Sandra Rubli: Transitional Justice and State-Formation in Burundi

PhD-Project, Political Science, University of Basel

In Burundi’s various cycles of violence mobilization occurred, among other factors, along ethnic lines. As a result there are two divergent readings of what happened, one related to who is responsible and one related to who the victims are. In the context of a post-conflict state-formation process local actors are struggling to ensure a representation of their version of history as depicted in memorials and in the search for legitimacy and the strengthening of their position.


Memoralization and memorials are a rather under-researched topic within the field of transitional justice. Memoralization is simultaneously both remembrance of the past and shaping of the future. In contrast to memory which is dynamic, everchanging and affected by the progression of time, memorials are ‘set in stone’ suggesting an idea or fact that been placed in its ultimate form, often beyond debate or contradiction. As memorials often reflect tragic events of violent conflicts, the process of determining what shape a memorial should take and how it should be used is a highly politicized process. Thus political actors are negotiating and competing for the shape and form of memorials, and especially for the version of historical narrative or past which they reflect.


As part of a PhD study, this research looks at three memorials in Burundi which remember the killing of Tutsi students (Kibimba), a massacre of the Hutu population (Itaba) and all victims of the various cycles of violence since the country’s independence (Gitega). The memorial in Kibimba was erected by the then president of Burundi on the initiative of the parents of the killed students. The memorial in Itaba was constructed during the election campaign in 2005. Finally, the construction and design of the national monument in Gitega was undertaken by the current ruling party CNDD-FDD. Using the example of these three memorials this research analyzes how Burundian political actors compete, shape and negotiate a certain version of the past in the quest for legitimacy and power in the post-conflict state formation process in Burundi. It addresses issues such as which and whose history is depicted in the memorials, on whose initiatives they have been constructed, and how they are perceived by the population living in the surroundings. Therefore interviews with high-ranking politicians, experts and ‘ordinary’ citizens have been conducted, various news papers and radio broadcasts have been analyzed and several official ceremonies have been observed and attended.

Preliminary results

Although the national monument in Gitega is supposed to be a ‘symbol for national reconciliation’ it is highly contested by opposition political parties. This might be due to the fact that they have not been included in the choice of the design, location and the depicted meaning of the memorial. The local memorials in Itaba and Kibimba which remember specific events during the violent conflict in Burundi are perceived by politicians of all colours as a Hutu and Tutsi memorial respectively, thus legitimizing claims of genocide. While the population living in the surrounding areas of those memorials consider memorials as important for a reconciliation process, they do not agree on whether there should be one national monument which remembers all victims or whether there should be different local memorials which remember specific violent events. Having said this, they do generally accept the presence of a local memorial remembering the victims of the ‘other’ ethnic group. This question of the local significance of memorials is contested against a background of a perception by some that the process of reconciliation and the significance of memorials are in fact imposed from ‘above’ by the (national) administration and politicians.


Funding: Schweizer Nationalfond

Supervisor: Laurent Goetschel

Duration: 2009-2012

Download Poster: Negotiating history: Memorials in the contested history of
Burundi (2012)

Links: G3S

Download: Working paper: Transitional Justice: Justice by Bureaucratic Means?