felt strong,” Ndadaye told Africa Report, “because I know that what I said [about democracy] will be applied in a few years, because a lot of people support me, and because I’ve never caused blood to spill.”
Ndadaye was allowed to stay in Burundi and recruit support for his FRODEBU party because he took a moderate and reconciliatory position. As the 1990s began and many African nations initiated multiparty democracies, Buyoya began to move his nation slowly in that direction. On April 16, 1992, the president approved legislation relating to the creation of new political parties under a revised constitution. Almost immediately, more than a half dozen such parties emerged. FRODEBU was one of the biggest, and Ndadaye was at its head. Lucien Nzeyimana, a university student in Burundi, told Africa Report: “We in FRODEBU know how to behave. Wherever Ndadaye has gone, he has taught us like Martin Luther King. He has taught us that if we want justice, we ourselves have to respect our neighbors.”
Well in advance of announcing the first democratic elections in Burundi, President Buyoya increased Hutu representation on his cabinet and in the non-military government ranks as part of his national unity platform. In the presidential election held on June 1, 1993, Buyoya appeared on the ballot as the candidate from UPRONA, Ndadaye as the candidate from FRODEBU. Buyoya might have thought that his incorporation of Hutu members into the government would strengthen his case with the electorate, but it didn’t. Ndadaye won by a landslide, capturing 64 percent of the vote to Buyoya’s 32 percent. Watson noted that the election served as “a victory for fair play and decency with almost no electoral abuses on either side.”
Burundian citizens of all ethnicities hoped that the election would usher in a new era of peace in the nation. Ndadaye himself encouraged that notion, telling Africa Report: “The fear has already diminished. The people who elected us feel very free and happy. The fear has also subsided among those who didn’t elect us, but who thought that our victory meant for them the beginning of massacres and revenge.” He added: “Our victory is going to release the creative energy of all those people who had been made to feel guilty, who were sleeping badly because they thought they were going to be attacked by someone of the other ethnic group.”
Ndadaye named a number of Tutsi officials to his cabinet and selected a Tutsi as prime minister. He also encouraged all Burundians of either ethnicity to return from Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zaire. One of those who took the offer was the former dictator, Bagaza. Others who returned petitioned the government to return land that had been annexed when they left it as refugees. In retrospect, Jeff Sharlet of Nation suggested that it was Ndadaye’s policy of repatriation of refugees that brought about his assassination by the Burundi military. The loss of land to repatriated refugees, Shariet declared, “would have devastated the military’s power base.”
Whether fueled by economic threat, general bigotry, or fears of erosion of power, the Burundian military, led by its chief of staff Jean Bikomagu and by Bagaza, stormed the presidential palace and stabbed Ndadaye to death on October 21, 1993. According to Africa Report, president Ndadaye’s last words were: “Be careful of what you are about to do; it is very, very dangerous.”
Virtually from the moment they were uttered, Ndadaye’s words rang true. Burundi has been torn by ethnic violence and instability since his death. Refugees have once again poured over the borders into neighboring nations that cannot adequately provide for them, and Burundi itself has been put under a famine watch by the International Red Cross. Watson commented in Africa Report: “For five years, the reformist Tutsi president Buyoya tried to reconcile the ethnic groups with his philosophy of national unity. Now it seems at best to have been a well-intentioned papering-over of ethnic cracks or, as FRODEBU always argued, a cynical attempt to bury the real issues…. Either way, no one in Burundi believes anymore in its central tenet—that they are all Burundians. They are Hutu and Tutsi, with very many past and future differences to resolve.”
Many Burundian citizens fear that unrest will continue in their country. As quoted in Africa Report, a Hutu bookkeeper in the nation’s capital related: “We used to ask Ndadaye, ’But you don’t have the support of the army?’ And he’d say, ’We don’t need soldiers for democracy. The guarantee is you, the people. They can kill Ndadaye, but they can’t kill all 5 million Ndadayes.’” Another FRODEBU leader, speaking from Rwanda, concluded: “President Ndadaye gave us a good example by fighting for democracy. We will continue to fight for democracy with all our strength until the Tutsi respect everyone’s rights and stop thinking they are better than us.”
Africa South of the Sahara: 1994, 23rd edition, Europa, 1993, pp. 201-12.
Africa Report, January-February 1989, pp. 51-55; March-April 1992, pp. 37-40; September-October 1993, pp. 58-63; November-December 1993, p. 6; January-February 1994, pp. 26-31; March-April, 1994, p. 7.
Nation, January 17, 1994, p. 41.
New York Times, October 22, 1993, p. A-3; October 23, 1993, p. A-6.
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 10, 1994, p. A-3.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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