The Influence of US Foreign Policy on Burundi and How It Shaped Foreign Aid in Burundi Post-1972 Civil War

Source: IRIN —

Scores of people are familiar with the Rwandan genocide that has been popularized by various Hollywood films, books and news media, all documenting the horrific events that happened in Rwanda. One of the well-known films depicting the scenarios in Rwanda at the time is “Hotel Rwanda”, released on December 22 2004. It is a simple screenplay story showing how Paul Rusesabagina, who owns and manages a hotel, allows refugees to take refuge in his hotel when the Hutu dominated military decides to kill the Tutsi. Even when the UN pulls out, Paul remains steadfast in his efforts to assist the Tutsi people during the Rwandan genocide. Another popular film is “The day God walked away”, released on October 28 2009, depicting the Tutsi people’s same struggle against the Hutu. As a result of the enormous attention drawn towards the Rwandan genocide from abroad, the country was flooded with foreign aid, a key factor that is credited for its transformation and development. Rwanda is now considered one of the most developed nations in east Africa. Unknown to many, however, is that similar events, if not worse, were happening in the neighboring country Burundi. The 1972 Burundi killings were so devastating and horrific they came to be known as “Ikiza”. The name is in Kirundi and can be translated as “great calamity” or “Ubwicanyi”, meaning killings.

Burundi has experienced five successful coup d’états and two major civil wars, including the Ikiza, since achieving its independence in 1962. Owing to this fact, Burundi is currently one of the poorest nations in the world. The country has had different relationships with foreign donors across various sectors before civil conflicts and after. For instance, Belgium, a former colonial master to Burundi, has been the major foreign donor of military aid to Burundi since independence. However, due to the different raging civil wars in Burundi, Belgium has had to adjust its foreign support and assistance, stopping its ammunition flow to the country during and after these conflicts. Therefore, it can be concluded that foreign donors have played a significant role and provided critical contributions to the post-war reconstruction and development in Burundi. Yet, while there is some agreement in the literature on the importance of political context in donor-recipient relationships, there is no consensus on precisely how donor countries’ foreign policy shapes foreign aid to the recipient country post-civil war.

This research paper examines how Burundi’s 1972 civil war led to divergent relations with donors. It takes a special focus on how US foreign policy affected foreign aid flow in Burundi after the 1972 failed attacks on the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority and subsequent civil war. This paper argues that US foreign policy for Burundi decreased foreign aid to the country post-1972 civil war. This is due to US influence and sanctions placed on the country following the war. Accordingly, two research questions guide this analysis of foreign aid to Burundi post-1972 civil war:
What was the US response to the mass killings in Burundi during the 1972 civil war?
How did the US response influence the lack of foreign aid in Burundi post-1972 civil war?

Research Methodology used
For an in-depth study of the United States reaction to the 1972 Ikiza (Burundi killings) and its influence on foreign aid, the research reviewed primary sources from the US Office of history, giving emphasis to the United States series (FRUS) The primary sources mainly comprised phone recordings and memorandums between President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger (President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs), Eliot (Executive Secretary of the Department of State), John N. Irwin (Deputy Secretary of State), Melvin H. Levine (Member of the National Security Council Staff), and Fernando E. Rondon (Member of the National Security Council Staff), regarding the 1972 Burundi civil war.
To answer the research concerns, the paper extensively analyses specific decisions and recommendations made by the US and the above-mentioned government officials. It provides irrefutable evidence that the decisions and responses of the US government had a hand in the lack of foreign aid to Burundi post-1972 civil war.

Background of Burundi Genocide of 1972
Even though the Burundi genocide of 1972 is not broadly studied in the Us history of foreign policy response to civil war, its significance cannot be underestimated. Burundi is a small east African country bordering Rwanda, with a population of approximately 3.5 million people as of 1972. The country comprises two major ethnic groups, the Hutu, the ethnic majority representing 85 percent of the total population, and the Tutsi ethnic minority, representing 15 percent of the people. However, the political power historically was laid primarily with the Tutsi minority, accumulating a great deal of wealth at the cost of rural Hutu farmers and traders. Under a constitutional monarchy, the Tutsi government was effectively limited from government participation, notably military and public service. The ethnic tension and the negative Hutu-Tutsi relationship led to the Hutu community’s failed coups of 1965 and 1969. Much has been written about the role Belgians played in favoring the Tutsi, which exacerbated Hutu and Tutsi conflicts.
In April 1972, a group of armed Hutus entered Southern Burundi through the Tanzanian border and Zaire and tried to begin a revolt against the ruling tribe Tutsi by killing an unknown number of Tutsi tribesmen. Simultaneously, an organized group of Hutus tried to attack and seize a military barracks in the outcast of Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura. Under the leadership of President Michel Micombero, who viewed the attacks as a threat to its monarchic leadership. In response, the government began counteroffensive reprisals and violent campaigns against the Hutu majority. Prominent Hutu’s, political leaders, and educated members of the ethnic tribe were liquidated and killed. Described as a ‘selective genocide,’ an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Hutu community members were killed.

The genocide was exacerbated by the lack of willingness from external partners to engage in peace negotiations during the attacks. African members in the Organization of African Unity (OAU), guided by the mandate of country sovereignty, seemed thoroughly uninterested in the civil war proceedings. No African leaders spoke publicly about the massacre citing internal affairs, and only President Mobutu of Zaire was interested in the events of the genocide. Similarly, the United Nations described the civil war as internal affairs, thus leaving potential UN peacekeeping initiatives unavailable. While the refugees in the country received foreign assistance of food, clothes, and shelter, the government directed the humanitarian relief exclusively to the Tutsi community. The US President, Richard Nixon, showed deep concerns about the genocide. Together with US Ambassador to Burundi and National Security Affairs personnel, they developed different foreign policies in response to the massacre, which will be discussed in the next section of this paper.

Findings and discussion
The issue of human rights has always been central to the US throughout history. As the world’s superpower, America plays a pivotal role in major global affairs and interventions. However, the how and when the US intervenes or responds majorly depends on whether the acting administration adopts an idealistic, collective security approach or a realist balance of power approach. Regardless of whichever theory of international relations it adopts, all responses and interventions remain within the bounds of Just war theory. Most reactions by the US to violations of human rights have been that of a third-party player. Often, the reactions are classified reports between US government officials in Washington and those in the field. The field reports of human rights abuse such as genocides are usually the beginning of the end of a political response to the abuse. More often, considerable human rights abuse in many parts of the world has become a matter of national priority interests to the US. The US is mainly concerned with a civil conflict if a country has significant economic importance to the government or the conflict is a national security threat to them.

Take, for instance, America had a more steadfast response to the holocaust as its interests were directly affected than its response to the Burundi Ikiza. The US eased its visa regulations on account of the plea from American Jewish leaders. A boycott of German goods was also arrived at in hopes to mount economic pressure on the German administration to abandon the Jew persecution. Burundi was a low-priority country for the US and thus did not receive direct involvement from the US leaders. According to Kissinger, Burundi’s US interests were ‘microscopic.’ Yet, through third-party strategies such as consultations with Organization for African Unity (OAU), European countries, and United Nations (UN), the US made significant responses to the Burundi conflict.

It has been argued that the US could have done more to stop the Burundi killings, but it held back. In response, the US state department maintained that it could do very little because it did not have much leverage in Burundi. However, critics report that the US had unique leverage to use in Burundi, but instead, it did not use it. Burundi’s main economic backbone during the time was coffee exports, of which the US was importing up to 80% of the coffee production. Critics further argue that the US should have explored the option of coffee boycott as a way of pressuring the Tutsi government to giving in and stopping the killings. However, the idea of a coffee boycott was dismissed by the state department, in a sense sentencing thousands of Hutus to brutal treatment from their Tutsi counterparts.

Burundi’s viewpoint om foreign interference
Many African nations have accused developed powers such as the UK and the US, among others, of interfering with their sovereignty. From the historical colonial injustices committed by European forces on many African nations, foreign interference in African matters was met with hostility. This is mainly because most Africans feared sliding back to western imperialism. Burundi was no different, with its president Micombero speaking out against foreign interference in Burundi’s internal affairs. This was after the US and other European nations appealed to him to stop the reprisals and allow relief agencies such as the UN to provide humanitarian relief in the country without hindrance.

After noting the hardstands taken by Burundi on foreign interference, Kissinger, in a letter to President Nixon, cites the expulsion of two US ambassadors from Burundi as a reason why the country should have minimal interference with the civil war. More importantly, the removals happened after failed coups by Hutu, and in both cases, the Burundi government made complaints of interference in internal affairs by the US. The historical suspicion of US intentions for Burundi made the development of foreign policy towards Burundi difficult. Thereby, the US’s diplomatic response against Burundi civil war was likely to have negative feedback and unsuccessful in ending the war.

US involvement and response to the Burundi killings
When the US noted that the European countries’ appeal was falling on deaf ears judging from no positive outcome was coming out of Burundi, it resulted in a more local foreign policy. This action would be made successful through consultations with the Organization of African Union (OAU). Kissinger noted that the response to turn to the OAU was arrived at because of humanitarian concerns and congressional pressure from senators Robert Kennedy and John Tunney. However, OAU was unwilling to interfere with the Burundian internal affairs. According to OAU, tribal conflicts were only supposed to be resolved internally in the country they occurred. The US ambassadors of Ethiopia, Zaire, Mauritania and Rwanda also mounted pressure and made special appeals to their respective governments to force Burundi to stop the killings. In the requests, the US noted the civil war-stained Africa’s image and led to crimes against humanity. While most African leaders were reluctant, the response was successful as President Mobutu of Zaire and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania met with Burundi president to discuss its unrest. However, none of these efforts bore any real fruits as the Burundi civil war raged on.
The US became more directly involved with Burundi’s civil crisis by recalling its ambassador from the country. In a phone recording between President Nixon and Kissinger, Nixon pressures Kissinger to recall Ambassador Robert Yost from the country, “I want you to follow through and get that ambassador from Burundi.” The recall was implementing the US foreign policy to have a minimal relationship with Burundi and suspend all the bilateral aid, cultural exchanges, and self-help funds to the country during the war. The move aimed to anger the Burundi government and portray US disapproval of the country’s mass killings. While the killings had ceased by the time Ambassador Yost was recalled, the atmosphere was still tense in the country.

The effect of US response on Military aid to Burundi
Burundi had been a colony of Belgium during the colonial period. Even after the country gained independence in 1962, Belgium retained a strong political relationship. Like in many West African countries, Belgium continued to offer military training and ammunition supplies to the country. However, the US pressure on the Belgian government influenced the suspension of military aid to Burundi. The US accused the Burundian army, then dominated by the Tutsi community, of using the weapons to massacre the Hutu majority. This pressure from the American government on Belgium was largely successful as Belgium’s Foreign Minister Harmel in a parliament sitting stated the government “will have to adjust its cooperation.”

The first success relating to the US pressure was Belgians informed the Burundi government they would recall military assistance and personnel from the country. The lack of military training and aid to the Burundian government could have numerous consequences to the country in the aftermath of the civil war. It meant that the Tutsi government would have to be weakened, and therefore the strategy was likely to have quick feedback from the government as the survival of the government was at stake post-1972 civil war. Wilén, Birantamije, and Ambrosetti affirmed the military in Burundi had been highly politicized and had been a core factor in political tension and violence in the country. Specifically, the Tutsi minority government had used military power to form violence against and frustrate the Hutu community. For instance, Captain Michel Micombero had gained control through a military coup as his two successors Jean-Baptiste Bagaza and Pierre Buyoya. He also used military power to attain leadership in the country. The government used the same military capability to kill the Hutu people during the 1972 civil war. As such, the military role was key to the dominance of the minority Tutsi regime. Nevertheless, the current Belgium suspension of military aid, orchestrated by the US, meant the Burundi Tutsi government was incapable of retaining its power after the civil war.
Equally, Belgium decided to stop a long-term trade of military weapons and ammunition with the Burundi government. In the Belgium case, the US tried to exert economic and political pressure on the Burundi government to stop the Hutu ethnic tribe’s reprisals. The US involvement in Belgium’s response to the Burundi war is recorded in a memorandum from the Executive Secretary of the Department of State (Eliot) to Kissinger September 24, 1972. Eliot writes, “At our urging, they decided to stop shipping arms and ammunition which they traditionally supplied to Burundi, a former Belgian colony.” The US, therefore, influenced the lack of foreign military aid to Burundi post-1972 civil war.

The US government acknowledges Belgium was the largest aid donor to Burundi; thus, lack of weapons supply meant a deficit of military power in the country post-civil war. The US plan to consult with Belgium was aimed at marginalizing the Burundian army under Tutsi control, hampering their ability to continue with the civil war as its military capability became fragile as they lost a significant economic partner. Other possible suppliers of weapons to the country, PRC or USSR, did not make any supplies to the country. In a letter to President Nixon, Kissinger writes, “There is no evidence that the PRC or USSR have played any role in Burundi, or that they seek to profit from the situation.” The second consequence was that the Burundi government would likely seek a new ally in the ammunition trade post the civil war as it felt the Western countries were pulling out their foreign aid. In an exchange between the Ambassador to Burundi (Yost) and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (Newsom) dated October 6, 1972, the US was worried the Chinese government would be the new supplier of military weapons to Burundi. The speculation was because of Chinese interest in Burundi’s economy and was likely to fill its potential military gap.

US Humanitarian response in Burundi
The US was an active humanitarian donor to Burundi refugees. The aid came after Burundi’s president Micombero requested international assistance for refugees. Ambassador Thomas Melady offered food materials from Catholic Relief Service supplies in Bujumbura. In a memorandum between Melvin H. Levine and Kissinger, the US government confirmed disbursing $1,000,000 for medical aid, food, and clothes and $50,000 for the Burundi refugees in neighboring countries. The US government also appealed to the UN High Commission for Refugees to establish a presence in Burundi after the US discovered that most of the relief aid only helped refugees who were outside the country. At the same time, the US pressured UN Secretariat, particularly Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, to establish a permanent humanitarian presence. The US was a significant donor to the UN humanitarian aid.
Following the Burundi killings, it became clear to the US that the Burundi government was killing its own citizens and delivering most of the aid it received to Tutsi regions. With this knowledge, the US government suspended all the humanitarian assistance to the country until it was assured that aid would be equally distributed and reach the Hutu communities. The US foreign policy to Burundi only instructed the provision of aid to Burundian refugees in the neighboring countries in Zaire, Tanzania, and Rwanda, as illustrated in figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Central Intelligence Authority (CIA) map of 1972 Burundi killings, major refugee concentration areas, and surrounding countries
As a significant donor to the UN humanitarian missions in Burundi, the US’s foreign policy to support relief distribution indicated foreign humanitarian aid would be minimal if the Burundian government did not include Hutus in the relief operations. The US hence set standards for future humanitarian assistance to Burundi even post 1972 civil war. It is essential to note the marginalization and frustration against the Hutu community by the Tutsi government was the root of the 1972 genocide and counter reprisals by the government. The government had historically secluded the Hutu ethnic group from public service and public appointments. The relief aid reaching only the Tutsi community ensured a repeat of the country’s historical injustices. The international donors, majorly the US, would have been a supporter of Hutu’s marginalization and violation of human rights if it did not promote equality in humanitarian aid distribution. Even post-1972 civil war, foreign donors were likely to apply strict neutrality in the country, and lack of equal distribution meant Burundi would lack foreign humanitarian aid.

How the US response affected Economic foreign aid to Burundi
Burundi held little to no tangible significance to the US economically. The country’s lack of industries, extreme poverty, and numerous sanctions by the European Economic Community was not attractive to US investors and exporters. The only binding economic relationship was coffee export from Burundi, self-help funds, bilateral aid, and cultural exchange programs. Nevertheless, in a letter to President Nixon, Kissinger indicates that the US halted some of the economically important relationships. He states, “We wish our relationship to remain minimal; i.e., no bilateral aid, no self-help funds, no cultural exchange programs.” Therefore, the US ceased not only diplomatic ties with Burundi but also economic relations. The US and Burundi’s reduced economic exchanges would reduce or discontinue post-civil war financial aid from the US. Burundi was, therefore, losing important monetary donors due to the mass killings of Hutu community members.
A critical economic loss to Burundi was the recalling of Belgium’s teaching mission from the country. Belgium argued that the ongoing civil war was a direct threat to Belgium’s Ambassador, who had a duty to visit teachers throughout the country. The US had pressured Belgium to cease financial and political ties with the country during the civil war. The Belgian government was responsible for replacing and shifting teaching personnel in Burundi, a bilateral agreement that was successful before the 1972 civil war. Recalling the teaching mission meant that the country was losing the country’s teaching personnel management and ultimately affect the education sector. Education is essential in the economic success of any country because it a critical component of human capital. It also increases the efficiency of each citizen and the value chain beyond manual employment. As a developing country, Burundi could not immediately employ a competent education management unit and thus a significant threat to the country’s education system post-civil war. Hence, the US had a substantial role in the lack of education aid to Burundi during and after the 1972 civil war.

Unforeseen consequences of the US response
The fact that the US response had some unforeseen consequences on Burundi cannot be ignored. Though the impact of the American response was not immediately felt, it had significant implications on Burundi. For instance, Burundi being a land locked country it meant that most of its resources were acquired through imports. The US pressure on Burundi’s neighbours to cut off ties with the nation till it stopped the senseless killings meant that Burundi’s crucial supply line of resources was constricted. This led to elevated poverty levels and hunger in the small east African nation leading to more unnecessary deaths. The recall of Belgium teaching aid also resulted in low education standards in the country. This situation meant that most of the Burundian population during the post-1972 Ikiza were illiterate and could only be eligible for cheap manual labour, something that would increase poverty in the nation. Another unforeseen impact was that with the withdrawn military support came the possibility of the country facing external attacks because its defense was vulnerable. Generally, even if the intentions of the American government were to stop the genocide in Burundi, some of the responses it took proved devastating for the small nation.

In summary, the US foreign policy on Burundi played a critical role in the lack of foreign aid to the country post-1972 civil war. In a literature review of memorandums and telephone recording between US top government officials in 1972, the present study has found the US responded through both humanitarian and diplomatic strategies to the Burundi civil war. While the US had a ‘microscopic’ interest in Burundi, monitoring the country’s conflict and filling reports back to Washington required consistent effort. President Nixon particularly had a deep personal concern with the Burundi events and was determined to see actions by the US state department. Consequently, the US foreign policy in regards to Burundi was minimal but involved important consultations with concerned international and regional bodies, pressure on Burundi’s main foreign donors, and both direct and indirect humanitarian aid. Yet, national reconciliation seemed impossible with each response by the US. It was only when the UN gained full presence, after pressure from the US, that the Burundian government ceased the reprisals against the Hutu ethnic group. The aftermath of these incidence shaped US foreign policy to Burundi by influencing a lack of foreign aid. Specifically, the present study found Burundi lacked military, humanitarian, and economic assistance as compared to before the conflict. The US foreign policy interfered with military and education aid from Belgium, cancelled US economic funds to the country, and set the standards for future humanitarian aid distribution in Burundi by most foreign supporters.

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Memorandum from Fernando E. Rondon of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger). Document 228. Washington, October 10, 1972
Memorandum from Melvin H. Levine of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger). Document 220. Washington, June 26, 1972
Memorandum from the Deputy Secretary of State (Irwin) to President Nixon. Document 219. Washington, May 3, 1972
Memorandum from the Executive Secretary of the Department of State (Eliot) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger). Document 225. Washington, September 24, 1972
Memorandum from the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon. Document 222. Washington, September 20, 1972
Memorandum from the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon. Document 226. Washington, September 29, 1972
Memorandum from the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon. Document 230. Washington, December 2, 1972
United States Central Intelligence Agency. CIA map of Burundi and surrounding countries during 1972 killings.jpg. September 22, 1972
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