Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, a former president of Burundi who ruled his small central African nation for 11 years in the 1970s and 1980s, a period bookended by coups and marred by suppression of the Catholic Church, died May 4 in Belgium. He was 69.
Mr. Bagaza had been receiving medical care in Belgium for the past two weeks.
A Burundian government spokesman, Philippe Nzobonariba, confirmed the death to the Associated Press. The cause was not immediately available.
Mr. Bagaza belonged to the Hima Tutsi of southern Burundi, a tribe that The Washington Post once described as “a minority within a minority.” Like Rwanda, its neighbor to the north, Burundi is made up predominantly of members of the Hutu tribe. Unlike Rwanda, Burundi was long ruled by the Tutsi minority in a form of tribal apartheid after the nation achieved independence from Belgium in 1962.
One of the poorest and most densely populated countries in Africa, Burundi endured periods of instability and violence that reached a peak in 1972 with the slaughter of more than 100,000 Hutus after that tribe mounted a rebellion. The ethnic violence presaged the events two decades later in Rwanda, where between 500,000 and 1 million people, mainly Tutsis, died in a Hutu-led genocide.
Mr. Bagaza, an army officer and former deputy chief of staff of Burundi’s armed forces, was 30 years old when he ousted Michel Micombero, the president on whose watch the Burundian killings had occurred, in 1976.
Inititally, Mr. Bagaza seemed to hold out a measure of promise. He had been educated in military schools in Belgium, held a sociology degree and “drove himself to work at 7:30 a.m. each day” — an anomaly, the Associated Press reported, “on a continent where leaders usually travel in cavalcades with outriders and jeeps of soldiers toting submachine guns.”
With few significant exports besides coffee, the country counted heavily on foreign aid to stay afloat, and Mr. Bagaza courted relationships with Western countries as well as Soviet and Chinese allies. He was credited with inviting a limited number of Hutus into the Tutsi-dominated government and sought to improve ethnic relations by transferring Tutsi farmland to Hutus.
But ethnic tensions remained, despite government protestations to the contrary. They were exacerbated by Mr. Bagaza’s efforts to curtail the power of the Catholic Church, a powerful, if not universally welcome, force in Burundi since Belgian colonial rule. Most Hutus were Catholic, and Catholics accounted for 65 percent of the country’s population.
Mr. Bagaza regarded the church as a threat to his power. He shuttered Catholic broadcast and print media, banned Catholic church services on weekdays, expelled foreign missionaries, assumed control of Catholic schools and shut down Catholic-run literacy centers. By 1987, The Post reported, hundreds of foreign priests and nuns had left the country. Amnesty International cited cases of torture and incarceration without trial.
One priest, the Rev. Jean Ndikuriyo, was imprisoned for disseminating a letter from Pope John Paul II decrying government oppression of the church in Burundi. He was detained for three months before being granted clemency, then was rearrested days later.
He recounted to the New York Times, “Security officers came and said, ‘You thanked God for releasing you from jail, but you didn’t thank President Bagaza.’ ”
In September 1987, Mr. Bagaza was attending a conference in Quebec of francophone countries when the military announced in a radio broadcast the ascension to power of Maj. Pierre Buyoya as head of a military junta.
Mr. Bagaza had been deposed, the communique asserted, by his “soldiers, together with Burundi’s gallant people, considering the state of the Bagaza leadership,” according to an AP dispatch at the time.
In the decades that followed, Burundi suffered further instability, including political overthrows and assassination, and a 12-year civil war that killed 300,000 people before it ended in 2005 amid peace talks. After a period of exile, Mr. Bagaza remained active in Burundian politics as head of Parena, described as an extremist party of Tutsis.
Mr. Bagaza was born on Aug. 29, 1946, in Rutovu, a town in what was then Ruanda-Urundi. He was married to Fausta Bagaza and had four children. A list of survivors was not immediately available.
At the time of Mr. Bagaza’s death, Burundi, under the leadership of President Pierre Nkurunziza, was again mired in political turbulence and violence. Hundreds have been killed, and hundreds of thousands have fled.
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