Many African communities are patriarchal, thus some feats accomplished by women tend to be lost in history. Yet, many African empires and territories have been led and built by queens who took it upon themselves to protect their people, guide them to prosperity and lead them to victories in war, even if it means engaging in ruthless deeds.
One such queen is Ririkumutima, from Burundi. She has been described as “a Machiavellian woman for whom the end justified the means, ready to do anything to achieve her ends.”
She was one of the many wives of Mwezi Gisabo, the Burundian king who stopped the efforts of German officials to defeat his kingdom through military force but eventually accepted German authority in 1903 in the Treaty of Kiganda. Rirkumutima would however become a pain in the butt of the Germans after the death of Gisabo, making colonization so hard for Europeans in Burundi. And secretly wishing that one of her sons would become king after the death of Gisabo, she also made the late king’s succession process a rather difficult one.
Full name Mwamikazi Nidi Ririkumutima Bizama hitanzimiza Mwezi, Ririkumutima was born in the mid-nineteenth century in the Kingdom of Burundi. She was Gisabo’s favorite wife, giving him five children — Karabona, Bishinga, Nduwumwe, Bangura and Nganguzi. While Gisabo was alive, she tried to persuade him to let one of her sons rule right after him. Gisabo would have none of that. Despite his undying love for Ririkumutima, he preferred to follow tradition instead of his wife’s wishes.
And it came to pass that after the death of Gisabo, one of his sons born of an extramarital relationship and whom Ririkumutima had raised, was appointed to succeed him. The son, Mbikije, was 15 years old when he was appointed. He was born before the children of Ririkumutima, therefore, his succession was not out of place. But Ririkumutima wanted it all. She was bent on passing the throne to one of her sons to enable her to become queen mother. And as the rules of succession would not allow her, she had a plan. The first step was to get rid of her rival, Ntibanyiha, who was the mother of Mbikije. Tradition stated that Ntibanyiha would serve as regent during her son’s reign. But even before she would take over her regency, Ririkumutima succeeded in having her killed.
Ririkumutima subsequently made the kingdom believe that she was Mbikije’s biological mother and thus the legitimate queen mother. She went on to exercise the regency under Mbikije and started initiating moves towards the second part of her plan. Little did she know that her sons would make her next step easier. Bangura, one of her sons, found that Mbikije was wooing his wife. Mbikije injured his half-brother Bangura during an argument over the woman. The incident angered the other sons of Ririkumutima who went on to secretly kill Mbikije. Some sources say they killed Mbikije with the blessing of their mother, Ririkumutima.
Mbikije’s heir son, Mwambutsa Bangiricenge, was to succeed him following his death. Mwambutsa’s regency was to be ensured by his mother, Ngezahayo. But Ririkumutima had Ngezahayo assassinated, enabling her to maintain the title of queen mother while serving as regent during Mwambutsa’s reign. Historians say being a queen mother was a highly respected position. Queen mothers had a great deal of power in their own right. Such was the case of Ririkumutima to the extent that her sons would also wield powerful positions in the future.
Ririkumutima held off the Germans for years. It is documented that although Burundi had become a German colony as part of German East Africa in 1890, the colonial power did not “effectively occupy or control the region” until 1916 when Belgian troops invaded and occupied the region. A year after, Ririkumutima died. Europeans described her as “intelligent, as energetic and more stubborn than all the princes in her entourage” during her visits to the European authorities.