Esther Kamatari: The princess who wants to be president

The niece of the last king of Burundi, Esther Kamatari fled to Paris after her uncle was assassinated. She tells Meera Selva why she thinks she can help restore racial harmony to her native land
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The Independent Online

The glitter and grandeur of the Paris fashion scene is a far cry from the bloody tribal conflicts of Burundi, but Esther Kamatari, a former model and exiled princess is determined to take the unlikely step from one world into the other. The glamorous, outspoken fashionista, who became France's first black supermodel in the 1970s, is running for president in Burundi's first free elections in more than a decade.

The glitter and grandeur of the Paris fashion scene is a far cry from the bloody tribal conflicts of Burundi, but Esther Kamatari, a former model and exiled princess is determined to take the unlikely step from one world into the other. The glamorous, outspoken fashionista, who became France's first black supermodel in the 1970s, is running for president in Burundi's first free elections in more than a decade.

"Normally the first lady of a country is the wife of a president," she said from her Paris home. "Women in Burundi came to me and asked me to stand for president, so we can have a proper first lady."

Kamatari certainly has all the right qualities to be some sort of celebrity in her homeland. The niece of the last king of Burundi, she fled her home country for France in 1970 when it became clear that the royal family were under threat. Her father was assassinated in a palace plot in 1964.

Once she arrived in Paris, her 5 foot 10 inch (1.8m) frame, striking features and aristocratic background made her a darling of the fashion scene. She became the country's first black African supermodel, strutting catwalks for Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Paco Rabanne. In smashing her way into an industry that had been dominated by white women, she paved the way for Naomi Campbell, Iman and Alek Wek.

"I arrived at a moment when the concept of fashion was changing," she said. "People were surprised and delighted to see an African princess modelling clothes. The colour of my skin was never a problem there." While Kamatari modelled silk shirts and high heels in Europe, Burundi and its neighbouring countries in the Great Lakes region struggled to find a form of government that could accommodate both Tutsi and Hutu.

Burundi's neighbour Rwanda grabbed the attention of the world when 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were macheted and burned to death in 1994. Burundi may be less well known but its post-colonial history has been as chaotic and violent. Its monarchy was overthrown after the country gained independence in 1962, and no party has managed to form any sort of stable government.

After the last king, Ntare V, was assassinated in 1972, a wave of ethnic violence that claimed the lives of thousands of Hutus and Tutsis washed over the region. In 1993, the country plunged into a full-scale civil war and in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Burundi's own Tutsi and Hutu tribes have fought battles that have killed 300,000.

Kamatari is in no doubt about the root cause of the problems. "We need the monarchy back," she said. "Look at the countries today where you have the most liberty - England, Denmark, Spain. They are all places where royalty was never abolished. The king of Burundi was murdered in 1972; no one ever asked the common people if they wanted a republic. Now, I want to hold a referendum, to give the people the choice to have their royal family back."

Her suggestion may not be as off the wall as it seems. Before the European colonialists, Burundi was an independent kingdom, and the four ethnic groups - Tutsi, Hutus, Twa and Ganwa - shared a culture, language and religion. Many leaders in the Great Lakes region now blame colonial rulers for imposing differences, elevating some to power at the expense of others. In Burundi politics still focuses on tensions between the country's Hutus, who make up 85 per cent of the population, and the Tutsis, who account for just 14 per cent but dominate institutions such as the army.

Burundi's first democratically elected president Melchior Nadadaye was assassinated in October 1993 after only four months in office, but Kamatari is confident she can avoid a similar fate. "The last election was an ethnic election, and that is why the government does not survive," she said. "I don't think anyone hates us in the same way."

Kamatari comes from the 'Ganwa' or royal class, which considers itself neither Tutsi or Hutu, and she hopes her status as a royal and a woman will put her above tribal loyalties and win her votes from both ethnic groups. "I think the poor will vote for me, and women will vote for me," she said. "Women are always the ones who have to cope with the destruction that men perform. I think they know I understand them."

She is standing for president with a newly formed party, Abahuza ("come together"), run by her brother Prince Godefrois Kamatari, now officially head of the royal family. The party was recognised by the Burundi interior ministry last month, after years of trying. "Our party is new. We have no blood on our hands. We have never been responsible for killing anyone," Kamatari said. "We lived together for 500 years without anyone taking a machete to go and kill his neighbour, because there was a management of power, a social and economic balance based on tradition. "The king was father of the people."

Her words may well have a resonance among Burundi's six million people, who have lived with a conflict that has destroyed the country's economy and driven more than a million from their homes. She is convinced people in Burundi will remember her family fondly. "My father was a prince who would visit each house in his land to make sure the children were going to school. My mother did so much work on how to improve Burundi's agriculture that she was given a prize after her death. I am very, very proud of them and I think many other people are too."

If Kamatari does succeed in her campaign, she will return to the tiny, mountainous country wedged between Rwanda and Tanzania with her husband, a French doctor, but her three children and four grandchildren will stay in France. "They are 50-50 French and Burundi. I take them to Burundi on holidays but for now, they will want to finish their education in France."

Kamatari began to re-engage with her homeland in 1987 when she set up Burundi Expansion, a scheme that tried unsuccessfully to re-launch the Burundi tourism industry. Three years later she became president of a French humanitarian organisation that provided aid to Burundi, and restyled herself "princess of the rugo" (a traditional Burundi house), throwing herself into charity work for orphans and wrote an autobiography.

She is now campaigning on a platform of social reform: about 90 per cent of Burundi's total population still depends on subsistence farming, and only 50 per cent of all children go to school, "When you can eat good food three times a day, live healthily and have a good job, you don't wake up with the desire to kill someone. Social policy and economic improvement is the only way to get over this war."

Although Kamatari is passionate about improving the lives of normal people in Burundi, she admits she has "no idea" where the money will come from. The country's annual per capita income is just $180 (£98), one of the lowest in Africa. The economy is kept afloat mainly by coffee exports, international aid and money sent back home by Burundians living abroad.

Earlier this year, political parties from both sides signed a power-sharing agreement, intended to form the basis of a new constitution. The Tutsi minority will have 40 per cent of government posts, and the Hutus 60 - a division Kamatari dismisses as absurd. "When you go to a doctor, does he tell you he will only treat 40 per cent of your illness? And if you go to heaven, does only 60 per cent of your soul get in? We are one people - Burundis - and these quotas just divide us more."

Her doubts appear well founded. General elections were due this month, but have been postponed until next April because the political parties cannot agree over the terms of the constitution. A spokeswoman for ONUB, the UN peacekeeping mission, in Burundi dismissed the delay as "merely logistical problems" but hundreds of Burundi Tutsis in the north have already fled into Rwanda, fearing an outbreak of violence if all the parties cannot settle their differences soon.

One rebel group, the Hutu-dominated National Liberation Forces has refused to take part in the peace process and international pressure group Human Rights Watch said the force was responsible killing 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees at a camp in Burundi last August. The UN suspects that Hutu rebel groups from the Congo also took part in the attacks; a clear indication that politics in the region is still dominated by tribal identities. The international think tank Human Rights Watch insists that despite peace talks and plans for an elections, clashes between the army and various rebel groups is still blighting the lives of thousands of civilians.

Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch said: "Everyone is applauding the progress towards peace in Burundi, but they seem to forget that just outside the capital the war continues for tens of thousands of people."

Esther's bid to be president may be seen as something as a fantasy, but in this war-weary country that has seen a thousand different types of conflicts, a princess who likes to wear white because it is the colour of peace, may provide just the fairy tale people want to hear.