The health ministry confirmed on 24 March that Burundi’s active coronavirus caseload stood at 1,878 – the highest since the outbreak began in March 2020. Unlike continental peers, which have been experiencing second and third waves of infection in recent months, the current spike in case numbers is technically Burundi’s first. Indeed, official active infections did not exceed 120 during 2020.
While the case increase has been attributed to the government’s efforts to bolster testing capabilities, Burundi still ranks poorly in this metric, with 7,412 tests conducted per million people – one of the lowest on the continent. This, despite testing centres having been established in most provincial urban centres since October 2020. Accordingly, Burundi’s low testing rate can be attributed to the public’s dismissal of the virus, largely as a result of deceased former president Pierre Nkurunziza downplaying the domestic outbreak. When President Evariste Ndayishimiye assumed office in June 2020, he largely sustained his predecessor’s rhetoric and disposition towards the virus.
In addition to its dismissive position, the government has failed to implement robust containment regulations. The only restrictions currently in place are the mandatory wearing of a face mask on public transport, the prohibition of public entertainment facilities (such as nightclubs), and the closure of the country’s land borders. Flights to and from Bujumbura International Airport are permitted, but all incoming passengers are required to present a negative PCR test no older than 72 hours and quarantine at a state facility for seven days prior to being tested again.
The most striking position of the government is its refusal to make use of any coronavirus vaccine, at least for now. Health minister Thaddee Ndikumana indicated in early February that Burundi does not need the vaccine at this time. According to Ndikumana, prevention remains more important than inoculation given that Burundi has a 95 percent recovery rate, and that the country can control the outbreak at present. Ndikumana did allude to the idea that the government would accept the vaccine should it be deemed necessary, but Burundi has yet to formally register with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVAX access facility, nor have engagements with manufacturers taken place.
Burundi’s refusal to inoculate its population at this time has yet to bring about any notable external criticism, least of all from regional peers, with which the Ndayishimiye government continues to foster increasingly favourable economic, security and diplomatic arrangements. This, following Burundi’s historic isolationism under the tenure of Pierre Nkurunziza.
From Kigali, with love
Foremost among such diplomatic efforts are recent bilateral engagements that indicate improving relations between Rwanda and Burundi since foreign minister Albert Shingiro met his Rwandan counterpart, Vincent Biruta, in October 2020. The meeting marked the first notable attempt to normalise bilateral ties, which have deteriorated in recent years following accusations by Nkurunziza that Rwanda was backing rebel groups to overthrow his administration.
The most significant developments pertaining to the former adversaries have occurred on the economic and security fronts. In terms of the former, reports on 25 February indicated that the governments of Rwanda and Burundi had begun mobilising revenue for the creation of the Akanyaru Multipurpose Dam. Facilities related to the project will cost roughly USD 190 million in total. The reservoir is intended to supply drinking water to 614,200 people in Burundi and Rwanda, and to provide water for the irrigation of 12,474 hectares of agricultural land. Over the longer term, a hydroelectric station will be established at the dam, which is expected to provide electricity for 846,000 people in both countries.
On the security side, Burundian and Rwandan military officials held a meeting at the Bweyeye immigration office in the Mabayi commune of Cibitoke province in mid-March. The dialogue centred on the establishment of an information-sharing framework to bolster cooperation in securing the common frontier.
An old friend
In another strategic bilateral development, reports on 16 February indicated that Tanzanian and Burundian authorities are seeking USD 1.9 billion in funding for a railway project linking the two countries. Funding is being specifically sought for a 190-kilometre rail connection linking the Tanzanian town of Isaka (Shinyanga region) to the Burundian town of Musongati (Rutana province). The connection – and access to the Tanzanian ports – is integral to Burundi’s plans to expand its mining revenue by as much as 47 percent by 2027, which is contingent on the export capacity offered by Tanzanian infrastructure.
Ndayishimiye has also sought to branch out of the East and Central African region.
The president arrived in Equatorial Guinea on 02 November 2020 for a five-day diplomatic visit. He held various meetings with his counterpart, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, to discuss ways to strengthen economic and political ties between the two countries. Crucially, this marked the first time that a Burundian head of state departed the country for more than 24 hours since the political crisis in 2015.
Then, on 23 March, Ndayishimiye arrived in Egypt for a four-day diplomatic visit, which saw the ratification of agreements relating to tourism, education, culture and communication, as well as the approval of visa exemptions for diplomatic and service passports.
Lifting the veil
The Ndayishimiye government’s diplomatic gains have gone beyond Africa.
In one of the more significant recent gains, the International Organisation of la Francophonie (OIF) on 04 November 2020 ratified Burundi’s full re-entry into the body after placing sanctions against the country in 2016. Following Burundi’s political crisis in 2015, the OIF accused the government of committing myriad human rights abuses, which led to its removal from the multilateral organisation. This resulted in diminished trade and economic cooperation between the 88 OIF members and Burundi. As per the OIF, the decision to resume its relationship with the country followed a formal request by President Ndayishimiye to lift the sanctions to allow for increased multilateral economic support.
More recently, foreign affairs minister Albert Shingiro and several ambassadors of European Union (EU) member countries engaged in diplomatic dialogue on 02 February. This followed the EU’s December 2020 decision to restore diplomatic ties with Burundi after they were suspended for nearly five years. In 2016, the EU suspended political engagement and withheld direct budgetary support to the Burundian government following allegations of human rights abuses committed in 2015. The February round of dialogue concluded with the EU agreeing to resume support for Burundi under the Cotonou Agreement – an overarching framework for EU relations with African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) countries. Participating governments receive support in various areas such as investment, economic development, climate change, poverty eradication, peace and security.
That said, just four days later, dozens of EU parliamentarians requested that the ongoing sanctions against Burundi (separate to Burundi’s removal of the Cotonou Agreement) remain in place. In justifying their decision, members of the EU legislature accused the Ndayishimiye administration ofmyriad human rights abuses since coming into power.
Indeed, the country’s socio-political environment continues to be defined by violent attacks against the political opposition, and arbitrary arrests. This largely stems from the retention of numerous senior military and state officials from the Nkurunziza administration. Most recently, during a party conference on 24 January, Reverien Ndikuriyo was selected as secretary-general of the ruling CNDD-FDD. The position was previously held by President Ndayishimiye – even after assuming presidential office in June 2020 – who on the same day was elected as chairman of the Council of Elders. Ndikuriyo is considered a political hardliner, whose rhetoric has historically been antagonistic towards the country’s opposition.
The incumbent government’s hostile position towards the opposition is reflected in the fact that over 180 opposition CNL members are currently in prison facilities across the country, with most having been apprehended in the build-up to (and following) the country’s 20 May 2020 general elections. Incidentally, President Ndayishimiye pardoned as many as 5,255 prisoners on 08 March, but all political prisoners – including non-combatants – were excluded. Rather, those with five-year sentences or those with corruption-related offences were released.
Clearing the forest
The government’s fostering of a repressive socio-political environment continues to motivate a low-level insurgency by armed anti-government groups, particularly in Cibitoke province.
Clashes between Burundi National Defence Force (FDNB) personnel and armed militants have continued into 2021, after military officials announced in November 2020 that they aim to “remove all armed elements” in Kibira forest, located in the Mabayi commune of Cibitoke. While armed exchanges have generally remained isolated to the forest, indiscriminate clashes have been reported near more populated areas. Most recently, it appears that state forces have gained the upper hand, with scores of rebels surrendering during the first week of March.
Burundi is assessed as being highly vulnerable to a protracted and significant coronavirus outbreak. While there has been a marginal shift in rhetoric in recent weeks by the administration of President Ndayishimiye (such as calling on civilians to get tested regularly), the government continues to downplay the virus’ severity. Accordingly, the public is unlikely to heed these demands, which will continue to deflect from the true extent of Burundi’s outbreak. More concerning is that Burundi is not formally registered with the COVAX global vaccine access facility, which will stall any inoculation effort, should it come under consideration; this in turn could have protracted economic and public health ramifications.
While Burundi is forecast to experience an economic rebound in 2021, there are several downside risks. Following a contraction of 3.2 percent in 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that Burundi will see growth of 3.1 percent in 2021. This forecast is marginally lower than that of the African Development Bank (AfDB), which projects a growth rate of 3.5 percent and then 2.1 percent in 2022. Inflation is also anticipated to decline to 5.4 percent in 2021 from 7.6 percent in 2020. Elsewhere, following measures to increase tax revenue in the 2020/21 Finance Law, and the prospect of a drop in current spending, the overall budget deficit is expected to decrease to 7.9 percent of GDP in 2021 from 8.7 percent in 2020. However, public debt is projected to increase from the 65 percent registered in 2020 to 68.9 percent in 2021. Simultaneously, the current account will continue to run a large deficit, due to the pressure on prices of agricultural raw materials and the revival of imports linked to the economic recovery. These projections face several downside risks, such as any climate-related disruptions to the country’s mainstay coffee and tea sector, a decrease in remittance inflows, and disruptions to economic activity as a result of a protracted coronavirus outbreak. Moreover, given the limited size of Burundi’s formal sector, there are also risks to achieving the touted tax revenue increase. Equally, the decision by the government to not use coronavirus vaccines may exacerbate the already poor investor sentiment that is dampened by regulatory overreach and the state’s poor human rights record.
Repairing and fostering diplomatic relations will remain a policy priority for the Ndayishimiye administration. The government is expected to continue its pursuit of economically beneficial arrangements, predominantly with continental peers. This will be crucial to Burundi’s longer-term economic development, which stagnated under the isolationist regime of Pierre Nkurunziza. In undertaking this objective, Burundi should see an increase in continental trade, additional bilateral development or infrastructure projects, an associated increase in foreign currency, and greater technical support from regional or continental bodies. In the medium term, Burundi’s re-entry into the OIF and Cotonou Agreement should afford greater access to fiscal support channels, which remain largely limited given the country’s high risk of debt distress.
Western partners will remain reluctant to resume direct budget support amid sustained human rights abuses by the government. Until such a time as the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (OHCHR) Commission of Inquiry on Burundi reports that the Ndayishimiye administration has undertaken changes to reduce the prevalence of such abuses, the European Union (EU) will likely retain its current stance. However, a shift in the government’s repressive rule is not anticipated at this time, given that Burundi continues to make positive strides in repairing continental relations and boosting economic cooperation with salient peers (such as Tanzania). Reinforcing this assessment is the ascent of hardliners from the Nkurunziza regime in the current government. Accordingly, Burundi’s socio-political environment will continue to be characterised by the violent persecution of the political opposition, and arbitrary arrests of journalists and civic activists.
The low-level insurgency in Cibitoke province will continue to pose a localised security threat over the medium term. Despite the recent successes, the military has yet to make notable progress in its touted goal of “removing all armed elements” from Kibira forest. This assessment is predicated on the fact that weekly armed exchanges have been reported by local residents – predominantly in the Mabayi commune – since November 2020. Given the relatively limited public information on the conflict, it also remains unclear to what degree the military has incurred any casualties, with local sources reporting the indiscriminate discovery of dead soldiers near the forest. The geographic scope of the conflict is not expected to shift at this time, although areas surrounding Kibira forest will remain at risk of a potential spillover.