Porous Burundi Borders Could Thwart Embargo
For months now, Burundi's border with Zaire ostensibly has been closed. But that has not stopped Burundian traders from smuggling goods and commodities across the border with ease.
And, according to economic analysts and diplomats, that fact would not change if the Organization of African Unity imposed sanctions on this tiny, violence-wracked central African country.
In fact, the analysts said, given how easily Burundians smuggle goods to and from neighbors Zaire and Rwanda, the "full economic blockade" promised Wednesday by the OAU in response to last week's military-led coup may materialize as nothing more than a futile gesture.
"The big question is how they are going to implement these sanctions," one African diplomat said today, echoing others. "If they are applied, they will cripple the economy of the country. It is a big if."
Burundi's economy has already been decimated over the past three years by a brutal civil conflict between the country's army -- controlled by the minority Tutsi ethnic group -- and rebels from the majority Hutu tribe. The fighting has taken more than 150,000 lives, and continues to kill hundreds each month, most of them civilians in the countryside.
Last week, the army carried out a coup and installed a new leader, a move roundly condemned by foreign governments and world bodies, including the United Nations and the OAU.
On Wednesday, at a meeting called by the African body, several leaders from east and central Africa voted to level sanctions against Burundi, but did not provide specifics or give a timetable for when the action would go into effect.
The move is designed to push Burundi's new leader, retired major Pierre Buyoya, and his still-unformed transitional government to reinstate the constitution, the national assembly and political parties -- all suspended as of last Thursday.
The action is aimed at economically isolating Burundi, a landlocked country that depends on ports in Tanzania and Kenya for import and export of its goods.
But as the conflict has worsened, Burundians have smuggled increasing amounts of goods through their country's porous borders with Rwanda to the north and Zaire to the west.
Analysts estimate that last year at least 20 percent of the country's coffee -- Burundi's leading revenue-generating product -- was lost to smuggling.
If sanctions were implemented, the border with Zaire would be especially problematic because, one diplomat said, "for all intents and purposes, Zaire does not have a government."
Benoit Ndorimana, one of Burundi's most prominent businessmen, said today that sanctions would be "harsh," although "I don't think they will be implemented. I hope not. Sanctions would kill Burundians."
Ndorimana, who owns a restaurant and an insurance company, said the instability in Burundi already has sent investors fleeing, dried up his restaurant business and forced him to put several projects on hold.
Others worry that the sanctions may cause fuel prices -- Burundi imports all of its gasoline and diesel -- to explode and may bring about unbearable inflation upon Burundians, 85 percent of them peasants who earn about $165 a year.
Even if the sanctions were implemented, diplomats say they doubt Burundi's new leadership would budge.
"You have to realize that Burundians have already survived many catastrophes," one ambassador said. "There's nothing that Burundians haven't seen."
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