Burundi could be devastated by trade embargo

News and Press Release
Originally published
BUJUMBURA, Burundi (Aug 1, 1996 8:23 p.m. EDT) -- Sweaty men shuttle burlap sacks bulging with coffee beans into a port warehouse, while a huge crane swings tons of Zambian sugar onto the quay.
For now, Bujumbura's port is busy, but that could change if East African nations follow through on their threat of sanctions to penalize Burundi for last week's military-led coup.

One of the poorest countries in the world, Burundi's fragile economy, already battered by three years of civil war, could be ruined by a trade embargo. And the country's sizable underground economy could grow more so.

"If there was an embargo from our neighbors, it would be the death of our country," Thomas Minani, director general of the state-run Coffee Office, said Thursday. "Everyone will suffer."

African leaders said Wednesday they were committed to putting pressure on Burundi's new military leader, Pierre Buyoya, including sanctions" to force him to restore constitutional rule.

Like most African nations, Burundi is battling a massive foreign debt that has strangled economic development. Its $1
billion-plus debt is four times its GNP.

Most foreign loans to Burundi were cut off two years ago, with the United States terminating $3 million in development aid after last week's coup.

The tiny landlocked country depends on its neighbors to import its coffee, tea, cotton and other raw materials.

Most of the coffee, which accounts for 80 percent of the country's exports, is transported by boat down Lake Tanganyika and then via railroad across Tanzania to the port of Dar es Salaam. In some cases, it is sent overland to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

This year's coffee crop is expected to generate $70 million, more than 20 percent of the country's estimated annual gross national product.

The African nations have not been able to agree on the details of the embargo -- how it would be imposed and beginning when.

Buyoya issued a statement Thursday calling "on all of Burundi's foreign friends to trust the new (government), ... and to wait and judge on their results."

He has said his coup was intended to prevent widespread ethnic slaughter of the type that killed 500,000 people in neighboring Rwanda over two months in 1994. So far, 150,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in three years of Tutsi-Hutu fighting in Burundi.

Bujumbura and other major cities are inhabited mainly by Tutsis, who make up 14 percent of the country's 6 million people. Many of the Hutus, 85 percent of the population, have been pushed into the countryside by the Tutsi-dominated army.

Because they run most major industries and are the main consumers of imported goods such as cars, televisions and electronic goods, Tutsis would be especially hard hit by sanctions, said Prime Naymoyo, an economics professor at the University of Burundi.

He said 90 percent of Burundians "are engaged in subsistence agriculture, and they will not necessarily be affected by sanctions."

Naymoyo also warned that clandestine trade would flourish under a trade embargo. Burundi's underground economy already surpasses its official economy, he said, and many people have profited immensely from the war. Arms smuggling, especially across the poorly guarded Zairian border, has skyrocketed.

"The war has destroyed Burundi, but in Bujumbura there are still lots of people buying new Mercedes, building new homes," Naymoyo said. "Where do they get their money?"

Copyright =A9 1996 Nando.net
Copyright =A9 1996 The Associated Press