Former monarchies Rwanda and Burundi 50 years independent
On 1 July 2012, the republics of Rwanda and Burundi both celebrate the 50th anniversary of their independence – of each other as well as of the Belgian government. The Berlin conference of 1884 had assigned the territory – then known as Ruanda-Urundi – to the German Empire. After World War I, the area came under Belgian rule. Although both Rwanda and Burundi were European colonies, each country kept its monarchy throughout their colonial history.
The Kingdom of Rwanda was founded in 14th century, according to oral history. The royal line is divided up in three dynasties, the first dynasty ruling from about 1350 until 1506, the second dynasty from 1506 until 1600 and the third – and last – dynasty ruling between 1600 and 1961. The last two Mwami (monarchs) of Rwanda were Mutara III (b. 1912 (?) – d. 1959) and his younger brother, Kigeli V (b. 1936). Mutara III was the first Catholic Mwami of the country, and he embraced the colonisation and western way of life. Mutara III died under suspicious circumstances in 1959, and was succeeded by his younger brother Kigeli.
Kigeli faced a country in turmoil, with different ethnic groups constantly on the verge of war while the country itself was preparing its independence. Kigeli V had to abdicate after a coup d’etat in 1961 and a referendum in which the majority of the population voted against the monarchy. The coup had been supported by the Belgian government, who at the time were still in charge. Kigeli V is still alive, currently living in the USA. He still tries to play some sort of role in his country through the Kigeli V Foundation, which promotes humanitarian initiatives for Rwandese refugees.
Unfortunately, the turmoil in Rwanda didn’t end with the abdication and exile of Kigeli V. The ethnic tensions culminated in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Among the many thousands killed was also the Dowager Queen Rosalie Gicanda, wife of Mutara III, who had remained in Rwanda after the monarchy was abolished.
The Kingdom of Burundi was founded in the late 16th century. The names of the Mwami followed a cycle: Ntare (meaning ‘lion’), Mwezi (meaning ‘moon’), Mutaga, and Mwambutsa. According to the oral history, there have been 4 complete cycles, and the fifth had only just begun when the monarchy was abolished.
Like Rwanda, the colonial forces allowed the traditional monarchy to continue, although the Mwami didn’t have much political power any more under colonial rule. First part of German East Africa, then the Belgian mandate Ruanda-Urundi, the country finally started moving towards independence in the 1950s. The Kingdom of Burundi became independent on 1 July 1962, so unlike Rwanda, Burundi did have a ruling monarchy after its independence – even if only for a short time.
The history of the last two Mwami of Burundi reads like a Shakespearean play. Mwambutsa IV, born in 1912, succeeded his father in 1915 – when he was barely 3 years old. For the first few years of his reign there was a regency, first taken up by his mother, later by a regency council. When in 1919 the country came under Belgian rule, nothing much changed for him, in that the Belgians didn’t abolish the monarchy although the local government didn’t have much power. He reached majority in 1931 and was officially crowned as Mwami of Burundi.
Mwambutsa IV had two sons who play a significant role in this history: crown prince Louis Rwagasore (1932-1961) and prince Charles Ndizeye (1947-1972), his younger brother. Crown prince Louis Rwagasore was politically active, despite his father’s opposition. He had anti-colonialist sympathies and was one of the founders of the Union for National Progress (UPRONA). He called for civil disobedience in the last years of the Belgian rule, and at the same time constantly tried to promote understanding and peace between the different ethnic groups in the country. When UPRONA won the 1960 elections with 80%, crown prince Louis Rwagasore was appointed Prime Minister. His rule, however, was very short. He was assasinated on 28 September 1961, only 16 days after he became Prime Minister. Although there is little evidence, it has often been suggested that the assassin had been hired by some Belgians who didn’t like his political ideas. With the death of crown prince Louis Rwagasore, Burundi lost a great politician. Next in line was prince Charles Ndizeye, who was about 15 at the time. He became the next crown prince, but was not quite as popular as his brother.
When Burundi became an independent Kingdom in 1962, the Mwami chose to follow a liberal course, constantly promoting peace among the different ethnic groups and creating a constitutional monarchy. The ethnic tensions, however, caused great turmoil, and for the few years that Mwambutsa IV ruled his country independently, he saw no fewer than three Prime Ministers assassinated.
In July 1966, Mwambutsa IV was deposed by his 19-year-old son, crown prince Charles Ndizeye, who at that time was already ruling by way of regency since March of that same year. Mwambutsa went into exile to Switzerland, where he remained until his death in 1977.
Charles Ndizeye took on the name of Ntare V, and ruled until November 1966. While he was visiting the neighbouring Congo, he was deposed following a military coup. Burundi was proclaimed a republic, and Ntare V went into exile in West Germany. In march of 1972, however, he was captured during a visit to Uganda and then extradited to Burundi. He was put under house arrest at the former royal palace, and on 29 April 1972 he was murdered there.
His body, however, was buried in an anonymous grave, and nobody knew where it was hidden – until two years ago. Suddenly, a witness came forward, claiming he was the one who dug the grave. The half-sister of Ntare V, princess Rose-Paula, asked a team of world renowned geneticists to go to Burundi and find the body. The Burundian government agreed to the plan and even supported it. They hoped to find the body of the last King by the time the 50th anniversary of the Burundian independence came along, so they could give him an official re-burial and celebrate him as the symbol of unity which he has now become. The research was – at present – all in vain, and the Burundian independence has to be celebrated without Ntare V. The search for his body, however should continue.
Picture credits: collages by Kelly Lacroix and used with permission.
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