Image via WikipediaNdadaye MelchiorWhen I tweeted in honor of the commemoration of Melchior Ndadaye, it immediately dawned on me that many of my virtual friends may have no prior knowledge about this guy and what he stood for. Much of what is written about the Great Lakes region, for good or worse, has predominantly focused on Rwanda. In fact, only recently has the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) penetrated the media’s radar. Many continue to wonder, and for good reasons, why a civil war that has a death toll six times higher than Rwanda, was largely ignored by the western media and its victim’s completely written off. These are intractable questions that I cannot pretend to have answers for. I can only tell the tell share the testimonies.
Following independence from the Belgians, power in Burundi, remained consolidated within the structures of the Tutsi community comprising roughly 15 per cent of the population. The oppressed Hutu majority maintained resistance and Burundi soon became amok with ethnic violence.
The first major killings occurred in 1972. In what scholars have often described as a “selective genocide”, a conservative figure of 100,000 Hutus were murdered by the Tutsi dominated army. The targeted were mostly Hutu intellectuals, business men and local school teachers. The renowned scholar on Burundi, René Lemarchand, has noted that, “to speak of “selective genocide” in describing the outcome of such large scale political violence seems scarcely an exaggeration”. These killings would later have a radical impact on the future of the great lakes region.
In 1988, another 20,000 people perished. As in the previous massacre, the victims died under the hands of the ruling Tutsi military. Massive migrations ensued and millions of Hutus fled to Rwanda which was at this time under the control of a Hutu regime. Others fled towards Tanzania and west to the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the resistance was not over yet, only the method took a new shift.
Melchior Ndadaye was born in 1953 in the town of Murama. While training as a teacher, his education was interrupted by the 1972 massacres. To avoid being killed, he fled to Rwanda where he was able to pursue university education at the National University of Rwanda.
Ndadaye helped found the Burundi students organization, a movement of exiled Hutu students. He was also among the founders of the Workers Party in 1979 for which he served as president. He returned to Burundi in September 1983, ready for a non-violent struggle against a corrupt and elite Tutsi government led by the military dictator, Jean-Baptiste Bagaza. However, he remained underground until 1992, when the new military leader, Major. Jean Pierre Buyoya accepted political reforms. His formed the Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU) which was soon registered.
Although a man of the people, he was largely unknown in Burundi as his political programs had been hindered. The Tutsi establishment might have underestimated his charm. In June 1993, the three other predominately Hutu parties endorsed his candidature. Ndadaye won the presidential elections with “a crushing victory” garnering 65% of the votes. His party scooped 61 out of the 81 seats. This was the first ever, democratic election in Burundi. And Ndadaye became the first Hutu president of republic of Burundi.
It is now well understood that Ndadaye took a more cautious approach and was negatively branded a “moderate” within his Hutu support base. He wanted to solve the deep ethnic divides facing the new democracy. He named Slyvie Kinigi, a Tutsi woman politicians, as his Prime Minister and gave a third of his cabinet posts to the Tutsi dominated Union for National Progress (UNP). Although he was president, the military was still controlled by a group of Tutsi extremists. His tolerance and slow reaction might have caused his eventual demise.
Barely a hundred days into his presidency, Ndadaye’s home was besieged by members of the Tutsi military. Along with three members of his cabinet, Ndadaye was bayoneted to death.
His death sparked deadly protests around the country. It also marked the beginning of a deadly and protracted civil war, lasting more than ten years. The civil war is believed to have cost an additional 100,000 lives. Both sides, Hutu and Tutsi, lost their kins.
Ndadaye is today remembered as the founding father of Burundi’s reconciliatory democracy. His blood is the fountain for Burundi’s rebirth. His legacy of active non-violence should serve as an example to future leaders in this region. It is the only way to build a system that is not based on ethnic exclusion.
In the case of Rwanda, we can draw inspiration from the resilience of this man. But we can also learn from his desire to forgive his enemies. The incarceration of Mme. Ingabire Victoire and that of other free thinkers, is the beginning of a movement that will culminate in the freedom for all Rwandans. She is following in Ndadaye’s tradition by refusing to pick up arms. And she is ready to pay the price as there can be on gain without pain and no crown without the cross. Ultimately, though, only love and forgiveness will save our motherland.