The weaponization of memory in Burundi

By Vishnu Bachani /Africa as a Country/ – Sometimes called “Burundi’s Lumumba,” Prince Louis Rwagasore (1932–1961)—better known as Ludoviko or Rudoviko Rwagasore in his home country—has been one of the few political figures in modern Burundian history to be remembered fondly across ethnic and social lines. Rwagasore became Burundi’s first elected prime minister in 1961. Historian Christine Deslaurier asks, “How could such a distant prince, comparable to a Tutsi … resist … the political and military ethnicization, the multiparty system, and the emergence of a public space? How can Rwagasore still be magnified by the Burundians, a priori unanimously, when other heroes of African independence suffer the horrors of memory erosion or historical depreciation?”

African independence leaders such as Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, and Amílcar Cabral have been immortalized internationally in fictionalized and documentary films, stylized visages and icons, theater and literature, and art works across virtually all media. Rwagasore—in spite of popularity in his home country and his international connections to Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, and Gamal Abdel Nasser—has received only a fraction of such artistic appropriation, and his memory and legacy have been manufactured, utilized, lionized, and weaponized in equal measure through modern Burundi’s tumultuous political history.

Former Ugandan Ambassador to Burundi Edgar Tabaro writes:

Prince Rwagasore was a towering figure and certainly belonged to the league of Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkurumah [sic] and the like. Born of privilege (he was crown prince), he opted instead to champion the cause of the masses. He was a leftist and pursued policies of egalitarianism in a country that had deep-rooted class (some writers wrongly call the classes ethnic groups) system with the Tutsi pastoralists at the top, Hutu cultivators at the bottom and the hunter gatherers, the Twa, largely living on the margins of life.

Indeed, class conflicts between the Tutsi (historically the ruling minority) and the Hutu (the historical and present majority) have run through much of Burundi’s post-independence history, including civil wars in the 1970s and 1990s and the assassinations of several heads of state. Rwagasore’s party, the Union pour le Progrès National (UPRONA), formed in alliance with Hutu leader Paul Mirerekano, sought to mend class-ethnic conflict from the onset, and Rwagasore’s marriage to Marie-Rose Ntamikevyo, a Hutu, ostracized him from the royalty while reinforcing his commitment to the abolition of ethnic division.

His demotic approach to political coalition-building, his advocacy for Burundian self-sufficiency and worker co-operatives, and his increasingly forceful calls for independence prompted Belgian colonial authorities to issue a decree in 1960 prohibiting royalty from running for political office. Rwagasore was placed under house arrest for six weeks and UPRONA consequently lost the 1960 elections, but the intervention of the United Nations in 1961 to oversee new elections saw him elected as prime minister on September 18, 1961. Less than a month later, on October 13, Rwagasore was shot dead in Usumbura (now known as Bujumbura). Though the assassin was Greek national Jean Kageorgis, accompanied by Burundian members of the pro-Belgian Parti Démocratique Chrétien, Kageorgis himself accused Belgian colonial authorities of the murder a day before his own execution, and later historians and journalists such as Ludo de Witte and Guy Poppe drew upon recently unsealed archives to point to evidence of a Belgian conspiracy as well. (Burundi officially accused Belgium of the murder in 2018.) Rwagasore’s two daughters died under mysterious circumstances months after his assassination, and his wife died of poisoning in 1973. Since the death of Rwagasore, his memory and legacy as an anticolonial revolutionary has been co-opted and utilized by dominant political parties for the manufacturing of unity to ensure hegemonic control. Christine Deslaurier writes “his death was put at the service of a hegemonic UPRONA project that was very different from the one he had promoted during his lifetime. In his name, this party was able to claim a monopoly of power dominated by Tutsi elites who sabotaged his open and unitary vision of monarchical government, paving the way for an exclusive one-party regime.”

Banknotes with Rwagasore’s portrait were printed and diffused to the most rural corners of the country, October 13 was made a national holiday, and a mausoleum overlooking Bujumbura was financed by stamps bearing his visage. When Jean-Baptiste Bagaza—also from UPRONA—seized power in the 1976 coup d’état, his eleven-year presidency was marked by a distancing from Rwagasore: the October 13 holiday was abolished and the Jeunesse Révolutionnaire Rwagasore were replaced by the Union de la Jeunesse Révolutionnaire du Burundi. This flipped again after the 1987 coup d’état, in which UPRONA Major Pierre Buyoya became president from 1987-1993 and revitalized Rwagasore’s memory with the Institut Rwagasore and a call for renewed national unity.

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