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Burundi - Introduction

Burundi is a fragile state. Although Hutus encompass the majority of the population, historically Tutsis were politically and economically dominant. Since achieving political independence from Belgium in 1962, Burundi has consistently experienced cyclical interethnic conflict and violence.

While there are no reliable data, it is estimated that about 85 percent of the population is Hutu, and 15 percent is Tutsi. A third group, the Twa, constitutes less than one percent. These groups are usually called "ethnic groups" although they share the same culture, history and language (a language of the Bantu family, Kirundi, almost identical to the one spoken in Rwanda), and cannot be distinguished with any accuracy, even by the Burundians themselves, through physical or other characteristics. A person belongs to the same ethnic group as his or her father. Intermarriage between Hutus and Tutsis has traditionally been common.

Burundi is a country entirely dependent on foreign aid. No Burundian Government could hope to survive without the contribution of the industrialized countries and international organizations, which amount to about a third of the gross national product. Income from coffee exports would not suffice even to maintain the Army, let alone the Government and the standard of living to which high government officials had become accustomed to.

Burundi is different. Africa is a continent of states with artificially constructed borders, but Burundi was a 'kingdom' long before colonization and has been a "national entity" for centuries. Hutu and Tutsi share the same social organizations and have never been separated geographically. Burundi's kingdom was ruled, not by the Tutsi as in Rwanda, but by a ruling class of royalty known as the Ganwa, neither Tutsi nor Hutu, but seen as having origins and legitimacy with both groups.

Burundi remains one of the poorest countries in the world, beset by poverty, poor health and education systems, lacking basic infrastructure and sustaining only minimal economic activity -- primarily the subsistence agriculture on which 90 per cent of the population depend. Per-capita income is not much more than $100 per year. The sad legacy of inter-ethnic slaughter has most recently morphed into Hutu vs. Hutu conflict as factions vie for political supremacy.

This small, poverty-stricken, conflict-ridden nation has the potential to fulfill its promise as a durable African success story. Despite the 15-year civil conflict, lack of infrastructure, deep-rooted corruption and the desperate need for broad-based economic activity, Burundi has made measurable progress since 2005 national elections marked the end of fighting for all but one rebel group. Burundi still has far to go to secure its struggling democracy, institutionalize stability, vanquish corruption, ameliorate poverty and provide to its citizens health care, education, and human rights protections. With considerable donor support, however, it can continue to move forward.

Most significantly, the 15-year civil conflict appears at last to have ended. By 2009 the government and the hold-out rebel FNL were in the final stages of implementing their 2007 ceasefire agreement; disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) are well underway. The government had registered the erstwhile rebel group as a fully-fledged political party and former combatants had begun to assume governmental positions as provincial governors, ambassadors and cabinet advisors. Further, it appeared that even if the criminal violence that sustained the FNL through its years in the bush continued, organized ideology-based FNL combat was genuinely over.

Nevertheless, demobilized rebels -- or "demobilisee" -- who had spent up to 15 years on the run in the bush and who were consequently without education or vocational skills -- returned to villages and towns already virtually devoid of economic activity. There, they vied for survival with the more than 450,000 recently repatriated refugees. These were the Burundians who, beginning in 1972, fled to Tanzania to escape the violence in Burundi. Making training and economic development opportunities available to both refugee returnees and demobilisee was a key to sustaining the internal security of the country by ensuring these groups have the means to earn a peaceful living.

The 15-year crisis took a heavy toll on Burundi's economy. GNP dropped by half, foreign investment evaporated and productive infrastructure was largely abandoned or destroyed in the fighting. Burundi's human capital, including its entrepreneurs and intellectuals, fled to Europe, North America and neighboring countries. To recapture its pre-war status as a modestly successful exporter of agricultural items such as coffee and tea, the GoB needs to enact legislation that will assist private sector recovery and adopt policies that will promote a more competitive, less corrupt business environment.

With sufficient infrastructure, there is considerable tourism potential in this climate-blessed nation, centered primarily on Lake Tanganyika where a few ambitious resorts have already begun to take shape. For aquarium fanciers, Tanganyika also supplies the largest and most diverse population of cichlid species in the world. Although quality is inconsistent, Burundi produces what is widely held to be some of the highest quality specialty coffee in the world, and privatization of the industry, albeit fitful, has begun. High transport costs suggest that the fertile soils of Burundi could profitably support an industry to export dried herbs, spices and essential oils. Tea is another well-developed industry that would benefit from foreign interest and investment. Terrace farming -- scarcely seen despite fierce competition for productive land in this up-and-down mountainous countryside -- could provide some long-term relief for farmers, although the expense and labor to create them could prove prohibitive.

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Page last modified: 14-12-2015 16:53:56 ZULU