Inside Rwanda's Secret War in Burundi

By Jake W.

Edited by Brendan S.


Burundian security forces stand near the dead body of a rebel fighter, 2018. (Photo: AFP)

For the past five years, Rwanda has attempted to oust the government of its southern neighbor, Burundi. Rwanda’s Tutsi-dominant government sees Burundi’s government, and its ruling CNDD-FDD party, as a threat to its interests in the region, as Burundi is led predominantly by Hutus. This opposition to Hutu rule began even before the CNDD-FDD gained power. During Burundi’s devastating civil war from 1993 to 2005, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which later became Rwanda’s government, backed the Tutsi-led Burundian government alongside Tutsi extremist militias. This was to prevent Hutu militants, who perpetrated the Rwandan Genocide, from using Burundi as a base to launch raids into Rwanda, just as those in neighboring Congo did.

A rally of the CNDD-FDD party in Gitenga, 2020. (Evrard Ngendakumana/Reuters)

With the CNDD-FDD’s victory in the civil war, Rwandan interest in Burundi faded, although the country was being watched constantly. Rwanda-Burundi relations then began to improve, up until the March 23 Movement rebellion in 2012 and 2013. Rwanda supported it, and Burundi did not, causing a schism between the two countries. In 2015, another chance for a potential removal of the CNDD-FDD arose.


On April 25th of that year, the CNDD-FDD party announced that incumbent president Pierre Nkurunziza would be running for a third term. This angered members of the opposition, who went out into the streets in protest. Supporters of the CNDD-FDD, as well as the party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure (Kirundi for “those who see far”), went out to counter-protest. This caused violence on both sides and it seemed that Burundi was descending into another civil war.


The late Pierre Nkurunziza, the former President of Burundi. (Photo: Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana/Reuters)

On the 13th of May, General Godefroid Niyombare announced that the government had been ousted while President Nkurunziza was away in Tanzania. Several days later, loyalist forces defeated the coup attempt, and Nkurunziza returned to power. This wasn’t the end, however, as rebel soldiers who had supported the coup fled into neighboring Congo, where they formed armed groups to fight against the Burundian government.


General Niyombare fled to Rwanda, and the Rwandan government began its involvement in Burundi’s crisis. The two major rebel groups formed following the coup were the Resistance Movement for the Rule of Law in Burundi (RED-Tabara) and the Popular Forces of Burundi (FPB), previously called the Republican Forces of Burundi (FOREBU). The rebels established bases in Congo where they would launch raids into Burundi against state security forces.

Rwanda’s government saw these new rebellions as the chance they needed to finally oust the CNDD-FDD, and install an RPF-friendly government in the region. The first accusation of Rwandan collaboration with the rebels came from the Foreign Minister of Burundi, Alain Nyamitwe. Nyatimwe stated that Rwanda was helping rebel groups recruit fighters, and was allowing them free rein in Rwanda to launch cross-border raids. Rwanda denied this claim.


Then, the United Nations confirmed Nyamitwe’s claims. In a report released in 2016, UN experts on the region reported that they spoke to 18 Burundian rebel fighters, all of which claimed Rwanda had supplied them with arms and trained them. The fighters stated they had been recruited in a camp for refugees fleeing Burundi’s political crisis, and that they had received two months of military training from Rwandan military personnel. The camp they had trained at was also located in Rwanda, where they claimed that around 100 others were being trained to fight as well. Rwanda once again denied the accusations.


To this day, Rwanda continues to deny any involvement in Burundi, as well as any involvement in Congo, despite numerous proven accusations and pieces of evidence which run contradictory to this. Now, Burundian Congo-based rebels are collaborating with Tutsi rebels in the Congo as well. These Burundian rebels have also allegedly gained support from Rwanda. In late 2019, RED-Tabara launched a major incursion into Burundi, and in early 2020, rebel incursions once again appeared. While these rebellions have little chance of successfully overthrowing Burundi’s government, they have a major destabilizing effect on both Burundi and Congo. Rwandan support for the rebels is also unlikely to go away. Though, Rwanda will continue to officially deny its support of them, in spite of overwhelming evidence against its claims.