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Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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Giacomo Pirozzi / Panos

A small landlocked state in central Africa, sandwiched between its vast neighbours Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi has suffered as much from ethnic conflict as its other (equally tiny) neighbour, Rwanda. Yet while the 1993 Rwandan genocide continues to commandeer international attention, Burundi’s travails tend to slip under the radar.

An independent kingdom from the 16th century, Burundi was colonized by Germany in 1903 – and fell under Belgian control after the First World War. The roots of the conflict between the Hutus (around 85 per cent of the population) and the Tutsis lie in the rigid classification of the two peoples by the Belgians, who issued ethnic identity cards to all in 1933.

Independence in 1962 saw an attempt at joint Tutsi-Hutu government but in 1965 the assassination of the Hutu prime minister led swiftly to a succession of Tutsi-dominated military coups. An attempted rebellion of Hutus in 1972 led to the massacre of 100,000 by the Tutsi élite, and a further 20,000 died in 1988. Conflict is estimated to have claimed a further 300,000 lives since 1993 when the country’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated. His successor Cyprien Ntaryamira was killed in April 1994, along with his Rwandan counterpart, Juvenal Habyarimana, in a plane crash – the trigger for the Rwandan genocide. The cycle of military coups was renewed in 1996, bringing sanctions.

A semblance of stability has returned to Burundi since August 2005 when Pierre Nkurunziza – Hutu leader of a rebel group – was elected President after an internationally brokered peace agreement, following years of painstaking work, first by Julius Nyerere and then by Nelson Mandela. In September 2006, Nkurunziza signed a peace agreement with another rebel group, the National Liberation Forces (FNL), which had continued guerrilla activity in the Bujumbura Rurale and Bubanza areas. But the rebels are yet to surrender their arms and integrate into the national army, and accuse Nkurunziza of refusing to fulfil his obligations under the peace agreement.

In the less than two years he has been head of state, Pierre Nkurunziza has claimed at least three foiled coups d’état. At the end of April 2007, Hussein Radjabu, former head of the ruling party, was arrested over accusations of destabilizing the Nkurunziza Government. Scores of politicians from parties in coalition with Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD-led Government have been arrested, or dismissed from office.

The continued conflict has proved utterly disastrous in terms of human development. The UN gives Burundi the ninth-worst rating for human development, while the country’s gross national income per capita is the lowest in the world at just $100 – half its level in 1980.

There are few foreign investors in the country, with most having fled during the civil war. Belgian airline SN Brussels, whose predecessor Sabena cancelled flights to Burundi in 1999 when its plane was shot at during landing in Bujumbura, in April 2007 became the first Western airline to return to the country.

At the end of May the third donor roundtable on Burundi was held, following on two previous ones that raised pledges of more than a billion dollars for Burundi’s economic recovery. Much of this money was not released, as fighting continued just after the conference was held six years ago. The country needs $1.3 billion to fund a three-year poverty reduction plan. As if the process of de-mining and rebuilding the infrastructure ravaged by war were not challenging enough, Burundi is also in the process of repatriating up to 400,000 of its nationals now living in DR Congo and Tanzania.

Fact file

Leader President Pierre Nkurunziza.
Economy GNI per capita $100, the lowest in the world (Rwanda $230, Belgium $35,700).
Monetary unit Burundian Franc.
Main exports Coffee and tea (90%), sugar, cotton, hides. Burundi is landlocked and resource-poor. Most of its people depend on subsistence agriculture, with food crops including maize, sorghum, sweet potatoes and beans.
People 8.1 million. People per square kilometre 292 (UK 246).
Health Infant mortality 114 per 1,000 live births (Rwanda 118, Belgium 4). Maternal mortality rate is 1,000 per 100,000 live births. HIV prevalence rate 3.3%; the National AIDS Commission says that only 16% of people in need of antiretroviral drugs can access them. Some 60% of primary school-aged children have iodine deficiency.
Environment Overgrazing has caused soil erosion, while expansion of agriculture into marginal lands has led to loss of some habitat for wildlife. Deforestation is high owing to uncontrolled felling of trees, mainly for fuelwood.
Culture Hutu (86%), Tutsi (13%), Twa (1%) – a similar breakdown to Rwanda. The Hutu traditionally tended to be subsistence farmers, and the Tutsi cattle herders.
Religion Roman Catholic (62%), indigenous beliefs (23%), Muslim (10%), Protestant (5%).
Language Kirundi and French (official), Kiswahili. English is increasingly being taken up as Burundi has joined the English-speaking East African Community of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution A huge majority of Burundians live below the poverty line, and the Government has done little to create infrastructure and jobs. A Tutsi clique has consistently plundered what little national wealth there is.
Literacy The adult literacy rate is 59%. Primary education has been free since 2005.
Life expectancy 44 years (Rwanda 44, Belgium 79). Civil war, HIV/AIDS and breakdown of health infrastructure have lowered the life expectancy from 46 in 2000. A recent presidential decision on free medical assistance for under-five children and maternity should help.
Freedom In 2005, Burundians voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution that grants broader freedoms. But critical journalists are still regularly harassed, and opposition politicians habitually arrested on what human rights groups say are trumped-up charges.
Position of women The average woman in Burundi gives birth to 6.8 children – the second-highest fertility rate in the world, a figure closely related to the general poverty. Women are often victims of sexual violence, a problem exacerbated by decades of civil war.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is illegal in Burundi, and the practice is openly frowned upon by leaders and the general public.
Previously reviewed 1998
New Internationalist assessment Burundi’s new constitution enshrines power-sharing between Hutus and Tutsis, but the current government is openly hostile to its critics, real and perceived. A ceasefire with the Palipehutu-FNL is yet to be implemented, and arrests of politicians could spark more trouble. Urgently needed is a process for national reconciliation and justice for those who suffered during the war, as well as demobilization and reintegration of former fighters into society.

New Internationalist issue 402 magazine cover This article is from the July 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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