The first known inhabitants of what is now Burundi were the Twa, a Pygmy tribe of hunters. Between the 7th and 10th centuries AD , the Hutu, a Bantu agricultural people, occupied the region, probably coming from the Congo Basin. In the 15th and 16th centuries, tall warriors, the Tutsi, believed to have come originally from Ethiopia, entered the area.
The Tutsi, a nomadic pastoral people, gradually subjugated the Hutu and other inhabitants of the region. A feudal social system based on caste—the conquering Tutsi and the subject Hutu— became the dominant feature of social relations, and especially of economic and political relations. The Hutu did the farming and grew the food in return for cattle, but generally had no part in government. The Tutsi were the ruling caste and did no manual labor. To a certain extent, however, the castes were open to each other. Custom allowed a particularly worthy Twa or Hutu to rise to the rank of a Tutsi; conversely, an impoverished Tutsi who had fallen from his former estate could be assimilated into the Hutu.
The Tutsi conquest initiated a process of political integration. The ownership of land was gradually transferred from the Hutu tribes to the mwami, the king of the Tutsi. The first mwami, Ntare I Rushatsi, is thought to have come to power in the 16th century. While the ruling mwami was in theory an absolute king, he was often regarded as primus inter pares among the Ganwa, aristocrats of royal lineage. But he had his court and his army and could not easily be removed from office.
The first European known to have reached the territory was John Hanning Speke, who traveled with Richard Burton to Lake Tanganyika in 1858. They paddled to the north end of the lake in their search for the headwaters of the Nile. In 1871, Stanley and Livingstone landed at Bujumbura and explored the Ruzizi River region. Subsequently, other explorers, principally German, visited Burundi. After the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, the German zone of influence in East Africa was extended to include Rwanda and Burundi. A German, Count von Götzen, discovered Lake Kivu in 1894. The first Roman Catholic missionaries came in 1898.
The German authorities made no changes in the indigenous organization. They administered the territory through the traditional authorities in accordance with the laws and customs of the region. However, the history of Burundi under the German administration was marked by constant factional struggles and rivalry, in contrast to the peaceful state of affairs in Rwanda. When Belgian troops occupied the country in 1916, they found it in dissension and the three-year-old mwami, Mwambutsa IV, the center of court intrigue. In 1923, the League of Nations awarded Belgium a mandate in the region, which was known as Ruanda-Urundi (present-day Rwanda and Burundi). The Belgians adopted the same policy of indirect administration employed by the Germans, retaining the entire established structure. In 1946, Ruanda-Urundi became a UN trust territory under Belgian administration.
On 18 September 1961, elections for the National Assembly were held in Urundi under the auspices of the UN. The result was a sweeping victory for UPRONA, the party headed by Prince Louis Rwagasore, eldest son of the mwami. On 13 October 1961, shortly after Prince Rwagasore had become premier, he was assassinated. Two leaders of the Christian Democratic Party were charged, convicted of responsibility for the murder, and executed.
The UN had strongly urged that Urundi and Ruanda come to independence united, since their relationship had long been close, their economies were integrated, and their people were ethnically one. However, the UN reluctantly decided that there was insufficient support for the union in both regions, and on 27 June 1962, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that called for the creation of two independent nations, Burundi and Rwanda.
On 1 July 1962, Burundi became an independent kingdom headed by Mwami (King) Mwambutsa IV. He was deposed in July 1966 and was succeeded in September by his heir, Mwami Ntare V. On 29 November 1966, Mwami Ntare V in turn was overthrown by a military coup headed by Premier Michel Micombero, and Burundi was declared a republic with Micombero as president.
In 1969, an alleged Hutu coup attempt ended in the arrest of 30 prominent businessmen and officials. Another Hutu-led coup attempt in April 1972 led to widespread civil war, in which mass killings of Hutu by Tutsi and of Tutsi by Hutu were reported. On 21 July 1973, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that there were at least 85,000 Hutu refugees from Burundi, of whom an estimated 40,000 were in Tanzania, 35,000 in Zaire, and 10,000 in Rwanda. President Micombero later conceded that more than 100,000 persons had been killed in the course of the 1972 insurgency. Most of the deaths were among the Hutu, and educated Hutu were systematically massacred. During 1973, rebel bands conducted raids into Burundi from across the Rwandan and Tanzanian borders, and Burundi's relations with those two neighbors deteriorated. By the end of 1973, however, the government was fully in control.
On 1 November 1976, President Micombero was stripped of all powers by a military coup led by Lt. Col. Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, and the Supreme Revolutionary Committee (SRC) that subsequently took power named Bagaza president. The new regime, like the old one, was dominated by Tutsi. At a party congress of UPRONA in 1979, a party central committee, headed by President Bagaza, was selected to replace the SRC, and civilian rule was formally restored. In reality, however, the military remained active in both the party and in the government. A new constitution was adopted in a national referendum in 1981, and a National Assembly was elected in 1982. Bagaza was reelected unopposed to a new five-year term in 1984, but in September 1987, he was overthrown by the military while he was attending a conference in Canada. Maj. Pierre Buyoya became president.
Ethnic violence erupted again in 1988. In response to rumors of the murder of Tutsis in the north, the army massacred between 5,000 and 25,000 Hutu. Over 100,000 were left homeless and 60,000 took refuge in Rwanda.
Maj. Buyoya agreed to the restoration of multiparty politics in 1991, and a new constitution was approved in March 1992. Competition between approved, ethnically balanced parties in the June 1993 election brought to office Burundi's first elected president and its first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. Ndadaye got 66% of the vote, while Buyoya received just 33%. Ndadaye began to talk of reform of the Tutsi-dominated armed forces. But, on 21 October 1993, Ndadaye and several cabinet members were assassinated by Tutsi soldiers. Other cabinet officers, including Prime Minister Sylvie Kinigi, a Tutsi, took refuge in the French embassy. Ethnic violence continued, with some 10,000 murdered and 800,000 fleeing the country. As many as 100,000 may have been killed in this round of violence. The military coup attempt, however, failed.
In February, Ndadaye's successor, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was inaugurated. But his coalition was unable to restore order. In an effort to negotiate peace, he went to Tanzania for consultations. On his flight home, the plane in which he was returning, along with Rwanda's President Habyarimana, was shot down near Kigali, Rwanda's capital, on 6 April 1994. Two other members of his cabinet also died in the attack. The constitutionally provided line of succession left the post of president to Sylvestre Ntibantunganya. He served in a transitional capacity until October 1994 when the Assembly elected him to serve a four-year term. In contrast to the genocide that erupted in Rwanda following the April 1994 killing of the presidents, Ntibantunganya managed to maintain relative stability in Burundi—for a time. Sporadic violence continued, prompting the government to impose a curfew in Bujumbura in December.
The death toll attributable to ethnic strife and political problems continued to mount during the first half of 1995. In 1993 alone, an estimated 150,000 had died in ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis. The averting of a citywide strike in the capital of Bujumbura in early February 1995 helped ease the ethnic tension, but the relief was short-lived. On 11 March, Mines and Energy Minister Ernest Kabushemeye was shot dead as the violence flared anew. This was followed later in the month by fighting in the central market that left four people dead. By 25 March, thousands of people were fleeing Bujumbura to escape the violence, and hundreds were feared dead in new fighting. The exodus grew to 50,000 refugees from the city with a total population of 300,000. Two suburbs where clashes had occurred were practically deserted.
The flare-up also affected refugees from neighboring Rwanda who had fled to seven northern Burundi camps to escape Hutu-Tutsi violence in their own country. An estimated 20,000 refugees undertook a two-day trek to Tanzania to escape the violence at one of the camps, which left 12 dead and 22 wounded. The seven camps, which once held more than 25,000 Rwandans, were closed by August 1996 as the last group of the refugees returned to its homeland.
Despite an Organization of African States peace mission, the Hutu militias and Tutsi-dominated government army battled throughout the early days of June in Bujumbura's suburbs. The OAS mission was aimed at ending months of fighting between the majority Hutus and the Tutsis before the clashes could develop into an all-out war.
On 25 July 1996, Maj. Pierre Buyoya seized power in a coup backed by the Burundi military. The National Assembly continued to function, although during Buyoya's "Transition Period" its powers were severely curtailed. Soon thereafter, six East African nations cut trade ties to the country and imposed and economic embargo after demanding Maj. Buyoya restore Parliament. The African leaders also demanded that Maj. Buyoya, president of Burundi from 1987 to 1993, begin peace talks with Hutu rebels. Yet ethnic violence escalated in the months following Maj. Buyoya's takeover. Each side blamed the other for the assassination in September of Archbishop Joachim Ruhuna, Burundi's senior Roman Catholic Archbishop. In his role as special peace envoy for Burundi, Nelson Mandela asked all parties—the government, rebel forces, and international organizations—to sit down and discuss the issues. In the early months of 2000 several such meetings were held in Tanzania. However, Mandela's efforts ran up against entrenched regional conflicts and ethnic animosities.
Seeking to secure national borders, Burundian troops intervened in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1998, but were redeployed to Burundi to engage rebels operating within the country and from across the Congolese border. In October 2002, Burundi's smaller rebel groups—the CNDD-FDD (Conseil national pour la defense de la democratie-Forces pour la defense de la democratie—National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy) of Jean Bosco Ndayikengurukiye and the Palipehutu-FNL (Forces for National Liberation) of Alain Mugabarabona—signed a cease-fire, followed by a similar agreement between the CNDDFDD of Pierre Nkurunziza and the transitional government of Burundi. Only the Palipehutu-FNL of Agathon Rwasa had not signed a cease-fire with the transitional government by mid-June 2003.
Under the Arusha peace deal, a three-year transitional government was inaugurated 1 November 2001. On 30 April 2003 Pierre Buyoyo stepped down under the terms of the accord, making way for a Hutu vice president, Domitien Ndayizeye, to assume the reigns for the remaining 18 months. However, since the signing of the cease-fires, fighting between the army and CNDD-FDD rebels has occurred on a daily basis. On 3 February 2003, the African Union authorized an African Mission in Burundi (AMIB), which fielded troops from South Africa, Ethiopia, and Mozambique to safeguard cantonment areas and to provide technical assistance to the disarmament and demobilization process. Because of delays in funding the mission, the Mozambicans and Ethiopians had only partially deployed by mid-2003, and had not been able to stop the conflict.