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Trade Embargo, War Push Burundi Toward Collapse

November 18, 1996

EDITOR’S NOTE _ Fighting in the eastern Zaire region bordering Rwanda has grabbed the headlines, but civil war also simmers in nearby Burundi where a strangling economy is increasing tensions and the danger of worse bloodshed.

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By PAUL AMES

Associated Press Writer

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) _ Before dawn, long wooden canoes slip across the still waters of Lake Tanganyika bringing a precious cargo of contraband gasoline to Burundi’s shore.

Come daybreak, dozens of barefoot youths swarm around the boats, filling tin drums and jerry cans with fuel to sell at inflated prices to Bujumbura’s hard-pressed motorists.

This is daily life in a country under siege.

Burundi has been virtually cut off from the outside world since July, when the tiny central African nation’s neighbors imposed a crippling embargo after the army seized power. Borders are closed, trade is banned, all commercial flights halted.

Coupled with the boycott, the country is torn by a civil war that pits the Tutsi-dominated army against ethnic Hutu rebels known as ``the assailants.″ Both sides face almost daily accusations of atrocities against civilians.

Rebel ambushes make travel outside Bujumbura dangerous, further undermining Burundi’s economy and isolating the capital from most of the country.

Many people worry that unless something is done soon to relieve the tensions, Burundi will collapse into chaos on a scale rivaling the recent horrors in eastern Zaire and Rwanda.

``If the embargo continues, Burundi may implode,″ President Pierre Buyoya told reporters recently.

African nations, led by Tanzania and Kenya, imposed the embargo after Buyoya, a former army officer from the Tutsi minority, seized power in a bloodless coup June 25.

The Hutu he replaced as president, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, has been holed up ever since in the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Bujumbura, a leafy lakeside city of 250,000 people. The two previous Hutu presidents died violent deaths.

Buyoya insists he acted only to end the spiral of ethnic violence that has killed more than 100,000 people over the past three years.

He pledges to curb army excesses, offers to negotiate with the rebels and points to his previous record as president. Buyoya allowed free elections in 1993 and stepped down peacefully after loosing to a Hutu.

Despite such democratic credentials, Buyoya’s room for maneuver is limited.

His regime is tolerated by Tutsi extremists who control street militias and are influential in the army. But if he moves too fast to meet demands for negotiations with the Hutus who make up 85 percent of the population, he could fall victim to a fresh coup by Tutsis hard-liners.

``Buyoya should take care to avoid the errors of his first presidency,″ cautioned an editorial last Wednesday in La Nation, a weekly newspaper controlled by ex-President Jean Baptiste Bagaza, a focus for hard-line Tutsi dissent.

Many Hutus see the sanctions and guerrilla war as the only way to force the government to open negotiations. Hutus are largely excluded from higher education, top jobs, the army and administration, and large numbers fled Bujumbura last year after fighting between the army and rebels in the city.

But extremism from both Tutsis and Hutus risks increasing as the sanctions slowly strangle Burundi’s economy.

The country cannot export the tea and coffee that were its main foreign currency earners. The Brarundi brewery that once supplied much of central Africa with beer and sodas and contributed 40 percent of government tax revenues is working at half-capacity.

Bujumbura’s bustling central market is still a colorful jumble of fruits and vegetables brought in from the hills despite the frequent fighting there. But the embargo has driven up prices, hurting the city’s poor.

``The price of everything in the market has tripled,″ says Marie Gollette, who sells salt from a tin pot.

Under government supervision, gasoline is smuggled in across the lake from Zaire and overland from Rwanda. Hospitals are running short of medicine and often have little fuel for generators, government officials say.

But the full impact of the boycott may not be felt for months.

In one of Africa’s most densely populated nations, fertilizer is essential to enrich overworked soils. This year, none was imported in time for the planting season, raising the specter of food shortages next year.

The embargo also threatens to close the small businesses that form the backbone of Bujumbura’s industry.

Fernando Netas da Silva, a Portuguese mechanic who has spent 44 years building up a car-repair business, says his garage cannot get parts and fuel.

``If the embargo isn’t lifted by the end of the year I’m out of here,″ he says.

Burundi’s neighbors say that to get the embargo lifted, the government must hold talks with Hutu rebels leading to a return of majority rule. Many Tutsis fear handing power to the Hutus could lead to a massacre like the 1994 genocide inflicted by Hutus on Tutsis in Rwanda.

``We prefer to live through the embargo than to put the noose around our own necks,″ says Lt. Col. Nicodemus Nduhirubusa, a military adviser to the prime minister.

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