Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.4 - Keepers of the Peace

Keepers of the Peace:

Reviving the Tradition of Bashingantahe in Burundi

Louis-Marie Nindorera

Since October 1993, Burundi has been engulfed in a deadly civil war characterised by confrontations between political parties and armed groups. Millions of Burundian civilians have been affected by the violence. Although Burundi s recent history has been interspersed with inter-ethnic massacres in cyclical phases, the present crisis, which has developed over the past ten years, is unprecedented.

Estimates vary as to the number of persons who have been affected by the conflict, some quoting a figure of 100,000 killed and about 400,000 internally displaced. At the social and cultural levels, the consequences have been less dramatic but more subtle, seriously compromising the future. The civil war has reached uncontrollable levels, and each passing year sees a palpable and rapid deterioration in the overall standards of economic and social life; the use of force and the power of arms and money, at the expense of the rule of law, are perceived to be 'normal' With this deregulation of Burundian society, the phase of the conflict which began in October 1993 has engendered innumerable sub-conflicts around issues such as family, property, succession and descent. It is against this backdrop of permanent conflict and sub-conflicts that a new debate has begun on the reinstatement of the institution of Bashingantahe.

For over two centuries, up to colonial times, the term Bashingantahe was used to designate a body of men renowned for their sense of truth, justice, and responsibility for the overall good; they were an organised corporate group in whom was vested the social, political and judicial power of their society. "In the Burundian tradition, the role of the Bashingantahe was:

(Ntabona 1995).

As keepers of the peace, they played a major part in the processes of conciliation and arbitration. Most of the disputes in which they were expected to intervene pertained to property, but they engaged in other types of conciliation on family or other matters. They were not, however, empowered to intervene in matters concerning injustices committed by the Baganwa (chiefs) or the King, such as the imposition of exile (kwomora, kwangaza) or occurrences of cattle raiding (kunyaga) (Ngorwanubusa 1991).

A prospective member of the Bashingantahe had to prove his merit by his general behaviour and attitude, his deeds and public statements. In 1991 a group of Burundian university researchers carried out a study on former Bashingantahe. The study revealed that the most important perceived attributes of a Bashingantahe candidate were 'heart and intelligence. The Mushingantahe title was conferred upon the most deserving person(s) by a council of Bashingantahe at the end of a period of preparation, training and initiation to the function. This process was of indeterminate duration; according to a study undertaken by Bishop Adrien Ntabona, it could take between three months and three years (Ntabona 1991). Finally, the process would be officialised by means of a ceremony presided over by the council of Bashingantahe, in the presence of the 'godfather of the chosen person.

Only males of the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups were eligible for this function members of the Twa ethnic group, and all women, being excluded. According to popular legend, people of these categories were perceived as having certain undesirable characteristics, women reputedly not being able to keep secrets, and the Twa supposedly displaying traits of insensitivity to human suffering. Accounts exist in Burundian mythology to justify these claims. An additional criterion was that candidates be over 25, the age at which a man was assumed to have reached the desired level of maturity and experience. Finally, while the possession of great wealth was certainly not a criterion for entry to the Bashingantahe, access was definitely denied to poor men or beggars because of the inherent risk to their probity resulting from their social condition. The same rule applied to indebted persons.

A distinction must be made between membership of the institution of Bashingantahe, and possession of the elevated individual status of Mushingantahe. Although a person bearing the latter title is entitled to the respect of his community, his membership in the corps of the Bashingantahe confers even greater honour.

Jean-Baptiste Ntahokaja has pointed out that "the term Bashingantahe is more than just an abstract concept representing the corporate version of the term 'Ubushingantahe'. It indicates the wide-ranging powers of the Bashingantahe as a body, as opposed to the limited individual sphere of action" (Ntahokaja 1993).

Current moves to restore the institution are based on the belief that a return to traditional cultural values, and to traditional methods of conflict resolution at the level of the smallest territorial unit, could greatly contribute to the restoration of peace and stability in Burundi. In its essence, this practice seeks to identify persons at community level who possess the desired attributes of wisdom, calm and a love of truth, entrusting them with the authority to arbitrate in certain disputes. While Bashingantahe has lost some of its power, it remains alive as an institution. Although modified and even misused over time, it nonetheless remains a repository of the positive values cultivated by the institution, such as truth and courage.

This explains the wish of many Burundians to see the order of the Bashingantahe restored, for the fulfillment of the following functions:

The debate on reviving the tradition did not commence with the present phase of the conflict. In August 1988 following ethnic massacres in the neighbouring communes of Ntega and Marangara in northern Burundi where some sources claim as many as 25,000 people died the one-year-old regime of Major Pierre Buyoya established a commission to investigate the question of national unity. In its report, the commission recommended the revival of the institution of Bashinga nta he, and constituted a team of university researchers to reflect in depth on the subject. This resulted in the publication by the commission of a multidisciplinary study in July 1991, which recommended that the Bashingantahe tradition be reinstated in a form better suited to present-day conditions.

In effect, the institution of Bashingantahe required some updating:

Over time, the institution had been progressively weakened. Firstly, missionaries had relieved the Bashingantahe of their power to intervene in matters involving Christian couples. Secondly, the introduction of customary courts by the Belgian colonial rulers reduced the Bashingantahe to the status of a consultative voice and mere assessors (abacamanza); they became civil servants answerable to the colonial administration rather than to the population at large. Having no respect for the institution, the colonial administration reduced the Bashingantahe to executors of their orders; they thus lost their popular image of grandeur, neutrality and independence. Finally, under colonialism the criteria for nominating young persons to office were the possession of basic primary school education, a knowledge of Swahili which enabled them to communicate directly with whites, or bearing office within village churches (Ntabona 1991). The essential element of Bashingantahe, that of moral values, was ignored.

After Burundi's independence these trends were entrenched to the extent that the body of Bashingantahe was for all practical purposes dissolved, and magistrates became the only persons with the authority to dispense justice. The only criterion was possession of classical formal education, while the moral values which had been required by tradition were overlooked. Under President Bagaza's regime, an attempt was made to restore the institution. The law of February 4, 1987 instituted reforms to the judicial code, specifically stipulating that "throughout the Republic, any dispute at the level of hillside village communities shall be arbitrated by a council of respected persons" (art. 209); the "council of respected persons" refers to the Bashingantahe. This law gave the council of respected persons the right to "advise on all civil suits in local courts" (art. 210), and "to advise on the apportionment of damages payable as a result of any suit that is within the jurisdiction of the local court" (art. 211 para.l). However, the council of respected persons should refrain from all repressive judicial practices (art. 211 para.2). The law stipulated that the composition of the council of respected persons and the procedures used by it should reflect "local usage with regard to the norms of professional secrecy and public order" (art. 212). In addition, "at the start of investigations into a civil suit by the local tribunal, the latter is bound to ensure that the council of respected persons has received notice of the matter" (art. 215).

Regrettably, under the one-party state, the government tended to confer the complex functions of Mushingantahe on individuals already holding positions within the state's own territorial administration structures, notably those fulfilling the duties of local party committee chiefs.

Though the modern version of the institution was something of a travesty of tradition, it would be mistaken to assume that in its traditional form the institution of Bashingantahe was without fault, or that the modern version had no redeeming features. A contemporary case will illustrate to what extent the Bashingantahe dispensed justice in full conformity with their expected role, and in the knowledge that they had to conform to the traditional approaches to conciliation and arbitration.

The case is documented by Professor Pascal Ndayishinguje, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Burundi. A suit was presented for appeal to the council of notables of the hillside commune of Kivyeyi, having been 'sent up' from a lower judicial body. The case occurred in the period of the one-party state, and involved two persons: 65-year-old Marcien Karushwa, a Mushingantahe in the 1950s and at the time of this case, first secretary of the party s local chapter in Kivyeyi commune; and Emile Wakana, a young newlywed farmer of about 30 years of age, who was not a member of the council of notables.

Mr. Karushwa had entered a local bar, where Mr. Wakana was drinking banana beer and listening to his radio, placed on the somewhat wobbly counter. As Mr. Karushwa leant onto the counter, some of its planks moved, throwing Wakana s radio on the ground, causing it to break and immediately stop functioning. At the first court hearing, Mr. Karushwa lost the case. At the second hearing, the owner of the radio declared before the notables: "In my opinion, he did not display any arrogance towards me it was an accident and I would readily excuse him for it."

Karushwa and Wakana were each given the opportunity to detail the events, to the attentive ears of the notables who then summarised their statements, and checked with each one as to whether their positions had been accurately recorded, They then asked the disputants a number of questions in order to clarify the position of each and to obtain details on the exact sequence of events. Witnesses were then requested to give testimony under oath, and the notables asked each of the disputants in the case whether the witnesses had made truthful statements; this was followed by a debate. Finally, deliberation and judgment took place, and the two concerned parties were asked to give an opinion on the whole process. In the eyes of the researcher, this relatively minor incident offers an opportunity to examine some of the requisite qualities of a member of the council of respected persons, namely:

Wakana, defeated in the first phase of the case, won the appeal.

Following the earlier (1970) recommendation of the Commission on National Unity, and the recommendations of other bodies on the subject, in March 1997 President Buyoya s government decreed the establishment of a National Council of Bashinganta he. Its members took office on April 3, 1997. The Council of Bashingantahe consists of about 40 men and women drawn from all ethnic and social groups, including youth, elders, peasants, Protestant and Catholic priests, former senior civil servants, etc. It is headed by a Chairman, assisted by a Vice-Chairman and Secretary; the latter sets the agendas of the council meetings, which generally take place over a two-day period.

Membership of the Council is entirely voluntary. Several meetings of national interest have taken place since its establishment, on issues which have included that of negotiations between the government and the armed rebels, and the types of institution which are suited to Burundi s needs. High-ranking persons, including the President of the Republic, attend these meetings to discuss with Council members specific issues of national interest. However, these debates, occurring within a body that is to a certain extent divided and inconclusive in its decisions, have not as yet had much impact on public opinion, in spite of having produced numerous recommendations to date.

Even at its creation, the Council had little impact on the population. Many observers believe that it was too hastily established, and that the method of nomination by Presidential decree (even though large-scale consultation was observed), deprived the Council of true legitimacy or moral authority. Indeed, the Council has had little impact either on Burundians as a whole or on state institutions, possessing only the theoretical authority conferred by the said decree.

The incapacity of the Bashingantahe National Council to influence the course of events, attitudes and opinions of Burundians should not be interpreted to mean that the people have permanently lost faith in the institution. The fact that Burundians continue to refer to it demonstrates their underlying respect for its procedures and authority. It remains to be seen whether a relationship of trust can develop between Mushingantahe and ordinary Burundians, to the extent that the former receive due respect for their words and decisions. A Mushingantahe whose moral probity is in any doubt would have less credibility than one who fits all of the traditional criteria and has been chosen in the traditional and legitimate manner.

The problem of the reinstatement of the institution of Bashingantahe raises acutely the question of dialogue amongst Burundians indispensable if this policy is to succeed. The violence which has engulfed the country over the past four years has resulted in an extreme polarisation of opinions and attitudes, and divisions along ethnic lines. This polarisation, resulting from fear and from acute and permanent feelings of insecurity, has had the negative result of placing ethnic ties over and above all other norms. With members of each ethnic group believing that they have a monopoly on suffering, the peace process has been reduced to a debate on vital ethnic interests. The very notions of justice and injustice are perceived through the subjective criterion of ethnocentricity. A number of crucial issues will have to be examined before it is possible to reinstate the Bashingantahe, an institution of great relevance to all Burundians.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in Track Two, a publication of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and the Media Peace Centre. This article translated from the French by Marian Matshikiza


Ntabona, Bishop A (1995) "Suggestions to Escape from Ethnic Totalitarianism", from Au Coeur de l Afrique No 1.

Ngorwanubusa, Prof J (1991) "The Institution of Bashingantahe and the Universal Ideal of Mankind", in Multidisciplinary Study on the Revival of the Institution of Bashingantahe. Bujumbura:University of Burundi.

Ntabona, Bishop A (1991) "The Institution of Bashingantahe in Burundi: tradition and modernity", in Multidisciplinary Study on the Revival of the Institution of Bash ingantahe. Bujumbura: University of Burundi.

Ntahokaja, Prof I-B (1993) "A Plea for Africa", quoted by Prof Phillippe Ntahombaye in "Burundi: ways to deal with the crisis", from Au Coeur de LAfrique No 1, 1995.

Rutake, Prof P (1991) "Control and the Regulation of Power by means of the Institution of Bashingantahe", in Multidisciplinary Study on the Revival of the Institution of Bashinganta he. Bujumbura: University of Burundi.

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