This Burundi king was buried in Geneva, but his nation wanted him back

Forty years after his death, Burundi's government wanted to give King Mwambutsa IV a state funeral. But the old king’s niece disagreed, and the ensuing legal fight has drawn attention to an ongoing national crisis.

Photo by: Getty Images
Photo by: Getty Images

King Mwambutsa IV King of Burundi rides in a Glide Aride during his visit to the fair, May 26, 1964.

After five years of legal limbo, the remains of Burundi's deposed king Mwambutsa IV, who died 40 years ago, were reburied in Switzerland last Friday.

The king’s niece fought a state-led battle to have him buried in Burundi, but the king's will stipulated that his remains should not be returned to his homeland.

The small, intimate ceremony in a Geneva cemetery was conducted under police protection, the ATS news agency reported.

But why was the former Burundian king buried in Switzerland — and not in his homeland?

In July 1962, Burundi’s bid for independence also ushered in a new king. The monarch and now head of state was a member of Ganwa, Burundi’s royal class that is largely ethnic Tutsi.

Mwambutsa IV Bangiriceng of Burundi (1912 - 1977) at a conference of African heads of state in Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia, May 25, 1963. (Getty Images)

In those first years of independence, governed by a popular king, Burundi was relatively calm.

The Burundian King appointed the nation’s first Hutu leader, Pierre Ngendandumwe as prime minister. But after serving another term, the premier was assassinated by a Rwandan Tutsi refugee on January 7, 1965.

Grégoire Kayibanda (C) President of the Republic and Premier of Rwanda, surrounded by (L-R) Pierre Ngunzu, Pierre Ngendandumwe, Burundi representative, Katinati, Gaspard Cyimana, Andre Dequae, Belgium Finance minister, Theo Lefevre, Paul-Henri Spaak, Belgium Premier, Maurice Brasseur, Belgium Trade minister and Otto Rusingizandekwe, on December 08, 1961, in Brussels. (Getty Images)

Four months after that incident, Hutu candidates gained a majority in nationwide elections.

Mwambutsa then deposed their prime minister Joseph Bamina, appointing instead a Tutsi candidate Leopold Biha in late 1965.

This incident would soon lead to the end of the monarchy in Burundi, with Mwambutsa eventually moving to Switzerland, and into exile.

He also left a last will and testament that said he wanted to be buried in Geneva —and never be taken back to his country.

Mwambutsa may have likened the shores of Lake Geneva to to Lake Tanganyika, where it was said that he could watch the lights of Bujumbura, the nation’s capital.

An era of coups begin

In October 1965, after the deposition of the Hutu prime minister, a coup attempt led by Hutu-dominated police was carried out.

Along with a Hutu purge, violent battles that claimed lives of thousands of people ensued.

That is when King Mwambutsa fled the country, designating his only surviving son, Prince Ntare V, to exercise powers on his behalf.

The king was deposed by his teenage son in July 1966. Shortly after, a Tutsi army Captain Michel Micombera declared that the monarchy was over, and appointed himself president. Decades of genocide and coups followed suit.

Refugees sit at Saga camp October 29, 1993 in Burundi. An attempted military coup four months after Burundi''s first free democratic election resulted in the assassination of president Ndadaye and the beginning of a period of interethnic fighting in which 150,000 civilians were killed. (Getty Images)

A symbolic reconciliation that failed

Mwambutsa died in Switzerland in 1977,  after 11 years of exile and was buried there.

In 2012, Mwambutsa’s daughter Princess Paula Rosa Iribagiza, backed by the government of Burundi, filed a legal case for the late King’s body to be exhumed, and repatriated to the homeland.

She hoped that a formal state burial with a much-loved figure could help the nation reconcile.

But the former King’s niece Esther Kamatari opposed the exhumation, insisting that his wishes should be honoured. She argued that his remains should stay in Geneva.

“My uncle, Mwambutsa IV, was extremely far-sighted. He foresaw that his remains might be instrumentalised and arouse certain wishes. That’s why he protected himself with his testament arrangements,” she told Swissinfo.

Switzerland's federal court, the nation's highest legal authority, has sided with Kamatari.

The former Burundi king's niece and exiled princess Esther Kamatari. (AFP)

She suggests that none of the Burundian authorities have paid tribute to her uncle — a great gentleman, she says, who had done much for the country. "Behind the parades and the bands, no word on the signatory of the act of independence."

Conflict still haunts Burundi

The small African country has been battered by political strife since President Pierre Nkurunziza sought and won a third term in 2015. His opponents say that he violated the constitution as well as the terms of a peace deal that ended a brutal civil war in 2005.  

Just last Tuesday, a rights group said Burundi’s Nkurunziza and his ruling party have moved the country towards a violent dictatorship.

A "purge" of ethnic Tutsis from the army, a crackdown on opposition and media and a bid to change the constitution to allow unlimited presidential terms are signs of an "increasingly violent dictatorial regime," the International Federation for Human Rights (known by its French acronym, FIDH) said.

At least 500 people have been killed in ensuing violence, according to the UN — although rights groups put the figure at over 1,000 — and more than 400,000 have fled the country since the crisis began.

Demonstrators celebrate what they perceive to be an attempted military coup, as they surround a police truck in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. (AP)

In their report, the FIDH and partner groups describe how the ruling party has tightened its stranglehold during a two-year conflict. It details accounts of Tutsi soldiers who have disappeared, been arrested or brutally tortured or found dead.

The report also warns that without international intervention, Nkurunziza could succeed in reversing history and establishing a Hutu-controlled regime based on a mono-ethnic army under the control of the authorities.

Jean Claude Niyonzima, a suspected member of the ruling party's Imbonerakure youth militia, pleads with soldiers to protect him from a mob of demonstrators after he emerged from hiding in a sewer in the Cibitoke district of Bujumbura, Burundi on Thursday, May 7, 2015. (AP)

For Burundi, which has a long history of violence between Hutu and Tutsi communities, "this would represent a major risk for peace in the country, as in the region."

But Burundi has repeatedly denied waging a campaign of repression, and has harshly criticised UN warnings of genocide.