Ten years ago, the body of Burundi’s former king Mwambutsa IV Bangiriceng was dug up in Switzerland and kept in a cold room at a Geneva funeral parlor as part of a legal case brought by the king’s daughter who had wanted a state funeral and burial in Burundi.
Backed by the Burundi government, the king’s daughter Princess Paula Rosa Iribagiza believed that a state burial with a figure like her father could help the country reconcile amid political tensions. But the former king’s niece Esther Kamatari opposed the repatriation of the remains, arguing that the king’s last wishes were for him to be buried in Switzerland.
After a four-year-long legal battle between family members, a court in Geneva ruled in favor of the king’s niece, and in June 2017, the remains of King Mwambusta IV were re-buried at Meyrin cemetery in canton Geneva. The legal fight drew attention to the political strife in Burundi at the time as well as the life of Mwambutsa IV, who had died four decades ago.
Born on May 6, 1912, Mwambutsa IV became king of Burundi on December 16, 1915. He was only three years old when he ascended the throne after the death of his father Mutaga IV Mbikije. Due to his age, a regency was declared. Reports said scores of family members, including the Queen Mother Ririkumutima, served as regents.
In a country that has seen tensions between the usually-dominant Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority, Mwambutsa IV was an ethnic Ganwa (Tutsi). And at the time he became king, Burundi was part of German East Africa but was captured by Belgium in 1916 during the East African Campaign in World War I. Mwambutsa IV was given full ruling powers in August 1929. He did not only see Burundi’s transfer from Germany to Belgium after World War I but was also on the throne when his country gained independence on July 1, 1962.
After independence, the country was under Mwambutsa IV’s rule, but as a constitutional monarchy rather than a traditional one. Burundi was relatively calm in the first years of independence governed by Mwambutsa IV. As one report notes, Mwambutsa IV tried to “balance ethnic tensions between ethnic Hutu and Tutsi subjects by choosing his Prime Ministers from each ethnic group alternately.”
He appointed the nation’s first Hutu leader, Pierre Ngendandumwe as prime minister. However, the prime minister was assassinated by a Rwandan Tutsi refugee on January 7, 1965, after serving another term, according to a report by TRT World. Four months after the killing, Hutu candidates won a majority in nationwide elections.
Mwambutsa IV then deposed their prime minister Joseph Bamina and appointed a Tutsi candidate Leopold Biha in late 1965, the report by TRT World said. The king’s decision led to a Hutu-led coup in October 1965. Violence ensued, claiming a lot of lives. And that was when Mwambutsa IV fled his country into Switzerland.
He designated his only surviving son, Prince Ntare V, to exercise powers on his behalf. But Mwambutsa IV was deposed by his son in July 1966 and not too long after, a Tutsi army Captain Michel Micombera declared that the monarchy had been abolished. Micombera appointed himself president and years of coups and violence followed.
Mwambutsa IV passed away in Switzerland in 1977, after 11 years of exile. He was buried there. In 2012, Mwambutsa IV’s daughter Iribagiza asked her half-sister, who lived in Geneva, to dig up the remains as she hoped to repatriate them for a formal state burial.
Authorities in Burundi authorities threw their weight behind her in court in Geneva, saying that it was ideal to pay homage to the royal family which had been in place until 1966. They also stressed that a state funeral would help a reconciliation process. The East African nation had been thrown into chaos at the time, after then-President Pierre Nkurunziza was sworn into office for the third term, breaking constitutional law and violating the terms of a peace deal that ended a civil war in 2005. Bringing the remains of their king Mwambutsa IV would help restore calm, Burundi officials said in court.
But the Geneva court in 2016 said “it could not be established that the grievance was of overriding public interest, in particular given the current political situation in Burundi. The repatriation would have also contravened the ex-king’s wishes,” Swissinfo reported.
The king’s niece, Kamatari, who was against the repatriation, welcomed the ruling by the Geneva court. “My uncle, Mwambutsa IV, was extremely far-sighted,” Kamatari said in a statement. “He foresaw that his remains might be instrumentalised and arouse certain wishes. That’s why he protected himself with his testament arrangements.”