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Burundi on the Cusp of a New Era

Africa: Transitional government being launched today will share power between warring ethnic groups. Majority Hutus are to eventually take over.


NAIROBI, Kenya — Beset by eight years of ethnic violence, Burundians today attempt to write a new chapter in their bloody history by ushering in a government that will eventually transfer power to the Hutu majority.

During the last week, 700 South African soldiers have massed in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, to protect about 150 exiled political leaders returning to participate in a three-year transition to democracy.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela brokered an agreement on the transitional government, and he will be joined by several other African leaders today in launching it.

Burundian President Pierre Buyoya, an ethnic Tutsi, will serve as the country's leader for the next 18 months. Domitien Ndayizeye, a Hutu, will serve as his vice president. In the second 18-month phase, the roles will be reversed, with a Hutu serving as president and a Tutsi as his deputy. Under a peace agreement, democratic elections will be held at the end of the three-year transition.

"Burundi is at a turning point," said Francois Grignon, head of the Central Africa program for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. "This transition represents the best chance in eight years to end the bloodshed" that has killed more than 200,000 Burundians and displaced a million more.

About 85% of Burundians are Hutus, but the minority Tutsis have controlled the government, military and economy for all but a few months since the nation gained its independence from Belgium in 1962. The country erupted in civil war in 1993 after Tutsi paratroopers assassinated the first democratically elected president, a Hutu.

The assassination was followed by massacres similar to the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, which also has a large Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority that dominates most institutions.

More than two years of painstaking negotiations resulted in an agreement signed in 2000 by 17 Burundian political parties, the government and the Tutsi-dominated army. Under the deal, Tutsi parties will hold 38% of the seats in the legislature--equivalent to three times their population. Tutsis will also have significant power in determining who is selected as judges, governors and members of the armed forces.

Two key Hutu rebel groups, the National Liberation Forces and the National Council for the Defense of Democracy, have rejected the power-sharing agreement and continue to wage war against the army.

Luc Rukingama, a spokesman for the government, said the new regime's main task will be to negotiate a cease-fire with the rebels.

"If we do not get a cease-fire, we would not be able to show the population that the transition is getting real results," he said. "That is why we need the international community to put maximum pressure on the rebels to stop fighting."

Aid groups say a cease-fire would also help impoverished Burundians. The U.N. World Food Program, which supplies food to about 650,000 Burundians, said rebel activities prevent it from serving an additional 200,000 hungry people.

The return of political leaders to Bujumbura could be followed by repatriation of about 500,000 Burundi refugees, many of whom live across the border in Tanzania.

One of the refugees, Niyongabo Serge, a 55-year-old Tutsi, said he and his five children were starving because rebels prevented them from returning to their farm. "The transitional government should [help] resettle me in my house and farm," he said.

But eight years of war have left many Burundians skeptical of the chances for peace. "This government is doomed to failure," said J. Bosco Bondo, a prominent Tutsi businessman. "No one can risk their money or their hopes until the rebellion stops for good."


Special correspondent Jean-Pierre Nkunzimana in Bujumbura contributed to this report.

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