Burundi opens transition to democratic government

S. African peacekeepers guard opposition figures

November 01, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

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

During the past week, 700 South African soldiers have massed in Bujumbura, the capital of this central African nation, to protect about 150 political exiles 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.

Current President Pierre Buyoya, an ethnic Tutsi, will serve as Burundi's leader for the next 18 months. Domitien Ndayizeye, a Hutu, will serve as Buyoya's vice president.

In the second 18-month phase, 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, Belgium-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 percent of Burundians are Hutus, but the minority Tutsis have controlled government, the military and the economy for all but a few months since independence from Belgium in 1962.

The country erupted in civil war in 1993 after Tutsi paratroopers assassinated the first democratically elected president, a Hutu.

More than two years of painstaking negotiations resulted in an agreement signed by 17 Burundian political parties, the government and the Tutsi-dominated army.

Under the deal, Tutsi parties will hold 38 percent 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 Front and the Forces 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.

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