Come Home and Sell the Coffee: Burundi Insists Crisis Is Over

(Bloomberg) -- The crisis is over: now dig some mines and grow some coffee.

That’s the message from Burundi’s government as it seeks to draw a line under three years of deadly political upheaval, touting plans for a mining- and agriculture-led economic resurgence and a vote for a successor to President Pierre Nkurunziza.

More than a quarter of a million refugees may beg to differ. As the tiny East African country tries to entice them home, a United Nations commission has warned government loyalists are still allegedly torturing and killing suspected dissidents, and the mainly exiled opposition says the roots of the unrest that’s claimed in excess of a thousand lives haven’t been addressed.

Come Home and Sell the Coffee: Burundi Insists Crisis Is Over

Portraying Burundi as stable is the government’s attempt to “deflect reports of human-rights abuses” and restore the flow of aid that’s “important to help the economy start running again,” said Richard Moncrieff, a regional project director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Many refugees are too afraid to return, while the issue of Nkurunziza stepping down hasn’t been fully resolved, he said.

Deadly Clampdown

The investment is badly needed in Burundi, which ranks 185th out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index and once depended largely on foreign aid. It emerged from civil war in 2005 only to plunge into turmoil in April 2015 when Nkurunziza sought a third term, which opponents called unconstitutional. Protests were quashed, there was a failed coup and then a deadly clampdown on dissent. The European Union imposed sanctions.

The upheaval, which includes a low-level insurgency and once threatened to draw in African Union peacekeepers, has added to instability in a part of the world that includes the mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo. Burundi has East Africa’s smallest economy, with agriculture -- mainly tea and coffee -- responsible for more than a third of output. More than 3 million people, or about a third of the population, needs aid, according to the UN.

Nkurunziza in June pledged to step down when his term ends in 2020, dampening fears that the president -- dubbed a “visionary” by the ruling CNDD-FDD party -- would mirror leaders in nearby Uganda and Rwanda and use recent constitutional changes to extend his rule. Then the 54-year-old turned to the economy.

10-Year Plan

“Burundi is at peace now, that is why we have decided to plan for 10 years to come,” he said at the Aug. 22 announcement of the Decade Development Plan.

The goals are ambitious: raising annual economic growth to 10.7 percent by 2027 -- it was 2 percent in 2016 -- more than doubling per capita gross domestic product to $810, and a swathe of hydropower projects.

Mining is also key, with the government targeting a 47 percent rise in revenue. Burundi holds an estimated 6 percent of the world’s nickel reserves and exports gold, coltan and rare-earth minerals. The country is also investing $81.2 million to double coffee production by 2021.

Come Home and Sell the Coffee: Burundi Insists Crisis Is Over

Enacting all this depends on peace. Moncrieff said Nkurunziza’s promise to step aside followed pressure from senior military figures and there’s “a big possibility” he could renounce it and run again in 2020, splitting the ruling party and army. “This could plunge the country into more instability,” he said.

A UN commission of inquiry said in September that serious violations are continuing, including summary executions and hate speech from the “highest level” of government. It also highlighted the growing influence of the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth wing, which rights groups have previously accused of abuses.

‘Political Competition’

While political violence has “clearly decreased and changed form” since 2015, “that doesn’t necessarily translate to reduced risk for those who fled,” said Clionadh Raleigh, executive director at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which analyzes and maps such crises. “Resurgence of violence is certainly possible, especially as political competition heats up ahead of the 2020 elections.”

Foreign Minister Ezekiel Nibigira said last week the UN Security Council should “have the courage to remove Burundi from its agenda,” saying “the spirit of tolerance, honesty and openness of the political space is growing stronger.”

There were about 383,000 Burundi refugees in nearby countries by the end of August, more than half of them in Tanzania and others in Rwanda, Congo and Uganda, according to the UN. The government has contested the figures and said in December that it was safe for refugees to return.

Come Home and Sell the Coffee: Burundi Insists Crisis Is Over

About 40,000 have already gone home although there are clear risks for any returnees seen as close to the opposition, according to Thijs van Laer, a program director at the Uganda-based International Refugee Rights Initiative. The governments of Tanzania and Congo are pressuring some to return, he said.

Tanzanian government spokesman Hassan Abbasi denied allegations that refugees are being forced to go back and said his government is working with Burundi and the UN to aid voluntary repatriation. Congo’s government said the accusation was false, and UN Refugee Agency spokesman Andreas Kirchhof said he wasn’t aware of such developments.

Bigirimana, a father of three who lives in Nyarugusu refugee camp in western Tanzania, said he fled the Imbonerakure at the height of the crisis. He’s in no hurry to return.

“Anyone who does not support the CNDD-FDD is considered an enemy,” he said by phone. “Why should I go back and end up facing victimization from the same people?”

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