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By Arthus Asiimwe, 20 May 2015, New Times (Rwanda)
Burundi is on the brink of a major crisis, one that can potentially plunge this country into a serious conflict, if nothing is done to nip it in the bud. The situation on the ground remains volatile with the death toll increasing and hundreds of protestors getting locked up. As protests persist and the authorities promise to crack them very heavily, many more Burundians find themselves homeless in exile.
Diplomatic engagements have produced nothing—not even the needed pressure on the leadership to call for dialogue. Instead, what we continue to be fed on is news bytes of revenge killings and attacks on some diplomatic missions, with the latest being the EU Mission in Bujumbura. The killings have not spared even those bedridden in hospitals.
Already classified as a frail state, given its high levels of poverty, weak economic muscle and almost non-existent institutions, the latest crisis in Burundi threatens to tear apart this nation once again. At the beginning of the crisis, we held the assumption that this was a collective political issue shared by all Burundians irrespective of creed and ethnicity. However, that seems not to be the situation right now. An ethnic dimension is slowly being introduced thanks to the notorious Imbonerakure militia, which seem to be couched by the terroristic gang of FDLR.
As we ponder what is happening in Burundi and hoping that a quick solution comes, we need to revisit this crisis and ask ourselves the underlying reasons behind it. Some pundits and commentators tend to reduce the origin of this crisis to attempt by President Pierre Nkurunziza to seek a third term in office. The problem has nothing to do with term limits; it’s about dismal performance of the current leadership.
The third term drive only served to awaken an already fragile situation complete with frustrations and anger over a perpetually stagnant political situation. For the past 10 years, Burundi has seen a snail pace move towards rebuilding its economy, putting in place basic infrastructure, eliminating the cancer of ethnicity and general political mobilisation towards one common goal.
On an annual average, Burundi’s economy has been growing by 4 per cent, a small growth that cannot match the desired rapid economic changes that Burundians want, partly informed by what is happening with their neigbours. Because of run-away corruption, the ability for Burundi to mobilise its own domestic revenues is greatly undermined and, as such, the economy is heavily dependent on donors to finance its budget, which this year alone amounts to $970 million.
With current threats by donors to cut aid, Burundi will need the hand of the savior to survive. Transparency International and the EAC Corruption perception index ranks Burundi the most corrupt country within the region. While the few in power live a decent life, more than two thirds, or 68 per cent of the population, lives on less than $1 a day. Burundi is at the bottom of Human Development Index, ranking 166th out of 169 countries.
Basic socio-economic indicators are not any better. For example, six out of the eight MDG goals are off track and an alarming 58 per cent of children under five are stunted while 45 per cent of children are anemic, according to UNICEF. Burundi has one of the region’s highest maternal mortality rates and 61 per cent of households risk food insecurity at some point during the year. Food, medicine, and electricity remain in short supply. Less than 2 per cent of the population has electricity in their homes.
Even more worrying is that Burundi’s foreign reserves are almost depleted. At the start of last year, Burundi had reserves of almost $350 million, equivalent to about 3.7 months worth of imports. However, due to an uncertain political environment spanning over the past one year and poor macro-economic performance, these reserves have dwindled and Burundi cannot even import a needle, later alone, fuel.
In the coming weeks, we are likely to see inflation rise piling pressure on prices of basic commodities and leading to increased smuggling across our common borders. On the whole, Burundians see a bleak future characterised by economic stagnation, political hopelessness and a socially incoherent society. As such, they are determined to be at the table as opposed to being part of the menu, if I am to borrow from the old adage.
They have put up a very fundamental question—that in the region, Burundi ranks least in FIFA ranking, at number 122, yet their leader spends a lot of time on this sport. And so they ask; if he has failed to deliver on the sport he holds so dear, how can he deliver on the larger picture? Bottom line, to reduce the current crisis in Burundi to a mere anti-third term campaign, is being simplistic in analysis. Otherwise, how would you explain that Burundi, a country with the same ethnic composition, same history, same demographic structures as Rwanda, is facing the opposite of what is happening in Kigali?
The answer lies in the optimism with which the populations of the two countries look to the future.