All Quiet on the Burundi Front?

Like its neighbors, Congo and Rwanda, Burundi is a war-torn land. Its troubles have not riveted world attention in recent years, probably because Burundi's rebels failed to plumb the depths of savagery seen in Rwanda and Congo. But, unlike its neighbors, this year can mark a turning point for Burundi. Thanks to agreements between the rebels and the government that Nelson Mandela and South African Vice President Jacob Zuma helped broker, Burundi can now either turn decisively away from civil strife, or risk a return to the machete politics that have mauled Africa's Great Lakes region for a decade.

Since its independence from Belgium in 1962, Burundi has suffered five episodes of what amounts to the same civil war. About 600,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands made into refugees.

Many portray this war as the result of hatred between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi. But this does not explain why these groups supposedly hate each other so much. Burundi's cultural and linguistic homogeneity, rare in Africa, belies the simplistic view that the Hutu and Tutsi fight because they are so different.

Indeed, most countries are far more heterogeneous than Burundi but have never fallen into ethnic war. To understand the dynamics of conflict in Burundi, we need to examine three root causes.