Burundi - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Burundi, landlocked republic in eastern Africa, bounded on the north by Rwanda, on the east and south by Tanzania, and on the west by Lake Tanganyika and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire). Formerly ruled by tribal monarchies, the area that is now Burundi was colonized by Germany in the late 19th century and under German and then Belgian administration until its independence in 1962. Bujumbura is the capital and largest city.


With an area of 27,834 sq km (10,747 sq mi), Burundi is one of Africa’s smallest countries. Most of the country is a hilly plateau region, with elevations ranging between 1,400 and 1,800 m (between 4,600 and 5,900 ft). Elevations decrease gradually to the east and southeast. The narrow western margin, bordering the Ruzizi River and Lake Tanganyika, lies in the trough of the Great Rift Valley. Southeast of Bujumbura, Burundi’s highest peak, Karonje, rises to an elevation of 2,760 m (9,055 ft).

Rivers and Lakes in Burundi

The main rivers are the Ruzizi, Malagarasi, and Ruvuvu, none of which are navigable. Dominating the south and west of the country, Lake Tanganyika is shared by Burundi, the DRC, and Tanzania. In the northeast Lake Cohoha and Lake Rugwero straddle the border with Rwanda. Water from the Malagarasi and Ruzizi rivers is used for irrigation in the extreme eastern and extreme western lowlands.

Plants and Animals in Burundi

Savanna vegetation (grassland interspersed with trees) predominates in most of the country. Eucalyptus, acacia, and oil palm are the most common trees. Forests, once extensive, are now concentrated in national parks and nature reserves. The diverse wildlife is limited by dense human settlement and includes elephants, leopards, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, wild boars, antelope, monkeys, and galagos (bush babies). Birds, such as guinea hens, partridges, ducks, geese, quail, and snipe, are particularly plentiful around the northeastern lakes.

Natural Resources of Burundi

Arable land and land used for permanent crops account for 53 percent of Burundi’s land area. Another 6 percent is covered by forest. The principal mineral resources are peat, uranium, nickel, petroleum, tin, bastnasite, and gold.

Climate in Burundi

The climate is tropical, moderated in most places by altitude. The average annual temperature is 20°C (68°F) on the plateau and 23°C (73°F) in the Great Rift Valley. Dry seasons are from May to August and from January to February, and the rest of the year is rainy. The average annual precipitation is about 850 mm (about 33 in), but can vary significantly year to year. Lack of rain periodically causes droughts, and excessive rainfall can cause floods and landslides.

Environmental Issues in Burundi

Poor land management has damaged the country’s environment. Overgrazing and the expansion of agriculture into marginal lands have contributed to severe soil erosion. Most of the country’s once extensive forests have been cleared for pastureland and farmland, and human settlements are encroaching upon the habitats of Burundi’s wildlife. Of the animal species that inhabit Burundi, 28 (2004) are threatened. Burundi has ratified an international agreement intended to protect endangered species. About 5.4 percent (2004) of the country’s total area is officially protected from development. The main protected areas are Kibira National Park, Ruvubu National Park, Ruzizi Nature Reserve, and Bururi Nature Reserve.


The population of Burundi (2007 estimate) is 8,390,505. The overall density of 327 persons per sq km (847 per sq mi) is one of the highest in Africa. The population is 89 percent rural. Most Burundians live in family groupings dispersed throughout the highlands, and villages are uncommon. Instability due to violence between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups in both Burundi and Rwanda has led to mass migrations. Most Hutu have fled Bujumbura and some have gone to Rwanda. Thousands of persecuted Rwandan Tutsi have crossed into Burundi. Burundi’s life expectancy at birth is 51 years, among the lowest in the world, due to poverty, ethnic strife, and numerous diseases, including one of the highest incidences of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the world. The population growth rate in 2007 was an estimated 3.6 percent. The country’s capital and most important city is Bujumbura, on the northeastern shore of Lake Tanganyika.

Ethnic Groups and Languages in Burundi

The chief ethnic groups are the Hutu and the Tutsi, who have traditionally comprised 85 percent and 14 percent of the population, respectively. The Twa, a pygmy group, account for 1 percent. The official languages are Kirundi and French. Swahili is also widely spoken along Lake Tanganyika.

Religion in Burundi

About two-thirds of the population is Christian, chiefly Roman Catholic, and 32 percent adhere to traditional beliefs, which are based on belief in a spirit world and a single abstract god, Imana. About 1 percent are Muslims.

Education in Burundi

Primary education is free and officially compulsory for children aged 7 through 12, although in 2002–2003 only 77 percent of primary school-age children were in school. Secondary school enrollment was even lower, with 11 percent of secondary school-age children attending school. The literacy rate for Burundi is 54 percent of the population. Attendance and literacy rates are very low due to national instability and shortages of teachers and school supplies. The University of Burundi (founded in 1960) in Bujumbura is the leading institution of higher education.

Way of Life in Burundi

Most Burundians live in self-contained compounds of small round grass huts scattered over the country’s many hills. The rugo, the traditional Tutsi hut, is divided into sections and surrounded by an enclosure and cattle corrals. Families farm scattered plots of land on different soils at different altitudes to minimize crop failure. The floors of valleys are avoided due to higher temperatures and tsetse fly infestation. Social roles are largely determined by ethnicity, with the Tutsi as herders, the Hutu as peasant farmers, and the Twa as hunter-gatherers. Family life is central in all groups. Traditionally, the principal goal in life has been parenthood. Women traditionally dress in brightly colored wraps, and men in white. However, many have adopted Western clothes. The Burundian diet consists mainly of sweet potatoes and beans, with bananas, cassava, corn, peas, millet, and fruits added in season. Cattle are herded as signs of wealth and status rather than for their value as food. Meat is consumed by most Burundians only about once or twice a month. Fish is eaten more frequently. Gourds are grown for use as containers. Beer and milk are common beverages. Pastimes include soccer, poetry recitation, storytelling, and mancala, a board game common throughout Africa.

Social Issues in Burundi

Hutu-Tutsi ethnic rivalry has been the dominant feature of Burundian society since independence. This severe and often violent problem is compounded by poverty, high unemployment, overcrowding, environmental stress, and the high incidence of AIDS. Crime is high in and around Bujumbura.


The richness of Burundian culture is apparent in a strong literary and musical tradition and a wide range of fine crafts. Little government funding for cultural activities is available. However, an art school at Gitega and an artisans’ center at Giheta have done much to encourage artistic expression and preservation. The major libraries are at the University of Burundi, the American Cultural Center, and the French Cultural Center in Bujumbura and the Burundi Literature Center in Gitega. The most important museums are Bujumbura’s Living Museum (founded in 1977) and the National Museum (founded in 1955) in Gitega.

Literature, Music, and Dance in Burundi

Burundians cherish strong oral traditions. Folk tales and fables are often set to music and no distinction is made between music and poetry. The Tutsi are particularly known for their epic songs and dynastic poetry, strongly flavored with traditional mythology. Cattle, local history, and the travels of the god Imana throughout the country are the most important themes of Burundian literary and musical traditions. Tall, splendidly adorned intore dancers and tambourinaires (drummers) were traditionally entertainers for the royal elite and tourists.

Art and Architecture of Burundi

Traditional Burundian art includes basketry, ironworking, and the making of gourd containers. The Twa are famed for their pottery. The traditional Tutsi hut or rugo is considered the most important local architectural style, while modern European-style construction predominates in the capital and in government buildings.


One of the world’s poorest nations, Burundi has a predominantly agricultural economy. The country’s estimated gross domestic product (GDP) was $800 million in 2005. Export earnings are dominated by a single crop: coffee. National budget figures for 1999 showed a large deficit, with $128 million in revenues and $167 million in expenditures. The government and foreign companies dominate the export sector of the economy. Burundi is heavily dependent on foreign aid, principally from Western Europe. Past austerity measures have added to ethnic tensions. In turn, ethnic and political instability has severely affected Burundi’s production capacity. Burundi’s labor force numbers 3.8 million people, of which 15 percent are engaged in agriculture, 22 percent in industry, and 59 percent in services.

Agriculture and Fishing in Burundi

Subsistence agriculture is the main means of livelihood. Chief food crops are sweet potatoes, cassava, bananas, beans, and maize. The most important cash crop is coffee. Cotton and tea are also grown for export. In 2005 livestock numbered 395,741 cattle, 750,000 goats, and 242,933 sheep. Social and cultural importance is attached to the ownership of large cattle herds. They are, however, economically underutilized and overgrazing has contributed to soil erosion. Commercial fisheries and subsistence fishing around Lake Tanganyika supply domestic demand.

Mining in Burundi

Mining includes the small-scale exploitation of gold and peat. Important reserves of uranium and nickel (estimated at 5 percent of the world’s reserves) remain to be exploited. Tin and bastnasite ores have been mined sporadically in the past. Test drilling has indicated the presence of oil under Lake Tanganyika, but petroleum exploitation has not yet proved significant.

Manufacturing and Services in Burundi

Manufacturing is limited to processing agricultural products, particularly coffee, and producing consumer goods intended to decrease reliance on imports. These consumer goods include cigarettes, soap, glass, blankets, cement, shoes, beer, and insecticides. Almost all banking, insurance, transportation, communication, technical, and trading services are located in Bujumbura. Despite official efforts, tourism has not proved to be significant.

Energy in Burundi

Burundi has two small coal-fired generating plants and two small hydroelectric dams, which in 2003 produced 141 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, or 80 percent of the country’s needs. A portion of the country’s electricity is now supplied by hydroelectric facilities in Bukavu, the DRC. However, for most Burundians, wood and other traditional fuels remain the primary source of energy for heating and cooking, providing 94 percent of all the energy used.

Transportation and Communications in Burundi

Burundi has no railroads but possesses a road network of about 14,500 km (about 9,000 mi), of which 640 km (400 mi) are paved, and about 1,950 km (about 1,210 mi) are classified as national roads. Most trade is shipped by way of Tanzania through the port of Bujumbura at the head of Lake Tanganyika. Bujumbura has the only international airport. Air Burundi, the national airline, has a limited schedule. The government controls radio and television broadcasting. The country has 1 daily newspaper in French and two weeklies, one in French and one in Kirundi.

Foreign Trade in Burundi

In 2002 annual exports were $27 million and imports $129 million. In the early 1990s coffee accounted for 81 percent of the value of exports. Cotton, hides, and tea are the only other important exports, with tea increasing to nearly 10 percent of export value in the early 1990s. Principal trading partners for exports were the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, and Switzerland. Textiles, motor vehicles, flour, and petroleum products are imported, principally from Belgium and Luxembourg, France, Germany, and Japan.

Currency and Banking of Burundi

The unit of currency is the Burundi franc (1,081.60 francs equal U.S.$1; 2005 average). The Banque de la République de Burundi (1967) is the national bank of issue. Other banks include a half dozen commercial banks and a post office savings bank system.


Burundians approved a new constitution in a February 2005 referendum. The new constitution was crafted to create a balance of political power between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority.

Executive of Burundi

Under the terms of the 2005 constitution, the president is the head of government and the commander in chief of the armed forces. The president is elected by universal suffrage, except for the first president who was elected by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature. The president can serve a maximum of two, five-year terms. The president has the power to declare war and to nominate members of the cabinet and members of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court. The president’s appointees to the 20-member cabinet must be 60 percent Hutu, 40 percent Tutsi, and 30 percent women. The president selects two deputies (vice presidents), a Hutu and a Tutsi, who are chosen from the elected members of the legislature and who represent two different political parties.

Legislature of Burundi

The legislature consists of the National Assembly and the Senate. Under the terms of the 2005 constitution, the National Assembly is to be composed of at least 100 members, of whom 60 percent are to be Hutu, 40 percent Tutsi, and 30 percent women. Three members must be from the Twa tribe. Members are directly elected to five-year terms. Legislation in the National Assembly must be passed by a two-thirds majority. The Senate is composed of two representatives from each of Burundi’s 17 provinces. Its members are chosen by an electoral college. At least 30 percent of the senators must be women, and legislation is passed by a two-thirds majority.

Judiciary in Burundi

The legal system is headed by the Supreme Court and is based on German and Belgian codified law and traditional customary law. The 2005 constitution created a Constitutional Court, which is designed to rule on the constitutionality of lower court rulings and government actions. The Supreme Court, however, is the final court of appeal.

Local Government of Burundi

Burundi is divided into 17 provinces, each subdivided into arrondissements and communes. Local authorities tend to be dominated by the national government.

Political Parties of Burundi

The dominant political party is the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), which won a majority in both the National Assembly and the Senate in 2005 elections. The FDD is predominantly Hutu, but under the 2005 constitution all political parties must be ethnically integrated. Other significant political parties are the predominantly Hutu Burundi Democracy Front (Front pour la Démocratie au Burundi, or FRODEBU) and the predominantly Tutsi UPRONA.

Social Services in Burundi

Burundi’s health and social security systems are rudimentary and underfinanced. AIDS, typhus, tuberculosis, pneumonia, dysentery, and kwashiorkor (severe protein deficiency) are the most serious health problems.

Defense of Burundi

Burundi’s armed forces are composed of a paramilitary gendarmerie (police force) and an army, which includes naval and air units. In 2004 the total force numbered 50,500, all volunteers. Since independence the military has been very politically active and in turn has fallen victim to corruption and often violent purges.

International and Regional Organizations in Burundi

Burundi is a member of the United Nations (UN), the East African Community, and the African Union and is a signatory of the Lomé Convention (agreements of cooperation between the European Union and many developing countries).


In the early 14th century, the Hutu arrived, probably from the Congo Basin, and imposed their language and customs on the Twa, who are believed to be Burundi’s original inhabitants. The development of an organized kingdom began in the 15th century, when the Tutsi, probably migrating from the north, established themselves as feudal rulers. Tutsi kings, or mwamis, became monarchs of distinct kingdoms in Burundi and Rwanda. Their rule was enforced by chiefs and subchiefs, who each ruled an umusozi, a fiefdom consisting of a single hill. Political and economic relations were based on an unequal feudal relationship, known as the ubugabire system, in which most Hutu became serfs subjugated by and economically dependent on the Tutsi. However, Burundi’s economic and sociopolitical structures were not as rigid as those of Rwanda. The power of the mwami was not absolute, and various princely leaders, known as ganwa, often vied for the throne. Unlike in Rwanda, marriages between Hutu and Tutsi were common in Burundi.

European Colonization

In 1858 the British explorers Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke were the first Europeans to visit Burundi. Austrian explorer Oskar Baumann and German Count Gustav Adolf von Götzen arrived in the 1890s, and soon Roman Catholic clergy established missions in the area. Later Burundi (then called Urundi) and Rwanda (then called Ruanda) were incorporated into German East Africa. The indigenous Tutsi rulers maintained good relations with the Germans and later with the Belgians, who occupied the country during World War I (1914-1918). After the war, the area was mandated to Belgium by the League of Nations and became known as the Territory of Ruanda-Urundi. Following World War II (1939-1945), it became a United Nations (UN) trust territory. The Belgians continued previous policies of supporting mission education and ruling through Tutsi chiefs. The colonial authorities strengthened precolonial inequalities and were late in seeking reforms. Nevertheless, the Belgians encouraged the mwami to phase out the ubugabire system in 1955.

Independence and Violence

As African political consciousness increased, the Hutu grew more vocal in protesting inequalities. In 1959 ethnic antagonisms in Rwanda erupted into violence. The Rwandan Tutsi king fled the country, and an exodus of some 200,000 Tutsi followed, many of whom went to Burundi. At the insistence of the UN Trusteeship Council, Burundi became an independent constitutional monarchy under Mwami Mwambutsa IV on July 1, 1962, and was admitted to the UN in September. However, political rivalry between Hutu and Tutsi threatened regional stability. Fearing a Hutu revolution similar to Rwanda’s, the Burundian Tutsi reacted brutally.

In 1963 thousands of Hutu victimized in Burundi took refuge in Rwanda. The Burundian power structure remained in Tutsi hands, despite a Hutu majority in the legislature after 1965. Accusing Mwambutsa of intriguing to strengthen his position, a group of Hutu police attempted a coup in October 1965. Loyalist police led by Captain Michel Micombero, a Tutsi, thwarted the rebels, but the mwami fled the country. In July 1966 he was declared deposed by his son, Mwami Ntare V. Four months later Micombero led a successful coup, declared Burundi a republic, appointed himself president, and established a National Revolutionary Committee to help stabilize his regime and develop the economy. In April 1972 a Hutu uprising led to widespread massacres claiming at least 100,000 lives, mainly Hutu. Ntare, who was under house arrest, was also killed. The uprising was quelled, but unrest continued, and thousands of Hutu refugees found haven in nearby countries.

Micombero was ousted in a bloodless coup in November 1976. The ruling Supreme Revolutionary Council subsequently named Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza as president, but peace between the ruling Tutsi and the Hutu majority remained precarious. A new constitution in 1981 declared Burundi a one-party state. Coming into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, Bagaza became more authoritarian, persecuting clergy and forbidding masses. This policy led to an erosion of support, and in 1987, while on a foreign visit, he was overthrown by Major Pierre Buyoya, who ruled as head of the Military Committee for National Salvation. Suspending the constitution, freeing political prisoners, lifting restrictions on churches, and touring the country in an effort to unite the people, he quickly consolidated his power and dealt with political tensions.

Stability was threatened again in 1988 when the Tutsi-led army engaged in massacres of Hutu that left at least 5,000 dead. Buyoya responded by appointing a Hutu prime minister and including Hutu in the cabinet. He controlled the military and planned a return to democratic, civilian rule. A new constitution providing for a multiparty system was ratified by referendum in March 1992. An unsuccessful coup attempt the same month reportedly was organized by Bagaza, in exile in Libya.

Further Instability

In June 1993 Burundi held its first democratic presidential elections since independence. Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu and a member of the Burundi Democracy Front, won the elections with 60 percent of the vote. Buyoya stepped down peacefully, retired from the army, and remained politically active. In October 1993 army factions loyal to Bagaza assassinated Ndadaye, sparking a civil war that was to last for nearly 12 years. Instability in neighboring Rwanda also spread to Burundi. Ndadaye’s death provoked waves of ethnic violence that sent thousands of refugees fleeing into neighboring Rwanda. Cyprien Ntaryamira, a Hutu who replaced Ndadaye, attempted to restore order by reining in the Tutsi-dominated security forces implicated in the violence. In April 1994, shortly after concluding talks, Ntaryamira and Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana were killed in a suspicious plane crash near Kigali, Rwanda. Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, former head of the National Assembly, was named acting president and was formally elected in September 1994. However, Burundi was locked in a stalemate between the elected, Hutu-dominated government and the Tutsi-led army. The situation continued to deteriorate, exacerbated by the influx of thousands of refugees from Rwanda. Many government functions ceased.

In July 1996 Pierre Buyoya seized power in another military coup and suspended the constitution, claiming that extraordinary measures were necessary to ensure national survival. In September 1996 Roman Catholic archbishop Joachim Ruhuna, a Tutsi, was killed in an ambush by Hutu rebels. In response to public outcry over the murder, Buyoya permitted some political party and parliamentary activity. In 1998 Buyoya and the National Assembly agreed upon a transitional administration in which Buyoya was formally sworn in as president.

In 2000 a formal peace agreement aimed at ending the civil war between Hutu and Tutsi was reached in Arusha, Tanzania. The peace agreement called for a transitional government leading to a new constitution and elections. A referendum on the new constitution was planned for 2004.

Hutu and Tutsi parties shared power in this transitional system. Under this scheme, Buyoya (a Tutsi) handed the presidency over to Domitien Ndayizeye (a Hutu) in April 2003. At the same time, membership in the legislature and the military was carefully balanced between Hutu and Tutsi. In November 2003 the largest rebel group, the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), made up mainly of Hutus, joined the peace process.

The delayed referendum on a new constitution was finally held in February 2005 and was overwhelmingly approved. In legislative elections that followed, the FDD won a majority in both the National Assembly and the Senate, and in August, FDD leader Pierre Nkurunziza was sworn in as the first president under the new constitution. In accordance with the new constitution, Nkurunziza appointed a 20-member cabinet that included 60 percent Hutus, 40 percent Tutsi, and 30 percent women. Rival political parties criticized the appointments for not being inclusive enough.

The election and swearing-in of Nkurunziza represented the crowning achievement of the peace process. Since 1993 ethnic violence had claimed more than 300,000 lives in Burundi and led to the displacement of some 700,000 people. The new government, however, faced the difficult task of persuading the last active rebel group, the Hutu-dominated National Liberation Forces (FNL), to join the peace process. The FNL is a rival of the FDD.

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