At every opportunity, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza rallies his country of 11.8 million people around the notion that, despite increased isolation by donors and the international community, the government continues running its affairs uninterrupted.
July 2 was no different as the country marked Independence Day, from of Belgium in 1962. President Nkurunziza said key installations would be named after senior Hutu politicians, including his advisor who was killed during a coup attempt in 2015, disenfranchising the minority Tutsi, in a country where tribal animosities have fuelled political instability since Independence.
He also played up the theme of self-sustenance, boasting that the government would fund more than 80 per cent of its $825 million budget in the current year from internal revenue sources, up from 60 per cent in the year ended June 2019.
The Eternal Supreme Guide — as his party labelled him in March 2018 — then turned to the 2020 general election, which requires $38 million, despite only $17 million having been raised by September last year.
The theme of self–sustenance, however, is meant more for the ears of the international community than for Burundians. In private, President Nkurunziza knows that the country desperately needs money; far more than the $8 million raised from population taxes since 2017 to fund the 2020 election.
During a UN Security Council meeting on June 14 to discuss the situation in Burundi, Jurg Lauber, chair of the Burundi Configuration of the Peacebuilding Commission, told members that officials ''mentioned'' needing technical support.
“With regard to preparations for the peaceful conduct of the elections, the need for technical support, for instance in the areas of police training and security sector reform, was mentioned,” Mr Lauber said.
Under a law passed in September 2017, all Burundian entities — persons, businesses, and organisations — are required to pay BIF2,000 ($1.2|) per month to the election fund. Students above 16 years are also required to contribute BIF1,000 (60 US cents) to the kitty. More is raised in cash and kind (livestock and foodstuffs) including during provincial crusades presided over by President Nkurunziza who is also a preacher and a footballer.
On July 2, President Nkurunziza said civil servants could now stop contributing as the target was almost met.
In exchange for technical support that would ease the pressure on citizens, officials indicated that the electoral commission (CENI) would invite election observers, unlike in 2015 when the president was running for a controversial third term. “I was informed that CENI would invite observers from international and regional organisations to the elections,” Mr Lauber said, adding that he was assured that the president would not be a candidate.
If indeed that is the case, President Nkurunziza has chosen an uncanny way of cultivating trust among stakeholders ranging from human-rights watchers to potential financiers. In a brief to the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday, investigators said Burundi needed to take drastic steps for next year’s election to be considered credible. The government has consistently been accused of continued repression of liberties including media freedom and human rights.
Last month, the country’s last good governance crusader — Parcem — was shut down over “disturbing peace and public order.” Parcem is the French acronym for Parole et Action pour le Réveil des Consciences et l'Evolution des Mentalités which translates to Words and Action for the Awakening of Conscience and the Evolution of Mindsets, founded by Faustin Ndikumana, an anti-corruption activist.
The UN Human Rights Office said Parcem was still receiving allegations of killings, forced disappearances, detentions and torture by the time it was compelled to close its Bujumbura operations in February this year, ending a presence of 23 years. Media organisations have not been spared.
“A number of interlocuters voiced concerns over difficulties by members of opposition parties to gather freely and over actions on two foreign media that allegedly violated national regulations,” Mr Lauber said.
The BBC and the VoA were banned from operating in Burundi in May last year. On June 15, an office belonging to the National Liberation Congress (CNL) was burned down in circumstances that its leader Agathon Rwasa said pointed to state complicity. Shortly after, however, CNL members were arrested for arson, ostensibly meant to tarnish Burundi’s image.
“The state plan is to shrink political space,” CNL spokesman Terence Manirambona said in April after a series of arrests of opposition members over holding of alleged illegal meetings.
"The government must immediately take drastic measures to provide the democratic vitality needed to ensure credible elections," the Council’s head Doudou Diene said.
Burundi’s ambassador to the UN, Renovat Tabu, however, accused the council and other critics of focusing on “governance and political considerations” alone.
With other considerations in place, however, the situation in Burundi would be no more hopeful. Nearly 1.8 million people face food insecurity, first, because of climate change impact on agricultural cycles and because of rising food prices and unemployment. Access to food has been constrained after Burundi banned food trade with its neighbours, explaining why this year's budget targets improvements in agriculture and health.
With a population growth of 3.23 per cent (the fourth highest in the world), $56.3 million going to military spending in 2017, flat economic growth, returning refugees and global isolation, Burundi will take a while to recover from the impact of the 2015 conflict. As a result, two in every three people live in absolute poverty.
“Continued resistance by donors and the international community will restrict Burundi’s economic growth as the country deals with a large current account deficit,” the CIA World Factbook says.
In 2017, the country exported goods worth $120 million against imports of $604 million. Its forex reserves of $97 million is hardly enough to cover two months of imports against an East African Community benchmark of three and a half months.
For now, the highly indebted country ($610 million or 52 per cent of GDP) are relying on earnings from coffee, tea and on its 767 soldiers serving in the United Nations peacekeeping missions in the Central Africa Republic and Somalia through which it earns $13 million a year.