Land Issues Keep Possibility Of Conflict Alive in Burundi

“Where My Umbilical Cord Dropped Off”

The civil war in Burundi now lies several years behind us. Since November 2003, when the CNDD-FDD integrated the transitional institutions, the rebels and the regular armed forces integrated their troops into a new national army. The country has had two elections which brought back majority rule. But this remains fragile. Burundi has made impressive steps to move on from conflict but still needs to tackle its root causes, notably poverty and poor governance.

In the aftermath of the war, there are still a lot of unsolved issues, such as the land problem. One consequence of the violence was that hundreds of thousands of Burundians were forced to leave their houses and their land. Later, sometimes much later, when they return to the place where (as is often said) “their umbilical cord dropped off”*, they often find their land to be occupied by others. I went to Rumonge, in the southern province of Bururi, in an attempt to understand the problem a bit better.

Land never lies fallow for long

Rumonge is located on Lake Tanganyika, 75 km south of Bujumbura, opposite the Congolese town of Baraka. “It was in the villages around Rumonge that in 1972 the first incidents occurred which led to the massacres against Hutu, under the radical regime of President Micombero,” says Felix, local correspondent of the Iwacu newspaper. Across the country, between one hundred and fifty and three hundred thousand people were killed, and many more had to flee their homes. Most of them went to Tanzania where they lived in refugee camps. People lived and died there, others were born. The camps became a hotbed of resistance with many youngsters leaving to join the armed struggle.

That struggle is now over and after the peace agreements were signed in Arusha (2000), a transitional government was installed in 2001 and democratic elections were held in 2005, people started to come back – often 35 years after their departure. But for returnees this often resulted in disappointment.

Land never remains unoccupied for a long time in this region. Immediately after the departure of the refugees, the government brought in new people from elsewhere to live in the abandoned villages and start to cultivate the deserted fields. Regimes and leaders succeeded one other, each of them with its own administration, its own laws and land policies. Many of the plots of land have changed hands at least once.

Going home

“They came to tell us down there in Tanzania that they had found a solution,” Athanase remembers. He was seven, his family had to leave his native land hastily in 1972. “The conflict was over and the time had come for us to go back. So we did, in 2005. They promised us we would get our land back, and we would pick up our life in Burundi, pretty much where we had left it behind. There was even a commission put in place to make that all happen, the CNTB, Commission Nationale des Terres et Autres Biens (the National Commission for Land and Other Property). But look at us in 2013 now; we still haven’t received our land back…”

The CNTB was installed as part of the Arusha Agreement and the texts which formulated  principles and policies on land that were absolutely clear: returning refugees had the right to claim their land back and should be compensated in the case that they were unable to access it. The CNTB has attempted to carry out the guidelines of the Arusha Agreements as strictly as possible, but the fund to compensate the people who were unable to access or lost their land has never been formed.

“But that is of course the entire problem,” Theodore sighs. “I arrived here shortly after the incidents because the government asked me to come. They said they needed me here. There was unused land. In the meantime I lived here nearly forty years, and everything I ever had has been invested in this land. Also for me, this land is my entire life. I understand these people who come from Tanzania. For them, this piece of land means much more than for me. For me it is the economic backbone of my existence. For them it is much more. It is the place their ancestors are buried. I could happily leave it to them, but where do you want me to go? If they give money or other land, so that my family can continue to live safely elsewhere, I will be happy to leave. Tomorrow. But so far, nobody has offered me anything.”

Compensation is central to the expectations of the people, but its is difficult to see how they will solve this problem without a properly managed compensation fund. But the Burundian state doesn’t have the money for such a fund, and the international community is very reluctant to mobilise money to begiven to individuals.


I find myself feeling much empathy with the sitaution Theodore describes. “True,” Athanase admits. “But that doesn’t count for everybody. Every case is different. Sometimes our land is occupied by people whose life isn’t that much less miserable than ours. But often the returnees find that their land has been acquired by one of the barons of one of the regimes we had throughout the years. Including the present one.”

“I presume we could get somewhere if only we could sort things out among ourselves, between residents and returnees here,” Athanase continues. ” But the point is that the situation here is closely followed by the national political parties. They make it worse with their populist speeches. In fact they use us to profile themselves with the new elections in sight.”

I can easily imagine that. The new rulers want to expose their support to the returnees and the parties of the previous regime defend the people they brought over and the social order they installed. The new electoral cycle starts in early 2015, so I expect this country to be hit by electoral fever before the end of 2013. “You can feel how the excitement is already growing now,” Felix explains. “The political agitation that already exists on this theme will only get worse. But they don’t bring us any closer to a solution. They only try to mobilise voters at our expense. Believe me, we will be left with the bill.”

Tensions are rising, and it is people both from the old and the new regime who are stirring them up…Is there any reason to fear that the old demons of ethnic hatred might be awoken once again? “Not really,” according to Athanase. “Ninety percent of the land disputes on the desk of the CNTB are conflicts between Hutus. I expect that the Tutsi parties will attemp to turn it into an ethnic issue, but they will not succeed. The communities will not stumble into that pitfall once more. We will not allow them to mobilise us along ethnic lines.”

Empathy or not, the tensions are real and regularly turn into incidents. Frequently, people are killed. Two days after the meeting we had in one of the villages around Rumonge, Felix called me to say that later that day, a fight nearly broke out between residents and returnees. The frustrations are very high in both communities. Both groups share the same precarious existence. In most of the cases, the returnees are the more vulnerable group because many residents retain an area of land which is not disputed. This is fertile ground for radical ideas and speeches, which are not exclusive to political parties with a populist electoral agenda. Former rebel groups who laid down their arms not so long ago do the same. Sporadic violence and isolated incidents between smaller groups abound, but it is not easy to estimate how likely it is that this situation will turn in to a larger, more structured type of struggle..

One solution I have encountered is particulalry problematic. Burundians have a rather stereotyped opinion of Congo. Not only do natural resources like coltan, gold and diamonds syringe out of the soil in fountains, there are also countless hectares of fertile land and hardly a human being to work on it. This land simply asks for diligent farmers from Burundi who cross the lake and exploit it. Some already do. But I sometimes travel there too and I know that the reality is a bit more complex. And that Burundians who squat on land in Congo will sooner or later create huge problems between both countries.


“The people get stuck between two state institutions that consistently contradict each other,” says Felix. “When there is a dispute, the CNTB choses by definition the side of the returnee because it strictly applies the Arusha Agreements.It works from a very political angle. But the resident then appeals to the classical legal system which restores [land] to him…in what they consider as his rights, because he can submit legal documents that were valid in the days the land was achieved.” In practice, things go like this: when the CNTB takes a decision, it is immediately effective. This means that, as a returnee, you can occupy your land straight away. But you can’t be sure that you will be able to keep your land, and in the meantime you have a very costly legal procedure running concerning land you may be about to lose. It can take years before a final conclusion is reached.

Of course not all cases lead to tensions, anger and legal procedures. But even where a settlement has been reached, it often remains informal, without anything being put down on paper. In some places, people are encouraged to start income-generating activities. There are some very interesting initiatives from local NGOs involved in creating the space for residents and returnees to solve conflicts between individuals, families and communities through dialogue and mediation.

New conflicts?

After a traumatic recent past, Burundi today is to be considered a post-conflict state. If it is to continue to be one, it will have to tackle a few issues thoroughly. The land issue is perhaps the most important one. Burundi, due to its favourable climate and geology, is blessed with an extraordinarily fertile soil, but because of population pressure and conflicts, a greater part of its population is undernourished than in the average Sahelian country. If the leaders of the country do not manage to elaborate a land policy that is economically, socially and ecologically sustainable, we cannot exclude the possibility that conflict will return to hit Burundians like a boomerang.

I have one last question to Athanase before we drive back to Rumonge: “Suppose you ever win this case. Imagine the day in some near future that you can consider the ground where your umbilical cord fell as your own… Will that be the end of all misery, or will it just be the start of a new struggle? I would be very surprised if you were your father’s only child. How many people are there who feel they have a rightful claim on this land? How will you deal with them, on that day? Divide it further in to even tinier bits?”

“Family problems are of all times, ” he sighs. “Since Cain and Abel. There were many of us in the house. And some of them already have grown up children with their own families. There is no doubt: that victory will be the start of a new battle. And we cannot exclude that this new struggle will lead us to new frustrations, legal procedures and even violence.”

*Ah nataye uruzogi (“Where my umbilical cord dropped off”) is an expression whose meaning is very profound for Burundians. It expresses teh belief that land is so much more than something you possess – a necessity for economic survival. Your land is the place where your umbilical cord dropped off and where your ancestors are buried. It is an important part of your identity, of your entire being.

Kris Berwouts has, over the last 25 years, worked for a number of different Belgian and international NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes. Until recently, he was the Director of EurAc, the network of European NGOs working for advocacy on Central Africa. He now works as an independent expert on Central Africa.

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