Burundi: Who benefited from the killing of President Melchior Ndadaye?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: ‘We killed the President!’

By Mehdi Ba
Posted on Thursday, 11 November 2021 12:18

Melchior Ndadaye was the first president elected in Burundi through universal suffrage. © AFP

With the trial of the alleged killers of Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara’s under since October, we take a look at the destinies of eight African presidents who were assassinated. In the sixth part of our series, we look back at the cold-blooded 21 October 1993 killing of Burundi’s leader, Melchior Ndadaye, which plunged the nation into civil war.

This is part 6 of an 8-part series

Persistent rumours had been circulating for hours within Burundi’s armed forces on 20 October 1993, when Major Dieudonné Nzeyimana, also the head of intelligence for the national police, or gendarmerie, told his superiors there was tension among some troops in the capital city of Bujumbura. At around 4pm, the commander of the 2nd Commando Battalion, Major Isaïe Nibizi, requested an urgent meeting with President Melchior Ndadaye’s chief of staff, Frédéric Ndayegamiye, to notify him that some members of the 1st Paratrooper (‘1st Para’) and 11th Armoured battalions were fired up, preparing to stage a coup – and that they planned to arrest numerous political figures.

Maj Nibizi further told Ndayegamiye that he had informed the chief of general staff of an imminent coup. He proceeded to ask Ndayegamiye to provide him with an unmarked car so that he could inspect the relevant units. Wanting to reassure the major, Colonel and Army Chief of Staff Jean Bikomagu reported that he had found nothing amiss during his visit to the barracks of the 1st Para Battalion, but that did little to quell the rumours running rampant around the city.

At 5pm, the president’s political and diplomatic adviser was notified by the chief of staff of the gendarmerie that the 1st Para and 11th Armoured battalions had plotted a coup that would take place at 2am the next day. The adviser tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to reach the defence minister, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Ntakije, who was in a council of ministers meeting. The same intel was on everyone’s lips – President Ndadaye was about to be the target of a coup.

A popular and charismatic leader

Did the 40-year-old president believe his luck would never run out? The Marxist-inspired Ndadaye had helped found the Parti des travailleurs du Burundi (UBU) and went on to create, with a few other activists, the Front pour la démocratie au Burundi. The party, also known as Sahwanya-Frodebu, was illegal until it was officially recognised in 1991.

Three months earlier, in July 1993, Ndadaye had pulled off a pair of feats, becoming Burundi’s first democratically elected president in a country where the transfer of power had, until then, been synonymous with coups and – more significantly – becoming Burundi’s first Hutu president since independence. Much like Rwanda’s population, and in a country sometimes referred to as Rwanda’s ‘fraternal twin’, Burundi’s was made up of Hutus and Tutsi. In contrast to its neighbour, however, Burundi’s army and highest rungs of political power had remained under Tutsi control.

Ndadaye’s election win came as a terrible shock for Tutsis who thought they had a permanent grip on power.

David Gakunzi, a Burundian writer, scholar and journalist, describes Ndadaye as “a very popular and charismatic politician”. Gakunzi says: “He fled Burundi for Rwanda at a very young age and was a member of UBU, which was split along two lines. First, an ethnicist and tribalist faction, in the manner of Burundi’s Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People [Palipehutu] or Rwanda’s Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement  [Parmehutu]. Second, a Marxist-leaning and dogmatic faction, which viewed Burundi society, whether Hutu or Tutsi, through the lens of social class. Ndadaye belonged to the latter faction.”

In the early 1990s, Innocent Muhozi (who incidentally is Gakunzi’s brother) was working as a reporter and director, covering business and politics for Burundi’s public television broadcaster. “Ndadaye’s election win came as a terrible shock for Tutsis who thought they had a permanent grip on power,” he says.

No opposition

On 20 October 1993, as the day progressed, reports became increasingly alarming. At around 6pm, Lieutenant Joseph Rugigana, of the 2nd Commando, was told by an officer of the same unit that something was afoot and was warned to remain vigilant.

President Ndadaye was finally informed of the imminent coup by his communications minister, Jean-Marie Ngendahayo, when the council of ministers meeting ended at 9pm. He arrived at the presidential palace 30 minutes later and informed his wife, Laurence, of the coup.

He then retired for the night, leaving his mobile phone on, but by then, he knew his presidency was in danger. Earlier that year, in July, members of the president’s inner circle, notably his bodyguard, Gratien Rukindikiza, had thwarted an attempted coup against him, on the eve of his inauguration.

Following that incident, several military officers had made a concerted effort to dissuade others from attempting to overthrow the president. However, at 11pm on 20 October, it was reported that there was unusual activity at Camp Para, the site where the 1st Para and 11th Armoured battalions were stationed.

At approximately 1:30am on 21 October, troops from both regiments left the camp and rode in armoured cars towards the palace, facing no opposition along the way. At about the same time, detachments of soldiers and non-commissioned officers had started to set up military checkpoints all over the capital. They had also successfully wrested control of the country’s army headquarters, air force base, national radio station and telephone company.

Back at the palace, despite having received multiple warnings just hours before, a guard of around 40 men, with only two armoured cars, stood as President Ndadaye’s sole line of defence. After one of his ministers told him the coup was underway, he got dressed in civilian clothes and quickly got into a car meant to transport him far from the palace, with his wife and children.

‘Do whatever you want with him!’

Within a few minutes, the armoured cars transporting the seditious troops arrived outside the palace gate. The first sounds of artillery fire and anti-tank rockets rang out. Just after 7am, President Ndadaye changed into military uniform and left with his family for Camp Muha. Speaking in Kirundi, he addressed the soldiers.

“Tell me what you want, we can negotiate, but above all do not spill blood, think of your country, think of your families!” he said.

According to Mrs Ndadaye’s testimony, Col Bikomagu – who had claimed he would evacuate the president’s family – told the soldiers: “There is the man you want. Do whatever you want with him.” At around 8:30am, President Ndadaye was driven to Camp Para, where he would soon be killed. Though the exact circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear, he was apparently stabbed by a soldier as two others held a cord around his neck.

At the time, Gakunzi had been working for the Switzerland-based Foundation for the Progress of Humankind (FPH), but was in a hotel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when he heard the news. He had recently returned from Butiama, the home town of former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, who had been delighted over the seemingly smooth democratic transition between Burundi’s Major Pierre Buyoya and the then newly elected Ndadaye.

He told me that the coup against Ndadaye wasn’t at all in his interest, and that his own name had been on the hit list back in October 1993…

On the morning of 21 October 1993, a hotel receptionist came knocking on Gakunzi’s door. He says: “This man was all worked up and telling me to turn on the BBC because a very terrible thing had happened in my country. He told me ‘The president has been assassinated’. I was in shock and felt right then and there that Burundi had just entered a dark period in its history and that blood would again be shed. I turned out to be right about that, unfortunately.”

Muhozi, who had interviewed the 1993 presidential candidates ahead of the election, was in the Ngarara area of southern Bujumbura, when he heard the news. “It was about 11am when I heard that the presidential palace had been attacked overnight. My intuition was telling me that a coup would never succeed,” he says. “First, because an earlier attempt had failed the day before his inauguration. Second, because I couldn’t believe that people would try to take him out just three months after his election, which marked our first true democratic presidential elections since independence.”

The journalist says: “It’s true that ethnicist ideology was popular in some circles, but there was also this process of democratic renewal, which I thought would deter a move to overthrow the president.” On that morning in 1993, Muhozi still didn’t know what fate President Ndadaye had met.

Fast forward to 28 years later, and the identity of the perpetrators of the assassination still remains shrouded in mystery. “We know who dealt the fatal blow, as a corporal confessed to the killing,” Gakunzi says. “And several officers were named, including during the trial in 1998, but relatively little is known about the perpetrators and the circumstances surrounding the incident.” Col Bikomagu, who was murdered in Bujumbura in August 2015, has often been conveniently portrayed as the culprit in the case, but Muhozi has his doubts. “Bikomagu was blamed by two different sides: Hutu extremists, who felt he was guilty because of his top position in the army, and Tutsi extremists, who felt he wasn’t going along with them,” he says.

When the Arusha Accords – an agreement meant to put the brakes on a nearly 10-year civil war – were signed in 2000, the signatories raised the possibility of creating a truth and reconciliation committee that would be tasked with determining the role and identity of those guilty of Ndadaye’s murder. Ultimately, the committee never took up such an inquiry.

In the wake of unrest over then President Pierre Nkurunziza’s disputed 2015 re-election for a third term, the case made a timely comeback in the courts. The judiciary was thus used to incriminate an array of military members and political leaders. Most of them were Tutsi, including former President Buyoya, who was succeeded by Ndadaye in 1993, but went on to reclaim the presidency, through a 1996 coup that targeted Sylvestre Ntibantunganya.

Gakunzi once broached the topic of Ndadaye’s assassination with Buyoya. “He told me that the coup against Ndadaye wasn’t at all in his interest, and that his own name had been on the hit list back in October 1993. He said a Burundian army officer had warned him of the coup on the night of 20 October and that he had immediately gone into hiding at the American embassy in Bujumbura. You have to keep in mind that the people who went after Ndadaye were radical Tutsis who held a grudge against Buyoya for giving power to a Hutu,” he says.

Two controversy-ridden men in Bujumbura

When Muhozi learned about the coup and Ndadaye’s subsequent killing, he had the same reaction that his brother did, his instincts telling him that the risk of future mass killings was high. “I felt a sense of fear, all the more so because I had known Ndadaye really well. Before he got elected, I [had] attended secret meetings alongside him and senior members of the Front pour la démocratie au Burundi and various other parties. I never imagined he would end up [being] assassinated.”

The unconventional Ndadaye had distanced himself from Rwandan Hutu extremists, which led him to decline endorsements from Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, as he didn’t care for their politics. Instead, he was drawn to leaders of the progressive Rwandan Parti social démocrate (PSD), though he belonged to a party comprising a small minority of Burundi’s Tutsi elite viewed as hostile. Ndadaye paid the ultimate price – his life – for the ethnic divisions in Burundi that had come to dominate all other political considerations.

It did not help that Ndadaye’s rise to power posed a problem for the country’s two neighbours – would it cast them in a bad light since Burundi had pulled off a democratic presidential election widely praised for its transparency? Muhozi highlights the fact that on the eve of the coup, two controversy-ridden men were present in the capital: Aloys Ntiwiragabo, the then head of Rwanda’s military intelligence service, and Paul Barril, a covert operations expert and former officer of the French Gendarmerie Nationale with close ties to President Habyarimana.

In the end, who benefited from Ndadaye’s assassination? The way Muhozi sees it, “nobody won.” He says: “Some Tutsis who had nothing to do with the coup were later slaughtered in the hills, and some Hutus met the same end, in the hills and cities. After that, Burundi was again plunged into a civil war, which lasted until the Arusha Accords were signed in 2010, but we’re still seeing unrest today.

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