Written by Barbara Vi Thien Ho.
The legacy and the contribution of Ubushingantahe institution to justice and peace in Burundi is undeniable.  Through the turbulent times in Burundi, this institution was politicized and lost its credibility, but now Burundians desire its restoration as part of an effort to rebuild a new Burundi for all citizens.  Burundi is entering a post-conflict phase after decades of coups and massacres triggered by ethnic power struggle.  After the signing of the 2003 ceasefire agreement that put in place a transitional government, Burundians elected their second democratically elected president in 2005, Mr. Pierre Nkurunziza.  In April 2009, Agathon Rwasa, the leader of the rebel movement, Forces for National Liberation (FNL), that wreaked havoc on Burundi for decades, finally put his arms to rest and registered his movement as political party instead.  Today there is a relative peace in Burundi.
Discussion of peace amongst Burundian leaders, however, hasn’t occurred without the mentioning of the ubushingantahe council, a Burundian indigenous institution of wise leaders whose job has always been to peacefully resolve and prevent conflicts, maintain peace and stability amongst the people in the villages and towns.  When the nineteen parties involved in the Arusha peace talks met in 2000 to discuss a resolution, they noted how the abashingantahe had kept Burundi peaceful and stable prior to 1965.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1999 also extended support to the bashingantahe council, stating their ability to make decisions to benefit the society collectively without ethnic and political biases and discrimination.  The debate over democratization in 1989 and 1992 likewise seldom took place without discussion of the respected Ubushingantahe, and the need to restore this institution.The council traditionally held the ultimate power in handling local conflicts, holding judicial and executive responsibilities.  The selection of Ubushingantahe was a very serious process, ensuring that in every aspect of the candidates’ lives they have exuded the high virtues and morality expected of Bashingantahe councilors.  Once accepted into the council, the Mushingantahe gives a public oath to serve the people wholeheartedly and honestly, in the way the Sebarundi, the father of the nation and Imana (God) would.  This ceremony seals the moral contract between the society members and their new leaders.  Following the ceremony, the new mushingantahe shadowed a mentor, or Umuhetsi, during a two-year period to prepare him for his pending role.  Through this process, he would gain the capacity to mediate and lead in order to support his community.  Because of the interdependence stressed in the community, the decisions of the ubushingantahe were made in the best interests of the people collectively, in order to maintain peace, stability, and to avoid acts of vengeance.
The power and influence that the members of the Bashingantahe council have on the people – even their political leaders – cannot be underestimated.  In fact, in 1958 when the Belgian authorities threatened to take away one of the locally owned palaces, the council exerted their influence to force the Belgians to annul the contract, and pressured the king of Burundi into refusing the check they offered.  Intimidated by the ubushingantahe’s leverage in the community, postcolonial leaders stripped the people from their power to self-select Abashingantahe, and appointed the council members from their political position. The indigenous council of moral leaders became tangled up in politics, and the trust of the people in the ubushingantahe dwindled.  As it stands currently, there are two national bodies similar to that of the bashingantahe council.  The national bashingantahe council consists of members appointed by the president, while the Monitoring Committee of the Arusha Accords consists of two members from each political party appointed by the negotiators.
Yet, the bashingantahe council holds tremendous untapped potential in helping to bring forth reconciliation and peace within the Burundian community.  Despite President Pierre Nkurunziza’s stated intentions in 2008 to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and any support from international bodies, efforts towards peace and justice from the top can only extend its influence so far.  Peace agreements signed by the political leaders halt the physical violence by enforcing power sharing among warlords, and truth commissions achieve a degree of justice, but restoring a functioning and independent Ubushingantahe is vital to building a stable foundation for social harmony, justice, peace and democracy.
As a part of the international community, the United States, too, has the ability to support – not drive – these local processes of justice.  Africa Faith and Justice Network’s position is that a fair and uncorrupted Bushingantahe has the power to contribute to the unification and reconciliation that Burundians desire.  By encouraging the Burundian government to put the power of appointing ubushingantahe back into the hands of the people, the United States can help ensure that the bashingantahe council retains their original role as independent preservers of justice, truth and reconciliation.  Even more, the United States should encourage and push for the inclusion in the council members of the traditionally marginalized groups, namely, women and the Batwa, a Burundian minority ethnic group.  Ensuring equal representation in the council is key to reconciliation amongst Burundians.  After decades of war and violence, now is the time for reconciliation and peace in Burundi.
For more information on the role of the Ubushingantahe council in Burundi, refer to the Boston Consortium’s report .