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A Church Captured: The Battle for Control of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Burundi — Part 1


Editor’s Note: In this six-part series for Spectrum, journalist Godfrey Sang explores the current tensions in the Adventist church in Burundi. This article originally appeared in the current Spectrum print journal (volume 48, issue 1), and will be reprinted online in full over the next two weeks.

On October 24, 2019, the president of the Burundi Union Mission (BUM), Lamec Barishinga, was arrested just as he tried to leave Bujumbura, Burundi for Nairobi, Kenya to attend the East-Central Africa Division (ECD) year-end meeting. The arrest sent shockwaves across Adventist circles around the world. This was the culmination of a series of conflicts between the ECD, BUM, and the General Conference (GC) over the presidency of BUM. Joseph Ndikubwayo, who was named president of BUM in 2015, maintains that the East-Central Africa Division unfairly replaced him with Barishinga in 2019, and the General Conference ratified that ECD decision. Ndikubwayo continues to function as president of BUM with the support of the government, while Barishinga sits in jail.

The crisis in the Adventist church in Burundi is like no other in the world. Multiple layers of socio-historical and ethno-political issues, including complications of regional tensions and cross-border rivalries, sensitivities over focus by the international community, and an impending general election have all conspired, one way or another, to create a crisis unlike any other in Adventist history. Caught in the middle of it are ordinary Adventists who are now unable to attend church in the manner they did before or even freely associate with one another due to divergent opinions and loyalties. Institutional leaders are under government custody and police have repeatedly been called to intervene in often violent skirmishes that have involved loss of property. Images of police beating up members inside churches went viral and the General Conference president, Ted N. C. Wilson, called for prayers for the church in Burundi. At the heart of the crisis are issues of institutional legitimacy, the management of transitions, and the place of government in religious affairs.

Historical and Contextual Background

Burundi is a landlocked nation in Eastern Africa, bounded on the north by Rwanda, on the east and south by Tanzania, and on the west by Lake Tanganyika and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the early fourteenth century, the Hutu began occupying the present highlands of the country following the eastward Bantu migration from the Congo Basin. They are said to have imposed their language and customs on the Twa people, the area’s original inhabitants. A century later, the Tutsi arrived from the north and developed an organized kingdom, establishing themselves as feudal rulers. The Tutsi kings, or mwamis, became the monarchs of distinct kingdoms in Burundi and Rwanda.

The area that is now Burundi was colonized in the late nineteenth century by Germany, jointly with what is today Rwanda, under the name Rwanda-Urundi.1 The Belgians took over when Germany lost its colonies during WWI and administered it under military occupation from 1916 to 1922. Thereafter, Belgium obtained a League of Nations mandate to rule over the territory which lasted until April 1946, when the region became a United Nations Trust Territory under Belgium. When the United Nations granted independence to the territory in 1962, the area was divided into two countries: the Republic of Rwanda and the Kingdom of Burundi.

Burundi is one of Africa’s smallest countries with an area of 10,747 sq. mi. (27,834 sq. km.), but it has one of the highest population densities on the continent. Most Burundians live in family groupings dispersed throughout the highlands, and villages are uncommon. The official languages are Kirundi (which differs slightly from the Kinyarwanda spoken in Rwanda) and French. Kiswahili is also widely spoken along Lake Tanganyika.2

The chief ethnic groups in Burundi are the Hutu and the Tutsi, who traditionally comprised 85% and 14% of the population respectively, with the Twa making up the difference.

As in Rwanda, the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic rivalry has been the dominant feature of Burundian society for a long time. This has almost always defined the national socio-political discourse and the church is usually never left too far behind in the complications of the ethnic matrix of society. Unlike in Rwanda, marriages between Hutu and Tutsi were common in Burundi but that did not quite remove ethnic tensions, partly because society is strongly patrilineal, making identity quite inflexible. Unlike most countries where different ethnic groups live in separate homelands, the Hutu and Tutsi live together, speak the same language, and are separated only by their heritage.

The politicization of ethnicity and social stratification along ethnic lines, coupled with deep poverty, have served to cause ethnic particularism and unending resentments between the two dominant groups. This severe and often violent problem in Burundi is compounded by high unemployment, high population density, environmental stress, and, to some extent, external factors.3 The situation even crossed borders, and rivalries between Rwanda and Burundi and other nations within the region only added to domestic ethnic tensions. These, and other inexplicable reasons, have played their part in incubating ethnic (and consequently political) instability which in turn has severely affected Burundi’s productive capacity, locking the nation in a vicious circle.

PART I: The Coming of Adventism to Burundi

The Adventist church in Burundi began in 1925 with the work of D. E. Delhove, a Belgian Adventist missionary who had worked in Kenya and Rwanda. He settled at a site at Buganda in Cibitoke, some 31 miles (50 km) from Usumbura in the west of Burundi, where he established the Buganda Mission. He remained there for a year, after which the work was taken over by one of the Rwandese missionaries who had accompanied him.

Maxine Duplouy, a French missionary, took over in 1927. In 1931, the Urundi Mission was organized and officially became a part of the Congo Union Mission (CUM) which was transferred from the Northern European Division (NED) to the Southern African Division (SAD).

A second mission station was established in 1936 at Ndora, not far from Buganda. In 1937, Hans J. Moolman of South Africa arrived to run the Ndora Mission while Valentine Davies and his wife ran the Buganda Mission. By this time there were eleven schools attached to the Buganda Mission and twelve teachers working there.4

The Adventist schools did not discriminate among the tribes and indeed everyone was invited to become a member. The missionaries tended to play down the tribal differences, because they were only interested in the expansion of the church.

In 1932, C. W. Bozarth, president of the Central African Union Mission, which now included Rwanda-Burundi, reported on the progress of the hospital at Ngoma, where Dr. J. H. Sturges was stationed,5 plus, the four fields under the CAUM: the North Ruanda Mission Field, the South Ruanda Mission Field (which covered the Gitwe Mission and was also the headquarters of the CAUM), and the West Urundi Mission Field, which was based at Buganda.

Missionary J. L. Robinson wrote in 1932, about his experiences in the four mission stations at the CAUM. He had come as a special guest to the camp meetings and reported the tremendous growth of the church at that time. Within the first seven months of 1932, some 2,100 new converts had joined the church. The entry into the area, already heavily dominated by the Catholic church, caused a stir in the established denominations and the Adventist evangelists were actively barred from evangelizing by both the chiefs and the Catholic White Fathers.6 In the Tutsi/Hutu rivalry, many Tutsi had become Catholic. Interest in the Adventist church peaked in August when well over 3,500 people attended camp meeting at Gitwe and 4,200 attended the Rwankeri camp meeting. It was reported that over 9,000 attended camp meetings that year.

Bands of Missionary Volunteer (MV) members went into the countryside and daily reports of their activities were sent back to mission stations. The growth was faster than the Adventists had anticipated and, by the end of 1935, they had more than doubled their growth numbers to two-and-a-half times the estimates.7 In December 1932, the first 100 songbooks in the Runyarwanda language were brought to Urundi.8 These were all taken up with enthusiasm, even though by this time the language spoken in Urundi was differentiating itself from that spoken in Ruanda. In the future, it would be a source of contention between the two nations.

Bozarth testified to the enthusiasm for the Gospel that he found, declaring, “Never have I seen people so eager to accept and follow the truth as they are in Ruanda-Urundi today.” What might be of importance to note is that, particularly in Burundi, it was the majority Hutu people who were joining the church in such large numbers. The church had been founded in Cibitoke where the rural population was primarily Hutu.

Meanwhile, the colonial authorities strengthened their hold on power but preferred to work through the existing power structures. This meant the stratification of society along ethnic lines—in this case, the Tutsi were treated as superior while the majority Hutu were considered second-class citizens. Much has been written about the Belgian colonial authorities and their methods in the Congo and in Ruanda-Urundi, but suffice it to say that in the latter, they particularly enhanced the pre-colonial inequalities along the ethnic lines. They did not seek to institute any social reforms and insisted on maintaining the status quo.10 Nevertheless, the Belgians encouraged the mwami to phase out the ubugabire system in 1955.11 By this time however, much of the Hutu anger over Tutsi domination was not directed at the colonial power of Belgium but to the local Tutsi themselves.12

In 1959, ethnic antagonisms in Rwanda erupted into violence. The Rwandan Tutsi king was deposed and he fled the country. An exodus of some 200,000 Tutsi followed, many of whom went to Burundi, while others crossed over to Congo. In the run-up to independence, various African countries criticized the move to split the two nations, fearing civil war.

In the Adventist church, the Ruanda-Urundi Union was organized in 1960, separating it from the Congo Union Mission, which had been established in 1925.13 W. R. Vail was appointed the first president. The veteran missionary had first come to the Congo Mission back in 1933 and had even served at Buganda Mission in Urundi. The secretary-treasurer was M. B. Musgrave. The new offices moved from Elizabethville (Lubumbashi) to Usumbura (the capital of Ruanda-Urundi). At this time, the Ruanda side had three fields—North Ruanda, South Ruanda, and West Ruanda—while the Urundi side had only the Urundi Field.14 Of the four, only the Urundi Field and the West Ruanda Field were fully Africanized by independence. The North Ruanda Field was headed by H. E. Kotz while the South Ruanda Field was under F. L. Bell and the West Ruanda Field was under Ezekiel Semugeshi.15

The senior African official in the union at this time was S. Ntizikwira (departmental secretary for church development). In the Urundi Field, the president was Mariko Sembagare, vice president was Ezekiel Munyankiko, and secretary-treasurer was Labani Biyayire.

Independence and Continuity

When the UN General Assembly voted in 1962 to end its trusteeship and grant independence, it created the Republic of Rwanda and the Kingdom of Burundi. Burundi became a constitutional monarchy under Mwami Mwambutsa IV. André Muhirwa, a Tutsi, became premier, replacing Prince Louis Rwagasore, son of King Mwambutsa IV, who had been assassinated shortly before independence. Muhirwa, a relative of Rwagasore, only lasted a year before being replaced by Pierre Ngendandumwe, a Hutu. He too did not last long and in 1964 he resigned after Mwami Mwambutsa IV dismissed four Tutsi ministers for allegedly fomenting anti-Hutu sentiments. He was replaced by Albin Nyamoya, also a Hutu. The first few months of independence were characterized by political volatility.

Meanwhile, the Adventist church continued to grow tremendously in the joint Ruanda-Urundi region. By 1963, the joint population of the church in both Rwanda and Burundi stood at 55,583 members, by far the largest of all the Southern African Division’s seven unions (29%).

Reorganization of the Adventist Church

In 1964, Burundi’s relations with neighboring Rwanda (whose government was now dominated by the Hutu) became frosty, and the two nations broke off diplomatic relations.16 Meanwhile, the Ruanda-Urundi Union was renamed the Central Africa Union, partly because the two nations had broken off diplomatic relations, necessitating a change of name. It continued to be based in Bujumbura and this obviously made it difficult for the Adventist church to operate in both Rwanda and Burundi now that the two nations were not seeing eye to eye.

The Burundi Field, which also incorporated two provinces in Rwanda, was reorganized to sever the ties with Rwanda. A second field was organized in Burundi, the East Burundi Field based in Gitega, while the older Burundi Field was renamed the West Burundi Field and remained in Ndora. The West Burundi Field came under Labani Biyayire while the East Burundi Field was headed by Ezekiel Munyankiko, with Eliya Nyagatema as his deputy.17 The union was still in European hands, with W. R. Vail giving way to A. H. Brandt that same year. Frank Unger became the secretary-treasurer.

Meanwhile, Mwami Mwambutsa IV reappointed Ngendandumwe as prime minister in January 1965. Shortly after his appointment he was shot and killed by a Rwandan Tutsi, raising ethnic tensions and worsening the already bad cross-border tensions. Joseph Bamina, another Hutu, was appointed to replace him.18

After a tense election held in May 1965, the Hutu gained a majority in the National Assembly but Mwami Mwambutsa IV appointed Leopold Biha, a Tutsi, as prime minister. This move proved quite unpopular, further raising ethnic tensions. In October 1965, a group of Hutu policemen attempted a coup, accusing the Mwami of causing intrigues to hold on to power. Loyalist police led by Captain Michel Micombero, said to be the son of a Tutsi father and a Hutu mother, thwarted the rebels. But then the Mwami fled the country to Switzerland causing a power vacuum.

On July 8, 1966 his son, Crown Prince Charles Ndizeye, just 19, deposed the absent king and declared himself Mwami Ntare V, ending his father’s fifty-one-year reign. Only months later, on November 28, Michel Micombero, who had been named defense minister, led a coup which deposed the Mwami and declared Burundi a republic. He placed the Mwami under house arrest and appointed himself president at the age of 26. He established a National Revolutionary Committee to help stabilize his regime and develop the economy. Tutsi domination continued, with most of them filling powerful government positions, including the cabinet.

Further Changes in the Adventist Church

In 1967, A. H. Brandt was replaced by P. G. Werner as the head of the Central African Union. While most other church organizations in Africa were now being run by Africans, the Europeans were deemed to be neutral in Rwanda-Burundi, still in the grip of ethnic and cross-border tensions. In Burundi, minor tensions erupted in 1969, along ethnic lines and the government thwarted what was possibly a coup in the making led by Hutu rebels with the suspected assistance of the Belgian government.19

In the Adventist church, Phineas Manyori replaced Ezekiel Munyankiko in the East Burundi Field in 1969, while Ezekiel Munyankiko moved to the West Burundi Field replacing Biyayire.20 By 1971 there were forty-one churches in the West Burundi Field with 6,930 members while East Burundi Union had six churches with 361 members.21 The union remained under Werner but the new administrative secretary was Eliazafani Ntakirutimana, a Rwandan Hutu. Born in Kibuye, Rwanda in 1924, Ntakirutimana would be convicted of a role in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, together with his son Gerard. He served ten years in prison and died in January 2007, a month after being released. His son remains in prison.

The appointment of Ntakirutimana and other senior Rwandese pastors to the church in Burundi, only served to create local Burundian resentment at what they termed as an influx of Rwandese pastors. When the Central Africa Union was dissolved, most Rwandese pastors returned to Rwanda, again creating a vacuum in Burundi since not many Burundians had received senior pastoral education to serve in higher capacities. This fact (and many others) would slow the work in Burundi which today still holds the status of “union mission” while Rwanda has already attained “union conference” status. This means that Rwanda has attained higher autonomy, electing its officers rather than having them appointed by the division as is the case for Burundi, and the cause for the current conflict.

Deepening Ethnic Conflict

In April 1972, a Hutu uprising led to widespread massacres claiming at least 100,000 lives, mainly Hutu. The violence arose following the arrest of Ntare V upon his return from exile in West Germany, despite a written guarantee that he would be allowed a safe return. On April 29, an attempt by Tutsi royalists failed to free Ntare V. Instead, he was killed alongside thousands of Tutsis. The Tutsi-led reprisals were particularly brutal.22 Nearly 100,000 Hutus were killed in targeted massacres of any Hutu with a secondary education, including teachers, civil servants, and religious leaders, among others.23 Three of the former cabinet ministers were also among those killed.24

The uprising was eventually quelled, but unrest continued, and nearly 50,000 Hutus fled to nearby countries. Over the months, the number would rise to over 200,000.25 The following year matters were no better as reports came in that the fleeing refugees had organized themselves into rebel forces. Government forces fought them and at least 10,000 Hutu rebels were said to have been killed. The government accused Belgium, Israel, Tanzania, and Rwanda for supporting Hutu rebels and severed ties with Israel. The effect of this was a perennial sense of suspicion between the Bujumbura government and regional nations harboring Burundian refugees. The UN estimated that 85,000 Hutus had fled Burundi and over 500,000 had been internally displaced.

The Hutu being in power in Rwanda led to deep suspicion between Burundi and Rwanda. In March 1973, the Burundi government launched airstrikes targeting refugee camps in Tanzania, leading to a diplomatic standoff and blockade of Burundi by withholding goods in the port of Dar es Salaam.

In July 1974, a new Republican Constitution was promulgated. The next year regional tensions eased when the Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, visited Burundi and neighboring Zaire moved Burundi refugees to at least 90 miles from the border. This served to quell jitters of cross-border attacks from armed rebels.

In 1974, Phineas Nsengiyumva took over the East Burundi Field replacing Manyori. The church in this region was not growing as fast and by 1975 it had nine churches, up from six in 1971, and 840 members.26 The following year the Central Africa Union, which still comprised the two nations, replaced Werner with L. C. Robinson. Roy Stotz remained secretary while E. Nyagetema became the executive secretary for Burundi and S. Sembeba became the executive secretary for Rwanda.27 Ntakirutimana became the Stewardship and Church Development director at the union.28

The following year, in November 1976, Burundi President Michel Micombero was deposed by the military and 30-year old Lt. Col. Jean-Baptiste Bagaza became the new president. The Constitution of 1974 was suspended. Bagaza, a Tutsi, tried to create national reconciliation to bring together the Hutu and Tutsi. But ethnic tensions continued. Targeted killings occurred in 1979 and many Hutu sought refuge in Rwanda.

At a Franco-African summit held in Kigali, President Bagaza was incensed by a pamphlet put out by a religious group critical of the Tutsi hegemony in Burundi. He left the summit early and from June 1 began the expulsion of twelve Belgian Catholic missionaries, followed by fifty-two others ten days later. They were accused of, among other things, drafting and distributing anti-government tracts.


Notes & References:

1. Ellen K. Eggers, Historical Dictionary of Burundi, 3rd ed., (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2016).

2. Ibid.

3. Warren Weinstein, Robert Schrere, Political Conflict and Ethnic Strategies: A Case Study of Burundi, (Syracuse University, 1976).

4. Adventist Yearbook 1935 (Takoma Park: Review & Herald, 1935), 181.

5. Southern Africa Division Outlook 30, no. 6 (June 1, 1932): 11.

6. Ibid., no. 10 (October 1, 1932): 4.

7. Ibid., no. 12 (December 1, 1932): 12.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., no. 1 (January 1, 1933): 5.

10. Peter Langford, “The Rwandan Path to Genocide: The Genesis of the Capacity of the Rwandan Post-colonial State to Organise and Unleash a Project of Extermination,” in Civil Wars 7, no. 3.

11. Joseph Gahama, Le Burundi sous administration Belge: la période du mandat, 1919–1939, 2nd rev. ed. (Paris: Karthala, 1983).

12. Langford, op cit.

13. Adventist Yearbook 1960 (Takoma Park: Review & Herald, 1960), 170.

14. Adventist Yearbook 1962 (Takoma Park: Review & Herald, 1962), 185.

15. Ibid., 187.

16. “Burundi,” Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1964.

17. Adventist Yearbook 1967 (Takoma Park: Review & Herald, 1967), 250.

18. David-Ngendo Tshimba, “2015 as a Repeat of 1965 in Burundi: The Stubbornness of Political History,” Thinking Africa, (, 2016.

19. “Burundi,” Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1969.

20. Adventist Yearbook 1970 (Takoma Park: Review & Herald, 1970), 273.

21. Adventist Yearbook 1971 (Takoma Park: Review & Herald, 1971), 257–8.

22. René Lemarchand, The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

23. Samuel Totten and William S. Parsons, Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts (Routledge, 2004).

24. “Burundi,” Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1974.

25. René Lemarchand, “The Burundi Genocide” in Totten and Parsons, Century of Genocide, 321-337.

26. Adventist Yearbook 1975 (Takoma Park: Review & Herald, 1975), 262.

27. Adventist Yearbook 1977 (Takoma Park: Review & Herald, 1977), 288.

28. Ibid.


Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.

Read Part 4 here.

Read Part 5 here.


Godfrey K. Sang is a historical researcher and writer with an interest in Adventist history. He is the co-author of the books On the Wings of a Sparrow: How the Seventh-day Adventist church came to Western Kenya and Strong in His Arms: The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Central Kenya.

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain) /


This article originally appeared in the current Spectrum print journal, volume 48, issue 1.

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