First published on May 29, 2015 by Change of Guards Blog
Recent protests in the Burundi capital Bujumbura have seen over 100,000 crossing the border to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Even before the protests had broken out on 26th April 2015, thousands from the country's northern region had already fled to Rwanda. Those refugees are facing acute health hazards in their countries of asylum with over 30 lives already claimed by a cholera outbreak that has hit the temporary reception center in Tanzania.
Almost all of these refugees claim to have fled fearing for their lives against the potential threat posed by the ruling party paramilitary youth wing - the Imbonerakure. Although hardly any refugee was directly harmed or threatened by the Imbonerakure, there was a lot of rumors including that of the Rwandese Interahamwe siding with government but it did not take root. This time around, its not the historical ethnic clashes that saw Hutu flee across the border while Tutsi took refuge with the country in IDP camps. For this reason, among the refugees, there is quite a number of Tutsi too.
Different news anchors and aid workers have presented a picture of a people who have time to prepare for their journeys with intent to stay in their host countries no matter the situation in Burundi. This is confirmed by the type of personal belongings like solar panels, bicycles, mattresses, suitcases, stoves, and other personal effects. Further evidence is that of complete families with no incidents of missing family members during flight. No matter the situation in Burundi, more citizens will leave and seek refuge; already Uganda has registered 3000 refugees since the beginning of the protests yet it does not share a common border with Burundi. Those who fled to Uganda dis not arrive by air but went through neighboring countries which did not deny them asylum.
During colonial era, Burundians more especially Hutu were faced with harsh colonial administrative measures like forced labor and high taxes (commonly known as Ekoli in Kirundi). Non-compliance was often met with harsh and humiliating punishments like the infamous Ibimoko (lashes) by the colonial administrators. Consequently, many Burundians opted to migrate to Congo, Tanganyika and Uganda. In Tanganyika, they worked as casual laborers more especially in Railway construction and Sisal plantations.
In Uganda, the introduction of cash crops economy demanded for labor that consequently brought about the largest wave of immigration. The abolition of Kasanvu (paid compulsory labor) system shortage of labor. Amidst this shortage of labor, in 1924 Mehta started the sugar factory in Lugazi. Cotton, sugar and coffee sectors were concentrated in Buganda and Busoga regions. Since Baganda looked down upon working on European or Asian plantations, migration of labor from other areas of Uganda to this economic zone was inevitable.
Soon the demand for labor especially with the emergence of the sugar plantations exceeded the available local supply leading to laborers migrating into Uganda from neighboring countries. n top of earlier migration, 1925 marks the arrival of Rwandese and Burundian immigrants who were escaping taxes, famine and oppression. By October 1925, 11,771 Rwandese and Burundian immigrants had entered Buganda. Many were destined for Lugazi and Kakira but majority were actually headed to work on cotton plantations and shambas in Buganda region.
For the immigrants from Rwanda, Burundi and Congo, working in Uganda provided a much better quality of life. Many ended up acquiring pieces of land and settling into the country. A 1938 inquiry found that of the laborers working in the sugar industry in Uganda, 65.5% were from Burundi, Rwanda and DRC. The sugar industry had become so dependent on the migrant labor that they set up joint recruiting agencies in West Nile and Masaka to ensure steady supply of despite the colonial administrators of the respective countries trying to limit the immigration.
It is very common for a Burundian to talk about his/her family member who disappeared in Buganda many years ago and stories of the first Burundians to buy bicycles having returned with them from 'Ibugande' (Buganda). They call it Manamba in reference to the employees’ numbers that they would be allotted in Sugar and sisal plantations in Uganda and Tanganyika respectively.
Almost every aging Murundi knows about Mehta in Uganda. Unlike the Rwandese who are treacherous and prefer holding to themselves, Burundians are straight forward and easily assimilate with the host communities and that is why it is difficult to pinpoint Burundians who settled in Uganda decades ago. The likes of Mary Mutesi an NRM activist hailing from Kamuli are a typical example of Rwandese migrants who have failed to assimilate.
The first refugees from Burundi were those of 1972 following bloody ethnic clashes that fell short of amounting to genocide. About 200,000 fled to mostly Rwanda, Congo and Tanzania. Subsequent ethnic clashes led to more Hutus fleeing to the same countries of destination. The climax of the Burundi refugees was in 1993 following the ethnic clashes that followed the assassination of the first democratically elected Hutu president. It is estimated that about 580,000 Burundians fled following the events that were sparked off by the 1993 events.
In his first speech, the slain Hutu President Ndadaye had appealed to the 263,000 Hutu refugees who had fled the country much earlier to return home. When the Rwandese Tutsi dominated RPF took over Rwanda, Burundian Hutu refugees residing in Rwanda at the time moved to Congo and Tanzania. When the new RPF government in Rwanda sought to forcefully repatriate its citizens from Congo and Tanzania, a number of Rwandese Hutu refugees escaped and joined the Burundi Hutu refuge camps in Tanzania and claimed Burundian citizenship.
Following the first Congo war, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda troops backed the Congolese rebels then seeking to oust President Mobutu by sweeping through the territories where some Burundian Hutu refugees resided. Together with their Rwandese Hutu counterparts, these Burundi refugees moved to Tanzania. In Tanzania, the 1972 Burundi refugee lot had been housed in camps around Tabora region while those of the 1993 lot were housed in camps around the Kigoma region. It is in these camps that the rebellion to fight the Tutsi regime in Burundi were born. Over the years, a good number of Burundi Hutu refugees in Tanzania were resettled through the UNHCR
Burundi is a tiny and economically poor country whose average population density is over 300-500 people per Sq. km. 90% of its population is involved in subsistence agriculture concentrated on the fertile, volcanic soils 100-800 m above sea level away from the arid and hot floors and margins of the rift valley. Historically, pressure on land resulted into extensive migration to Tanzania, Congo and Uganda. For small scale farmers, yields are barely enough to live off, let alone turn a profit from.
High population growth and the return of over half a million from exile has made the issue of land more pressing. The country has the highest level of hunger with 88% of children chronically malnourished which hampers their physical and intellectual development. With almost non-existence of a private sector, drought, plant disease, land scarcity, poor health and education facilities, abject rural poverty is the norm. The northern region more especially the province of Kirundo has become endemic to famine.
In 1972 when the first mass exodus of Hutus took place, their land was given to Tutsis with official land titles as a compensation for their loved ones who had been slaughtered by the fleeing Hutus. In other cases, the Tutsis would simply seize land left behind by fleeing Hutus. In some instances, the then Tutsi dominated government simply took over land for schools, hospitals, palm oil and sugar plantations, and other cash crops.
Land grabbing and annexation was not restricted to Tutsi; even Hutu brothers who had remained behind would simply annex land belonging to their kinsmen who had fled. In some instances, those who had fled would sneak back and sell off their land in anticipation that they would never return to Burundi by being locally integrated in their host countries or be taken overseas. Some houses belonging to those who had fled to exile were sold by government. To compound all this, the government then enacted a law to the effect that whoever had regularly land for 15 years becomes the legal owner no matter how it was acquired.
During the civil war Tutsi never fled the country but would gather around specially protected areas by the Tutsi dominated army. As a counter insurgency measure, government had moved people (Tutsi and Hutu) into protected camps (IDPs) in order to isolate the insurgents. Even those who had fled the 1993 bloodbath but could not make it to neighboring countries were hurled into these IDPs more especially in the northern and central regions. Most of these people have not been moved back to their former places of abode due to scarcity of land.
Since 2008, government has set up a number of integrated rural villages for landless returnees and other vulnerable people who are identified by the local administrators. These villages are meant to foster healing and reconciliation and to act as a bridge between the returnees and the surrounding communities. The government put in place a land commission (CNTB) in 2006 for settling returnees, tackling land grievances and disputes. It is composed of 50 members (60% Hutu and 40% Tutsi) as required by the Arusha Peace Agreement.
Burundians have a natural attachment to land even by intellectuals who can live without land. Land has social and cultural values with specific plots closely linked to a sense of identity. CNTB has been dividing plots between residents (those who did not flee) and returnees (those returning from exile) but may times such rulings are overruled by courts of law. Government promised compensation for both returnees and residents but nothing has been implemented. Because most of the returnees had either been born in exile, spent long in exile, and may be Rwandese disguising as Burundians, tracing their original land is not an easy task.
Returnees were promised land before repatriation but in many instances, returnees upon arrival in Burundi are housed in dormitory like Peace Villages from where after moths or even years are moved to the Integrated Rural Villages. Nine of such villages are located in the three southern provinces that have significantly contributed to the current wave of refugees into Tanzania.
With a minimal private sector offering few employment opportunities coupled by returnees having no vocational skills, minimal education, lack of capital and access to credit, lack of land for subsistence farming, life in exile is preferable to life in Burundi. Landless returnees are the most vulnerable and difficult to integrate. Access and entitlement to arable land on which to undertake subsistence farming and secure shelter are the most acute hurdles. Moreover, in exile refugees are able to get enough food aid to supplement what they grow on their own, early money from doing casual labor among the host communities, access better health facilities, free primary and secondary level education, if lucky be resettled overseas or be granted citizenship.
A good number of Hutus who have been resettled overseas over the years are doing very well economically. Actually, with the power sharing arrangement in place coupled by big numbers of Hutus abroad, the economic balance is tilting in favor of Hutus. This partly explains why at the inception of the street protests in Bujumbura, 600 students from the University of Bujumbura attempted to seek asylum at the USA embassy and the presence of Tutsi among the refugees. Also, a good number of the 1972 lot that was granted citizenship by Tanzania made a fortune from tobacco growing in the Tabora region such that they are even resisting efforts to disperse them to different parts of Tanzania.
It is against the above background that the current wave of refugees fleeing Burundi is not proportionate with the threat paused by the protests thus may have difficulties conforming to the UN refugee convention that recognizes persecution based on race, religious, political etc. conscience. However, on humanitarian grounds, they have a right to leave and seek asylum the same way other Africans are braving the storms on the Mediterranean Sea trying to enter Europe.
INFORMATION IS POWER