Wednesday, January 28, 2015


I am having a problem writing the phrase "one of the world's poorest nations" as often as I have already done, and still only on B in the alphabet. Alas, the truth defeats my difficulty. Burundi's poverty is in part a result of a twelve-year civil war between the dominant Tutsi and the minority Hutu populations (yes, this is Burundi; no this is not Rwanda; they are different countries though they were once the same country, Rwanda-Urundi; Rwanda is immediately to the north of Burundi) which began with independence in 1962, though the violence did not really start until 1993, after a Hutu President and Parliament was elected for the first time. Four months later the President was assassinated and about 300,000 more died in the ensuing bloodbath. Another Hutu President was elected the following year, only to die, with the President of Rwanda, when their plane was shot down over Kigali. Yet a third Hutu was elected, but now the Tutsis withdrew from the Parliament. Civil war ensued, ending with a power-sharing agreement in 2001, and new elections in 2005 which, guess what, led to another Hutu victory. No civil war this time – not surprisingly, as the new government has adopted a position so authoritarian, and has the weaponry and training built up through the years of civil war, to ensure it can implement its iron fist policy.

And then, to make matters not just worse but completely intolerable, the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy), announced in April 2015 that its leader, who is also the nation's President, Pierre Nkurunziza, would be running for a third term, a decision which violates the Arusha Accords, the 2000 peace agreement that helped end Burundi's civil war in 2005, and which limits the President to two terms. That led to protests, which itself led to violent repression, and dead bodies being dumped in the street daily. The election went ahead in July, boycotted by most of the country, and with the inevitable result. The violence is now so out of control that President Paul Kagame of neighbouring Rwanda has issued a plea that there not be another genocide. Daily reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch suggest that the ears were probably cut off during torture, and are not simply deaf.

Half the population of Burundi is estimated to be living below the poverty line, and the Global Hunger Index for 2014 rates Burundi as the hungriest country in the world in terms of percentage, slightly ahead of, or should that be behind Eritrea – at that level of poverty and hunger, positions in league tables start to become meaningless.

And as if all this isn’t bad enough, former rebels who have not been disarmed are now providing bases and support for a completely different war, though virtually identical atrocities, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the Republic of Congo, which is likewise embroiled in civil war and atrocity, just not this one). There is, alas, very little chance of getting out of all this mess in the near, or even in the distant future, as the only significant resources are tea and coffee, drought is common, and President Nkurunziza is unlikely, at the end of his sixth term, or even his seventh, to return to his other love, which is coaching his personal football team, which goes by the celestial name of Hallelujah FC.

Seeking some positives to counterbalance this terrible history, I find myself struggling. Culture is little more than local crafts, literacy levels gain some marks, but at a point where the opening of an elementary school in a village which has never had one merits front-page headlines in the national press. The photo of the Burundi National Museum (above) tells its own story; this is a country that needs assistance, not marks. OECD figures estimate that Burundi receives around $550m in foreign aid every year, combining all sources. This is three times more than Eritrea, which is a truly unconscionable statistic, especially as Ethiopia receives almost six times as much. To put it in a relative scale globally, what Burundi receives is the same as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Honduras, neither of which appear on the list of the world's most needy countries. You can find all the data on aid around the world at the OECD website.

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