Issue 12 - Article 11

Burundi (November 1998)

November 1, 1998
Philip Winter, Independent Consultant

A delicate balance

The calm of Bujumbura is deceptive. UNICEF, HCR, WFP and other UN agencies are highly visible around the town. ICRC has reopened its office two years after the killing of four delegates in Cibitoke. More than forty foreign NGOs work in fifteen provinces, none more than a day’s drive from the capital. The town is clean and in good repair, with good restaurants, shops and telecommunications. There is a superficial prosperity, ascribed by sceptics to the profits afforded by sanctions breaking. But it is a dangerous place: in July a WFP official was murdered in his driveway. Earlier this year an expatriate NGO official was murdered in unexplained circumstances. In the interior, no one knows how many have been murdered. Yet another disturbing incident occurred at the end of October with 34 unarmed civilians killed in Nyamaboko, a rural province near Bujumbura. Local staff of NGOs have been killed and injured. The people are in rags, caught between the government army and sundry rebel groups; 9% of the population is displaced; 345,000 receive food aid. According to UNICEF, the numbers of people in supplementary feeding programmes rose in a year from 5,200 to 38,000. One million Barundi live outside their homes, 600,000 of them internally displaced and the rest mostly as refugees in Tanzania. At any one time, one third of the country is inaccessible because of insecurity. More access would reveal more need, but access is not constant.


There are only two developments which might be termed an improvement so far this year. Firstly, international pressure on the government over its controversial “Regroupment” policy has probably modified it. More than 250,000 people went home from camps last year in Kayanza, Muramvya and Karuzi. In these areas it has been claimed that regroupement did stabilise the provinces and improve living conditions, because those affected received health and nutritional assistance from WFP and NGOs, had more secure access to their fields, and also received resettlement packages before going home. Elsewhere, the situation is less clear cut and it will be some time before the effects of grouping people into more and smaller camps near their homes are assessed.

Secondly, the government’s internal and external peace process has made a little progress. How much this is due to the economic embargo is unclear. Those who support the “negotiated transitional government” say that Pierre Buyoya has met all the conditions set by his neighbours to have sanctions lifted. Those who oppose the government say that the embargo must remain, in order to keep him under pressure. Most groups were represented amongst the seventeen parties at the Arusha talks, although the armed wing of CNDD, the FDD, claims that Leonard Nyangoma should not speak for it. The FDD launched a series of attacks in the south of the country, probably to highlight their exclusion from Arusha.

The parties had a number of procedural disagreements but the October round of Arusha talks were called off after a couple of days due to a cited lack of funds. Despite the willingness of the parties to reconvene early in 1999, the process is tenuous. The failure to lift the embargo endangers Buyoya on two fronts: his military backers might feel his reforms have delivered nothing and be tempted to overthrow him, whilst FRODEBU, the majority party, might feel that talks have gained them nothing either and armed struggle would be a better option. If either of these reactions occurred, massive bloodshed would be probable.

Whatever the effects of sanctions on politics, the cost of living has doubled in two years, by some measures, and the government says that GNP has declined by 7% because of the economic embargo. There is no bilateral aid to the country, although at least three EU member states are contemplating resumption of their programmes. The main donors at present are the EU and the US. The US would like to see greater economic liberalisation and structural adjustment before esumption of bilateral aid. Neither is possible without a continuing peace process.

Burundi today is a good example of the complex of problems faced by weak states in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War:

  • A long-standing dictator falls and an attempt is made at democracy
  • An elected government proves unable to cope with the problems and/or is removed by the military; civil conflict starts
  • Dormant differences are exploited to give an ethnic dimension to civil strife; refugees and internally displaced gather in camps
  • The country’s economy and resources do not place it high on any list of western priorities
  • Vaccination coverage declines, primary school enrolment goes down, health services suffer, food security is reduced and malnutrition rises
  • Western nations do not have a coherent policy but fund humanitarian aid
  • The neighbouring states are involved in the conflict and appear to take sides for ethnic, religious or other reasons; they also host refugees
  • Failure to resolve the political crisis leads to a proliferation of armed factions, which prey on civilians and aggravate the situation
  • The state becomes increasingly hard to govern and the prolonged crisis of legitimacy reduces the middle ground when peace talks are convened


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