Burundi plans for peace

September 7, 2001

Burundi has fewer university students per head than any other African country. A recent independent report, by International Alert, called the state of its education "desperate".

Since independence in 1962, this small central African country has seen almost constant violence between Hutu and Tutsi, with several assassinated prime ministers. Burundi is racked by poverty, malnutrition and malaria. But according to IA's report, Equal Access to Education: a Peace Imperative for Burundi, education is the key to resolving the conflict.

"Exclusion has been at the root of Burundi's conflicts," the report says. "Exclusion begins with differential access to education."

Though Burundi's, like Rwanda's, conflict has been characterised as ancient tribal hatreds, Hutu and Tutsi speak the same language, share customs, and live intermingled throughout the country. But the Belgian colonial power deliberately elevated the minority Tutsis to an elite - with good schooling, university education and jobs - leaving the majority Hutu population uneducated and resentful.

Today, one-third of the population enjoys two-thirds of its education services. In 1972, education was the flashpoint for massacres by a Tutsi elite nervous of Hutus gaining power. Almost every Hutu with a high-school certificate in Bujumbura, the capital, was murdered.

Thirty years later, the capital, and power base, is overwhelmingly Tutsi from the southern province of Bururi. Tutsis from other regions have less chance of getting on to the prized university courses - law and economics - that ensure good state jobs. Hutus have virtually no chance.

At the sole state university in Bujumbura, Hutu students are a minority. Many were killed here in 1995-96 by Tutsi student militias and the situation is still tense.

But there are grounds for optimism. A new university has been founded in the northern city of Ngozi, with a remit to widen access to education. It is entering its third year with 600 students.

Its assistant legal counsel is former prime minister Pascal Firmin Ndimira, proving it has good connections, and there are rumours that financial support comes from powerful foreign Christian Democrat groups and other church sources (Burundi is 80 per cent Catholic).

Lecturers have been enticed from the state university with improved pay and resources are impressive.

The university may not balance Burundi's skewed education provision - only one in 100 primary school children reaches university - but other private universities are in the planning stages.

"Whether we can succeed depends on whether the peace process continues. It might just work," Mr Ndimira said.

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