Burundi: Joy and Disappointment As Nation Turns 50

Burundi is set for a grand party as the country celebrates that it gained independence from Belgium on July 1st, 1962. But half a century later the country is still dependent on a financial lifeline from foreign countries.

"It was a moment of great joy. I was 22, and I saw the Belgian flag being lowered before my eyes. Then, the Burundian flag went up. Now we had our own country," recalls Professor Emile Mworoha, 72. Fifty years later Burundi's streets are getting swept and home-owners are being forced to paint their properties. The government wants the country scrubbed clean for its 50th birthday.

"This anniversary is important for me because it reminds our people of all the things we've been through," says 19-year-old Laura Syori. "The elder generations have told us a lot of stories about the colonial years. Off course, it brought us education and infrastructure, but generally I think it wasn't good. It changed our culture completely: the way we dress, the way we behave. Our people had to carry the colonizers on their backs for long distances. We weren't free."

Troubled past

The first 50 years of Burundi as an independent country were a rocky ride. The trouble started with the assassination of the hugely popular Prince Rwagasore in 1961, less than a year before independence. This moderate politician preached cooperation between the Hutu and the Tutsi communities. After the death of the Rwagasore, son of the Tutsi king, ethnic clashes broke out between the two communities.

The year 1972 marked another, deep ethnic crisis, in which an estimated 200,000 educated Hutu, among them many young students, were killed. The latest war, after the assassination of the first Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye in 1993, lasted until 2005 and claimed around 300,000 lives.

Ethnicity as an excuse

Although the conflicts were branded as 'ethnic' the causes were deeper, Professor Mworoha argues. "Ethnicity was used as an excuse. It was really always about the control of power, and the demographic issue. There were many conflicts over land."

Today, the focus is not on Hutus or Tutsis anymore, he adds. "Nowadays Hutus and Tutsis work together in the political parties, and even the rebel movements are mixed. Unlike in Rwanda, here at least we can discuss ethnicity openly."

Financial independence

"Are we really independent?" Laura Syori wonders. "Donors provide nearly half of our national budget," she says. "It might take another generation to achieve financial independence. My generation." By the looks of it, Syori is doing well in helping change things in Burundi. She is the country's top tennis player and is preparing to study abroad. "But I will certainly come back to help build my country," she promises.

"The next 50 years will be better than the previous 50," Mworoha, a former cabinet minister and president of the National Assembly, predicts. "We are going to integrate in East Africa, we will be part of the world. I am an optimist."

Risk of instability

But despite the swept roads and the freshly painted houses, Burundi is still in danger of renewed instability. The country faced a string of politically motivated murders after the 2010 elections and there are continuing fears over dormant rebel groups.

Sources in Gitega, Burundi's second-largest city, whisper that there are rebels holed up in the nearby national park. The government prefers to call them 'bandits.' Just a week ago, Burundian journalist Hassan Ruvakuki was handed a life sentence after interviewing the leader of this alleged rebel movement.

Also, "the land issue hasn't been resolved yet," warns Mworoha. "Our land mass cannot increase but the population keeps growing. We have to work very hard to prevent more conflicts in the future."

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