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Burundi Crisis: Impoverished African nation weeps as no one shows interest in this nowhere land

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    Image Credits: Reuters

By Rukma Singh

Last month, Burundi had erupted in a series of street protests against the president’s decision to run for a third term in office. The protests have been met with great force by police. Several civilians and police officers have been killed. The emerging and developing political crisis in Burundi, is complex to understand. What is essential to keep in mind, however, is how the international community’s role will eventually attain supremacy in giving a direction to the situation.

The crisis

In March of last year, President Pierre Nkurunziza, narrowly lost a vote in parliament, that would have removed term limits and allowed him to run for a third term. The period immediately after the vote, offered an opportunity for the international community, to rally around the Burundian elite to ensure that the norm of term limits stuck, sufficiently isolating Nkurunziza and his allies. In a country of Burundi’s size, how the international community engages with local issues matters a great deal for the domestic conduct of politics.

History

Ever since Burundi achieved independence from Belgium in 1962, the country has experienced various episodes of mass and revenge killings between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. The bloodshed reached its peak during a 10-year civil war, during which over 300,000 people were killed. In 2002, a successful but tenuous peace was established through the groundbreaking Arusha Accords, and for the first time, ethnic differences appeared to be put to one side.

Increasing turmoil

The government had taken an increasingly authoritarian approach, cracking down on independent media and civil society – including the arrests of Pierre-Claver Mbonimba, a human rights activist, and Bob Rugurika, a popular radio journalist. There have been credible reports that the government, and, to a lesser extent, the opposition were actively arming the youth wings of their parties. At the end of 2014, a massacre took place in Cibitoke, in which at least 47 people were killed, an event that underscored the increasing potential for larger scale atrocities within Burundi.

One thing can be said for the crisis unfolding in Burundi over the past month and a half: it has put this small impoverished East African nation, which most Israelis cannot locate on a map, into the international news cycle.

The ray of hope

On the one hand, socio-economic problems, rising social discontent and extrajudicial killings put severe strains on the government. On the other hand, parallel dialogues have recently started between the European Union and the Burundian government, and between Burundian political actors.

Continuing these parallel dialogues and consolidating peace in Burundi will require mutual concessions by the ruling party and the opposition. It will also require that the donors maintain dialogue with the authorities on the political and security problems, and resort to financial incentives, particularly for the preparation of the elections and the security sector reform. International efforts should focus on protecting journalists and civil society activists, empowering the independent human rights commission, and promoting a security sector reform centered on human rights.

Recent developments

The head of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, on Saturday, urged rival-sides in Burundi to engage in dialogue to solve the political crisis gripping the central African nation.

“We would like to encourage all the parties to engage in constructive dialogue placing the interest of the country and the people, welfare and lives of their people and stability and peace above all else,” said AU chairwoman, Dlamini-Zuma at a peace and security meeting in Johannesburg, on the eve of an African Union summit.

Since last month Nkurunziza has faced international pressure to reconsider his attempt to stay in power, which observers fear could plunge the country back into war.

The country will hold parliamentary elections on June 29 and a presidential poll on July 15.

Next Story

Algeria Poses a Serious Economic Challenge to Future Government

Besides the popular uprising at home, the current rulers must also keep an eye on regional hotspots, including neighboring Libya

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politics, africa, algeria
A protester chants slogans during a demonstration against Algeria's leadership, in Algiers, April 12, 2019. VOA

The tens of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets for an eighth straight week aren’t the only crisis roiling Algeria. Helping to drive the unrest in Africa’s largest nation—and posing a serious challenge to any future government— is the economy.

Two months of mass demonstrations continued Friday, as Algerians pushed for a broader overhaul of the country’s system, despite elections set for July 4 by newly appointed interim leader, Abdelkader Bensalah. The protests have been largely peaceful, although there were some clashes reported this time along with scores of arrests, and police used water cannons and teargas in the capital Algiers.

“Bensalah, clear off, FLN clear off,” protesters chanted, referring to Algeria’s ruling party.

But many are also calling for a fundamental reboot of the country’s ailing, energy dependent economy that has failed to diversify and deliver jobs to its majority-young population. The unrest, in turn, is adding to Algeria’s economic headaches, analysts say.

“The economy is not in good shape,” said Paris-based Algerian analyst Alexandre Kateb. “The protests are the last straw, but the economic problems go deeper than that.”

algeria, politics
Tens of thousands of Algerians are seen gathered for a demonstration against the country’s leadership, in Algiers, April 12, 2019. VOA

Critics have long accused a power elite surrounding former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika of mismanagement and corruption, arguing a large chunk of the wealth is pocketed by a privileged minority. But for years, Algeria’s oil- and gas-rich economy served as a salve for a restless nation, helping to bankroll housing and other social subsidies.

It may be one explanation, some say—along with the country’s devastating 1990s civil war—why the broader Arab Spring uprising of 2011 failed to take off in Algeria.

Falling oil prices

But plummeting oil prices several years later helped to thin wallets and sharpen grassroots anger. Today, more than one-quarter of people under 25 are unemployed, and many Algerians work in the country’s vast informal sector. Successive governments have failed to privatize and capitalize on promising sectors for development such as tourism and agro-industry.

Earlier this week, the International Monetary Fund downgraded the country’s 2019 forecasted growth to 2.3 percent, from a previous 2.7 percent last October.

“The main motivation is still political,” analyst Kateb said of the protests. “But if the economic situation was better, probably the momentum would be less important. We would not have seen the magnitude of the protests that we see now.”

In the immediate future, Algeria’s economic woes may take a back seat. Besides the popular uprising at home, the current rulers must also keep an eye on regional hotspots, including neighboring Libya.

“From an interim government perspective, it’s just about maintaining stability and avoiding any real crisis beyond where we are at the moment,” said Adel Hamaizia, a North Africa expert for London-based think-tank Chatham House.

Algeria, politics
Young people chant slogans during an anti-government demonstration in Algiers, Algeria, April 10, 2019. VOA

“But whoever comes in really has to finally lead an ambitious economic program,” he added, “which helps Algeria realize its potential, develop an independent private sector, diversify, and attract investment on the correct terms.”

Those challenges are daunting. The ruling National Liberation Front or FLN party, in power since independence, has had little incentive to change a status quo that benefited them, many analysts say. Algeria’s business climate has been a turn-off for foreign investors. A case in point: a rule stipulating 51 percent of company shares must be owned by in-country nationals or businesses.

Although energy production continued to chug on during Algeria’s so called “black decade” of violence in the 1990s, further growth stalled. When he came to power in 1999, Bouteflika was credited for ushering in peace. At the beginning, analyst Kateb said, the former president also tried to reform the economy.

“I think he really wanted to give more freedom to entrepreneurs, he really tried to privatize the system,” Kateb said, adding subsequent financial scandals and the global financial crisis ended hope for change.

Inertia and bureaucracy

Kateb, who later served as an economic advisor to ex-prime minister Abelmalek Sellal, said subsequent reform efforts also stalled.

“If you don’t change the whole functioning of the system,” he said, “whatever you do at the margins will be completely absorbed by this inertia and black hole of government bureaucracy.”

algeria, politics
An elderly woman confronts security forces during an anti-government demonstration in Algiers, Algeria, April 10, 2019. VOA

If July elections go through as planned, Algerians will be strongly pushing for economic deliverables.

“I’m sure the many of the slogans are going to be centered around anti-corruption, inclusive growth, economic justice, diversification, and job creation,” said Hamaizia of Chatham House.

For the moment, there appear few clear candidates to champion such causes. Both the country’s ruling FLN and traditional opposition parties are largely discredited in the eyes of many Algerians.

Earlier this week, however, the interior ministry announced licenses for 10 new political parties, Reuters news agency reported, citing Algeria’s Ennahar TV channel.

Analyst Kateb believes the country needs a technocratic government to steer through needed changes, at least over the next few years.

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He believes there is no lack of talent to staff it, both in Algeria and abroad, where thousands of young professionals have flocked in recent decades for lack of opportunities at home.

“Now they’re not really considered,” Kateb said, “and this has to change.” (VOA)