Ntaryamira, Cyprien 1955–1994
Cyprien Ntaryamira 1955–1994
President of Burundi
The April 6, 1994, plane-crash death of president Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi has formed yet another chapter in that tiny nation’s ongoing struggle with ethnic violence. Ntaryamira, who had held the high office just two months, was widely believed to be the victim of an assassination by a dissatisfied tribal faction in neighboring Rwanda. His death in the plane crash—which also claimed the life of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and a number of important government officials from both countries—has proven a further setback for a nation striving to institute multi-party democracy.
The devastating effects of the death of two national leaders have been felt most profoundly in Rwanda, where civil war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Burundi has been spared the massive violence that has paralyzed its northern neighbor, but tension remains high, and the goals of national unity under a democratic government seem unlikely to be met. Ntaryamira’s role in the political drama was brief yet poignant. In his inauguration speech on February 5, 1994, he called for “work, justice, and respect for human rights.” He was killed little more than a month later by people who clearly did not support his political agenda.
Burundi, a mountainous country about the size of New Hampshire, is a Central African nation 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. Africa Report correspondent Catharine Watson mentioned that Burundi is also “the most polarized country in Africa.” Tribal 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 tribe, who were farmers, and the Twa, who were nomadic hunters. The Tutsi peoples arrived from eastern Africa in the early 1600s. Whereas in the region that forms present day Rwanda, the Hutu gained ascendancy and marginalized the Tutsi population, the situation was reversed in the region that eventually became Burundi; the cattle-herding Tutsi tribespeople settled amongst the established Hutu and Twa populations and initiated a rule as an aristocratic minority. As Watson noted in Africa Report, “Serfdom endured in Burundi and Rwanda until the 1950s.”
At a Glance…
Born c. 1955, in Burundi; died April 6, 1994, in a plane crash.
Exiled political dissident, 1972-83; employed in the Foreign Service office, Bujumbura, Burundi, 1983-93; founding member of Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU), 1986; named Minister of Agriculture by president Melchior Ndadaye, 1993; named president of Burundi after assassination of Ndadaye, 1994; sworn in Februarys, 1994.
European colonials found this situation to their advantage. The Belgians ruled Burundi through the Tutsi aristocracy and solidified that tribe’s monopolization of power. The “divide and conquer” tactics included favoring the Tutsis with better education and sanctions against political parties that crossed ethnic lines. The tense situation between the two ethnic groups—both under Belgian colonialism and after Burundi and Rwanda achieved independence in 1962—eventually led to dramatic instances of violence in both nations.
Little is known about the youth and education of Cyprien Ntaryamira. He was a Hutu who somehow managed to become educated as an agricultural engineer—a logical course choice in a nation whose primary source of revenue comes from coffee imports. Like his comrade and immediate predecessor as president, Melchior Ndadaye, the child Ntaryamira profited from a brief period of stability in the first years of Burundi’s independence.
At that time, in the early 1960s, Hutu representatives won a majority in the parliament and seemed poised to enact reforms. Then, in 1965, 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. Thus it is likely that Ntaryamira began his formal education in his homeland and continued it elsewhere in the wake of this ethnic strife.
Worse violence followed in Burundi beginning in 1972. A brief civil war was sparked by yet another coup attempt, aimed at the dictatorship of Michel Micombero. Micombero’s forces easily defeated the coup leaders—among them the deposed Tutsi monarch Ntare V—but the unrest spread to the common people and fighting erupted all over the country. This time Ntaryamira was old enough to participate in the political events of his country; he worked on behalf of his Hutu tribe until he was forced to flee into exile. Ntaryamira spent the next 11 years in Rwanda, where he became a close friend of another political exile, Ndadaye. Had he not left Burundi when he did, Ntaryamira might have been among the estimated 50,000 to 200,000 Hutu who lost their lives during the period.
Ntaryamira returned to Burundi in 1983, and took a position in the Foreign Ministry. His life seemed conventional enough to all outward appearances, as one of the fortunate few Hutu white-collar workers. However, he had not lost his dedication to democracy in his homeland. He was an active participant in nonviolent underground activities that sought to put pressure on the administration of President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza. One of these endeavors was the formation of a new political party, the Front for Democracy in Burundi, OVFRÔDEBU. At the time when FRODEBU was founded by Ntaryamira and other Burundian Hutu intellectuals, the natios sole legal political party was the Union for National Progress (UPRONA), headed by Bagaza.
Another coup d’etat shook Burundi in 1987, when the army removed Bagaza from power and installed Pierre Buyoya as president. A Tutsi like 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 a death toll of 5,000 Hutu and 500 Tutsi was established after much debate.
The Hutu of Burundi called the 1988 incident a “massacre,” and men like Melchior Ndadaye and Cyprien Ntaryamira stepped forward as official spokesmen for the Hutu people. With a group of 27 clandestine Hutu leaders, Ndadaye penned an open letter to Buyoya demanding an inquiry into the events in the provinces. The president responded by throwing Ndadaye and his confederates into prison. When the international human rights group Amnesty International complained about those tactics, Buyoya released the prisoners. 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. Ntaryamira joined the idealistic young leader in his quest for reforms.
Ndadaye was allowed to stay in Burundi and recruit support for his FRODEBU party because his was a moderate and reconciliatory position. As the 1990s began, and many African nations initiated multi-party 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 one half dozen such parties emerged. FRODEBU was one of the biggest, and Ndadaye was at its head.
Ntaryamira was perceived by many to be a Ghandi-like figure, a voice of sanity in an otherwise troubled political climate. 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. Catharine Watson noted that the election served as “a victory for fair play and decency with almost no electoral abuses on either side.” The president-elect named Ntaryamira as his Minister of Agriculture.
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 tribe 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 The Nation suggests 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, Sharlet declared, “would have devastated the military’s power base.”
Whatever the case—from 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, just three months after he had assumed office. 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 was rent by ethnic violence and instability for months after his death. As Hutu citizens and Tutsi soldiers battled in the city streets and the countryside, a coalition government struggled to appoint a president to serve until new elections could be called. Burundi’s National Assembly named Ntaryamira to the office, since several of Ndadaye’s more prominent ministers had also been assassinated in the coup. Some of the newly-formed opposition parties objected to the procedure, and Ntaryamira’s inauguration was postponed for two weeks while the high court debated its constitutionality. A few of the opposition leaders who objected to Ntaryamira’s appointment encouraged unrest, and riots in the capital city of Bujumbura led to 46 deaths and 73 arrests.
On February 3, 1994, the government and opposition parties reached an agreement that allowed Ntaryamira to be sworn in as president. He took the oath of office two days later. In his brief tenure as president he was unable to restore order in Burundi. Ethnic violence continued on a sporadic basis. Ntaryamira was returning to Burundi after a summit meeting with other central African leaders—called to discuss ending the Tutsi-Hutu rivalry on a regional level—when the plane in which he was riding crashed, killing him and all other passengers on board. Although no eyewitnesses to the crash existed, some citizens outside Kigali reported hearing gunfire and perhaps the sounds of a small missile.
Ntaryamira’s probable assassination proved far less devastating for Burundi than it did for Rwanda. Deputies Ntaryamira had appointed during his brief presidency used national television and the press to appeal for calm, and the retaliatory violence began to abate. A fragile peace lasted even as neighboring Rwanda was engulfed in a widespread and devastating civil war.
How long the peace will last in Burundi is a matter of speculation. The nation’s new leaders can point to the carnage in Rwanda in their efforts to promote calm, but realistically a permanent cessation of Hutu-Tutsi violence may be some years away. A FRODEBU leader, speaking anonymously to Africa Report, perhaps typifies the simultaneous yearning for peace and continued distrust amongst Burundi’s citizens. “President Ndadaye gave us a good example by fighting for democracy,” the official said. “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, Europa, 1994, pp. 201-12.
Africa Report, January-February 1989, pp. 51-5; 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.
Jet, April 25, 1994, p. 21.
Nation, January 17, 1994, p. 41.
Newsweek, April 18, 1994, p. 33.
New York Times, October 22, 1993, p. A-3; October 23, 1993, p. A-6; April 7, 1994, pp. A-l, A-10.
Philadelphia inquirer, March 10, 1994, p. A-3.
Time, April 18, 1994, p. 44.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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