Burundi | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Burundi's civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5 due to changes in the survey methodology.


Amidst ongoing violence, Burundi continued to make excruciatingly slow progress in resolving the multifaceted crisis that has wracked the country since 1993. For the first time, South African-mediated negotiations in Tanzania brought together all the combatant groups, and by the end of 2002 all factions had agreed to end the violence except for the Hutu-dominated National Liberation Front (FNL). Continued instability within the Great Lakes region further complicated efforts at reconciliation.

With the exception of a brief period following democratic elections in 1993, the minority Tutsi ethnic group has largely governed the country since independence in 1962. The military, judiciary, educational system, business sector, and news media have also been dominated by the Tutsi. Violence between the country's two main ethnic groups has occurred repeatedly since independence, but the assassination of the newly elected Hutu president, Melchoir Ndadaye, in 1993, has resulted in sustained and widespread violence. Since 1993 an estimated 200,000 Burundi citizens, out of a population of 5.5 million, have lost their lives.

Ndadaye's murder fatally weakened the hold on power of the Hutu-backed political party, the Front for Democracy in Burundi, (FRODEBU). Negotiations on power-sharing took place over the succeeding months, as ethnically backed violence continued to wrack the country. Ndadaye's successor was killed, along with Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, in 1994 when their plane was apparently shot down while approaching Kigali airport in Rwanda. This event triggered the Rwandan genocide and intensified killings in Burundi.

Under a 1994 power-sharing arrangement between the main political parties, Hutu politician Sylvestre Ntibantunganya served as Burundi's new president until his ouster in a 1996 military coup led by Pierre Buyoya, who had formerly been president. Buyoya claimed to have carried out the coup to prevent further human rights violations and violence. Peace and political stability within the country continued to be elusive, as armed insurgents sporadically staged attacks and the government security forces pursued an often ruthless campaign of intimidation. The search for peace eventually led to an agreement to allow a measure of political space for the parliament, which has a FRODEBU majority, and the beginning of negotiations in Arusha in 1998.

In 2001 Burundi made an important, but tentative, step towards a peaceful settlement. The Arusha negotiations, mediated by former South African President Nelson Mandela, resulted in an agreement in principle by most parties on a future democratic political solution to the conflict. Nineteen organized groups from across the political spectrum agreed to recommendations from committees on the nature of the conflict, reforms in the nation's governing institutions, security issues, and economic restructuring and development. The form of the political institutions through which power would be shared and the reform of the military proved to be especially sensitive and difficult issues. A transitional government was installed on November 1, with President Buyoya temporarily remaining chief of state and Domitien Ndayizeye, the secretary-general of FRODEBU, the Hutu-dominated opposition party, vice president. A potentially fatal weakness of the agreement, however, was the failure of key elements of the FDD and FNL to sign on, resulting in continued negotiations and violence.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political and civil liberties within Burundi continue to be circumscribed, although parties and civic organizations do function. President Pierre Buyoya is an unelected chief of state, although he is due to leave office in April 2003. The constitution was suspended when he took power, as was the legitimately elected parliament. In June 1998 a transitional constitution was put into place; it reinstituted and enlarged the parliament through the appointment of additional members and created two vice presidents. The parliament's powers remain limited in practice, although it provides an outlet for political expression and remains an important player in determining the nation's future.

The negotiated political agreement, which entered into force in November 2001, allows Buyoya to remain president until April 2003 and then for the presidency to be occupied by Domitien Ndayizeye for a subsequent 18 months until presidential and parliamentary elections are held in November 2004. As part of the agreement, the parliament's legitimacy was heightened by the nominations of key political figures. Jean Minani, a leading member of FRODEBU who returned from exile, was chosen by the National Assembly to be speaker.

There are more than a dozen active political parties, ranging from those that champion radical Tutsi positions to those that hold extremist Hutu positions. Most are small in terms of membership. FRODEBU and the Tutsi-dominated Unity for National Progress (UPRONA) party remain the leading political parties.

Burundians continue to be subject to arbitrary violence, whether from the government or from guerilla groups. Although detailed, specific figures on the number of dead or injured are difficult to obtain, widespread violence continued in parts of Burundi in 2002. This has been documented by respected independent organizations inside and outside Burundi, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the ITEKA Human Rights League. Amnesty International issued several appeals during the year, for example, for investigations into human rights abuses allegedly conducted by both guerilla and government forces. In addition to operations of the government security forces, there has been intense activity in parts of the country by armed opposition groups.

Reprisals by the armed forces have often been brutal and indiscriminate, and have resulted in hundreds of extrajudicial executions, mainly of members of the Hutu ethnic group. For example, the Burundian army admitted killing 173 civilians in the central province of Gitega in September. An army spokesman claimed, however, that Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD) fighters were "fully responsible for all the civilian deaths," and claimed that the rebels had taken the civilians as "hostages" and "accomplices."

According to Human Rights Watch, Burundian army soldiers forced more than 30,000 civilians from their homes in Ruyigi province in eastern Burundi in late April and early May, and authorities refused to allow humanitarian aid groups to provide assistance to the displaced persons, who are suffering from malnutrition and disease. Much of the military's violence has been committed in zones where the local civilian and military authorities ordered the civilian population to leave the area because of counterinsurgency operations. The continued impunity of the armed forces and the weakness of the Burundian judicial system are important contributing factors to the violence.

Some different viewpoints are expressed in the media, although media outlets operate under significant self-censorship and the opposition press functions only sporadically. The government-operated radio station allows a measure of diversity. The European Union has funded a radio station. The Hutu extremist radio broadcasts sporadically and has a limited listening range.

Constitutional protections for unionization are in place, and the right to strike is protected by the labor code. The Organization of Free Unions of Burundi is the sole labor confederation and has been independent since the rise of the multiparty system in 1992. Most union members are civil servants and have bargained collectively with the government. Freedom of religion is generally observed.

Women have limited opportunities for advancement in the economic and political spheres, especially in the rural areas. Only 5 percent of females, for example, are enrolled in secondary school. Burundi's mainly subsistence economy (its gross domestic product) is estimated to have contracted by 25 percent over the last five years. The five-year conflict and two years of economic sanctions imposed by neighboring states have crippled the economy and worsened social indicators. Over the five years of conflict and economic sanctions, poverty has increased by 80 percent in rural areas and more than doubled in urban areas. Child malnutrition is estimated to be 38 percent, and reported cases of major endemic diseases have increased by more than 200 percent since 1993. Access to basic social and health services has been severely diminished.