Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence


An Assessment of Sanctions Against Burundi:

Executive Summary

  Updated executive summary of a report prepared for ActionAid in December 1998, submitted in May 1999 to the International Development Committee as evidence for the Committee's inquiry into conflict. The views expressed in this report are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ActionAid.


  In February 1997, I wrote a report of ActionAid which outlined the political and economic consequences of the embargo imposed against Burundi in July 1996. This report assesses developments since then, re-looks at the political and economic impact of the sanctions, and considers the political and economic impact of their suspension. It considers whether there were alternatives to sanctions and ends with recommendations and conclusions.

1.   Key political developments, February 1997-April 1999

  On April 16 1997 Mr Buyoya told regional leaders that his government had been meeting secretly with the rebel Conseil National pour la Defense de la Democratie (CNDD), and was rewarded with recognition as Burundi's head of state and exemptions to sanctions. The news about the talks proved unpopular at home, and the talks were soon suspended. Regional leaders decided on August 16-17 to maintain sanctions, and the Burundian government to pull out of multi-party talks in Arusha scheduled for August 25.

  On January 1 1998 the CNDD militia, the Forces pour la Defense de la Democratie (FDD), attacked Bujumbura airport in large numbers and in co-operation with the former Rwandan army and interahamwe militia.

  Regional heads of state endorsed sanctions on February 21, but there was evidence that the presidents of Kenya and Zambia did not accept the decision. Meanwhile, international protest against sanctions intensified.

  The CNDD split in May 1998. Jean-Bosco Ndayikengurukiye, allegedly the FDD's chief-of-staff, denounced CNDD president Leonard Nyangoma and said he would fight on until recognised as the CNDD's leader in Arusha.

  In June a new power-sharing deal called the partneriat was signed by Mr Buyoya and the opposition Front pour la defense de la democratie (Frodebu). Two vice-presidents were appointed, with the most senior a Frodebuist. The National Assembly was enlarged and the constitutional court re-established. The partneriat aims to transform the local administration, judicial system and eventually the armed forces so that they better reflect Burundi's ethnic composition. There has since been modest progress in recruiting Hutus to the local administration and judiciary.

  Arusha II began on 16 June 1998 and produced a ceasefire agreement from which both the militias and army quickly distanced themselves. After further inconclusive talks in July, the EU, Belgium, Britain and the USA called for sanctions to be reviewed.

  Arusha III took place in mid-October. The UN Security Council called for sanctions to be lifted on 9 November and Arusha facilitator Mwalimu Julius Nyerere later told EU ministers that he would soon recommend this to regional heads of state.

  Burundi's international donors met in New York from 11-12 January 1999, and made significant pledges that confirmed their determination to resume assistance to Burundi whether sanctions were lifted or not.

  Arusha IV took place from 18-31 January, with the CNDD-FDD once again excluded. Meanwhile, there was a sharp increase in the number of rebel attacks in Makamba province, with a number thought to originate from within Tanzania.

  Regional heads of state met from 21-23 January. As expected, they suspended sanctions in order, they said, to strengthen the Arusha process. The leaders added that the embargo's suspension was conditional on continued progress at Arusha.

  Burundi's foreign minister Severin Ntahomvukiye visited Tanzania in mid-February and agreed with his Tanzanian counter-part Jack Kikwete to improve relations between the two countries.

  Arusha V took place from 10-16 March. Mr Nyerere complained of slow progress, while the Burundi government called for their venue to be moved to Bujumbura. This was rejected by Mr Nyerere.

  On 18 March, former Burundian president Sylvestre Ntibantunganya was suspended from Frodebu's executive committee for alleged ethnicism. In apparent retaliation, Tanzanian-based party president Jean Minani rejected the expulsion as illegal and ordered the expulsion from the party of Frodebu secretary-general Augustin Nzojibwami. Mr Nzojibwami has ignored this, claiming that Mr Minani was out of touch.

  On 13 April, Mr Buyoya launched a week of festivities in Bujumbura, to celebrate the end of sanctions.

2.   The political impact of sanctions (a)   before the partneriat

  Prior to the partneriat, sanctions encouraged the government to legalise political parties and restore the national assembly, but it pursued talks with rebel militia of its own accord. Sanctions may have helped bring the government to Arusha, but also provided it with an excuse not to take the process seriously. Sanctions probably contributed to the partneriat by denying Mr Buyoya legitimacy, which the partneriat has helped restore.

 (b)   after the partneriat

  Once the partneriat was signed, the internal wing of Frodebu said that sanctions had fulfilled their purpose and should be lifted. Most of the world agreed, isolating the Tanzanian government and Mr Nyerere, who disagreed.

 (c)   what regional political actors wanted from sanctions

The Tanzanian government

  Despite Burundian fears that Tanzania wishes to annex Burundi, its real intention is to solve its refugee problem. The government has sought to apply a model that worked with South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, securing a negotiated settlement that addresses the causes of the conflict, thus enabling refugees to go home. The model also involves loyalty to the "old stalwarts" of the struggle in exile in preference to younger politicians in the home country. In Burundi's case, this means Mr Minani and Mr Nyangoma.

  However, both Frodebu and the CNDD-FDD within Burundi have moved on from Mr Minani and Mr Nyangoma. Tanzania was, until the suspension of sanctions and subsequent improved relations with Burundi, apparently unable to adjust to this new reality. However, if the Arusha peace process is re-invigorated, Tanzania will be able to cast itself once again as part of the solution in Burundi.

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere

  Mr Nyerere was appointed mediator in the Burundian conflict in November 1995. He first tried to secure Burundian government approval for a regional peace keeping force there, but this plan was scuppered by the July 1996 coup. Mr Nyerere has since tried to reverse the coup, and to this end advocated sanctions and has pursued the Arusha process.

  Many Burundians and international observers complain that Mr Nyerere is not neutral, but it is hard to believe that he was appointed to be, as his view that Tutsi minority rule through the military is at the heart of Burundi's problems was well-known.

  Losing the support of the internal Frodebu and the commanders of the CNDD-FDD in 1998 damaged Mr Nyerere, because it enabled Western backers to disassociate themselves from him and force his climb-down over sanctions.

The Ugandan government

  Ugandan government policy towards Burundi seems largely determined by personal animosities between President Yoweri Museveni and Mr Buyoya. However, Mr Museveni is more concerned with Congo than Burundi and was content to suspend sanctions once asked.

The Rwandan government

  The Rwandan government considers Mr Buyoya and his coup bad for its image as an "African renaissance" government and used sanctions to distance itself from the regime. It did little to enforce the sanctions but occasionally closed its borders to extract political concessions from Burundi.

(d)   The political impact of lifting sanctions

  The suspension of sanctions was a victory for those who advocated the move—Mr Buyoya, the Burundian government and the internal wing of Frodebu.

  Those who ushered Mr Buyoya into power in 1996 wanted an end to the embargo and international isolation. Mr Buyoya has now delivered both, and can no longer be accused of making concessions and receiving nothing in return. Instead Mr Buyoya can argue that his approach has been vindicated.

  The suspension of sanctions enables the Burundian government to pursue the partneriat programme with renewed confidence, and to act more forcefully against political opponents. Because both the suspension of sanctions and future Western aid are tied to progress in Arusha, the government is obliged to persist with the process, despite viewing it as fundamentally flawed. However, mounting donor impatience with its slow progress and the continued absence of the CNDD-FDD may yet diminish Arusha's de facto significance.

  The end of the embargo has heightened the split between the internal and external wings of Frodebu, and seems to be working in the former's favour. The orders of "exiled" party president Jean Minani are being ignored by the internal wing and it is only a matter of time before his position too is challenged.

  The suspension of sanctions, and particularly the manner in which they were suspended, was a defeat for the CNDD and CNDD-FDD, Mr Nyerere, the Tanzanian government, who were the main opponents of suspension, and for the whole concept of "African solutions to African problems".

  Despite the claims of regional heads of state, the suspension was clearly in large part due to the donors' ultimatum that they would resume aid regardless of sanctions, and not because of sanctions-induced political progress in Burundi. As a result, the suspension of sanctions in January 1999 appeared more like a product of old-fashioned neo-imperialism than the proud achievement of African diplomacy, a deeply regrettable outcome which no-one wanted.

  The impact of the suspension of sanctions on the CNDD-FDD is considerably less than that of the war in Congo. Through its alliance with Mr Kabila and his allies, the CNDD-FDD and other Burundian militia have access to training, weapons and munitions within Congo. This, and their continued exclusion from the Arusha talks, encourages the militia to pursue a military approach and it will require exceptional incentives for them to rejoin negotiations.

3.   The economic and social impact of sanctions

  Prices increased under the embargo, though in some cases were lower in 1998 and 1997. Poverty levels for both urban and rural dwellers increased, most markedly in towns. Fuel was actually cheaper in Burundi than Rwanda, principally because of its subsidisation by the Burundian government. The Burundi franc devalued because of the embargo.

  The embargo inhibited the distribution of medicines, and rendered the state less able to pay for them. Humanitarian agencies partially filled the vacuum left by the state's withdrawal from the health sector. Education was more affected by civil war than the embargo, but the embargo made school fees and equipment less affordable.

  The embargo reduced the availability of imputs for agriculture, though again, humanitarian agencies made up much of the shortfall. War and insecurity, rather than the embargo, reduced commercial agricultural production. Industrial production was severely affected by the embargo because of its dependence on imported inputs. State revenues fell in real terms. Rising expenditure and falling international assistance combined to increase the budget deficit.

  GDP fell 8.4 per cent in 1996, increased 0.4 per cent in 1997 and rose an estimated 4.5 per cent in 1998. The embargo curtailed import levels but restricted export earnings even more, causing the trade balance to deteriorate. This and reduced aid levels worsened the balance of payments. Sanctions caused steep increases in internal debt and arrears on external debt, though there has been little new lending since the embargo began.

  Humanitarian exemptions were first granted in September 1996 and progressively extended until by April 1997 only commercial fuel imports and commercial agricultural exports were banned. Humanitarian agencies reported bureaucratic difficulties, sometimes politically inspired, getting materials into Burundi, but after April 1997 mostly left this task to private importers, who encountered fewer problems.

  Social indicators during sanctions worsened despite humanitarian exemptions. Rural poverty levels rose from 53-58 per cent between 1995-97. Urban poverty levels rose 15 per cent to 66 per cent in the same period. [15]Primary school attendance, at 44 per cent in 1998, was 25 per cent lower than in 1992. Vaccination cover, at around 70 per cent, was 25 per cent lower than in 1990.

  The indicators worsened because of the combined effects of war, displacement, excessive military expenditure, bad weather and sanctions. Humanitarian exemptions could not counter-act the effect of all this, or even of sanctions alone, because the economic and social consequences of the embargo, which include reduced foreign reserves, a depreciating currency, inflation, falling wage levels in real terms and negative or minimal GDP growth, cannot be corrected by exempting bans on the importation of anything.

How the embargo was beaten

  Fuel was imported to Burundi via a number of routes, many of which passed through Tanzania and Rwanda. Fuel often left western Rwanda and travelled through eastern Congo before entering Bujumbura.

  Tea and coffee were exported via Lake Tanganyika, the Zambian lake port of Mpulungu and then by road to Durban. This route is expensive and slower than traditional routes to Mombasa and Dar es Salaam but was much cheaper than flying the commodities out by air, as was done in the early days of the embargo.

4.   The economic impact of suspending sanctions

  Since the suspension of sanctions, international aid to Burundi has increased, but not by much. In New York on 11 January, donors agreed to provide "enlarged humanitarian assistance" and have since stuck to this brief. There has been little development assistance and no balance of payments support promised to date. Another pledging conference is scheduled for June, but until then, and probably for some time after that too, Burundi's foreign exchange reserves will remain critically low.

  This means that the central bank will keep allocating foreign exchange for strategic imports, leading to shortages of other imported goods. This keeps the price of imports high, which helps explain why customs receipts have been falling since the end of the embargo.

  The foreign exchange shortage maintains the pressure on the Burundian franc. In mid-April 1999, the official exchange rate was Bufr535:$1, a 5 per cent devaluation from late November 1998. This devaluation also increases prices, though it is worth noting that the parallel exchange rate has fallen from Bufr730:$1 in late November to Bufr710:$1 today.

  Devaluation diminishes the value of government revenue, despite increases in local currency terms. The sustained pressure on government revenue has forced continued domestic borrowing and excessive tax rates on business. Brarudi, the country's brewery and major source of government revenue, reported in early April that it was in serious trouble and planned large scale redundancies.

  The end of sanctions has not greatly affected commercial agricultural production, but does make life easier and cheaper for exporters, as they have been able to return to the Mombasa and Dar es Salaam routes.

  Food production in Burundi is more sensitive to civil war and weather than sanctions, and the main problem today is drought. Still, prices of some foods have come down, particularly those where Burundian production is supplemented by regional imports.

5.   Was there an alternative to sanctions?

  Sanctions were originally the regional heads of state's alternative to military intervention. Given their plausible belief that the post-coup Burundian government would not introduce significant political concessions without external pressure, sanctions were a reasonable policy option. The possibility of "smart sanctions" by the region, or any kind of sanctions by the OAU or UN were remote.

  Sanctions were never popular with humanitarian agencies or Western states, but the latter felt obliged until mid-1998 to keep quiet for fear of undermining "African solutions to African problems". However, their discontent required the regional heads of state to be particularly flexible and adaptive to retain the policy's effectiveness. The heads of state failed in this, in part because they never monitored the political and economic impact of sanctions.

  Sanctions require the support of significant internal political actors in the country to which they are being directed, as in South Africa in the 1980s. This existed in Burundi until the partneriat, when the internal Frodebu withdrew its support for sanctions. Regional heads of state should then have lifted sanctions and improved the Arusha process. This could have been done by sending the small parties home and concentrating on bringing the real militia leaders to the table to talk to the new coalition government.

  Had this been done, Africa and the world could have endorsed Frodebu's position that sanctions had forced Mr Buyoya to compromise and had thus worked, even if Mr Buyoya continued to insist that he would have compromised anyway. The result would have been a perceived victory for an African regional initiative, and thus "African solutions to African problems". It would also have brought Burundi closer to the end of its civil war.

  However, the suspension of sanctions in January 1999 can only be plausibly attributed to donor pressure, despite regional claims that it was because of progress at Arusha. This was the wrong way for the sanctions to end, as they cannot now be unquestionably credited with any political achievement. This makes future similar African initiatives seeking to use non military forms of pressure on countries undergoing internal turmoil less likely to materialise or succeed.

6.   Conclusions and recommendations


(a)   The partneriat was a turning point in the history of sanctions

  Before the partneriat it was arguable that sanctions were effective. After the partneriat, when Frodebu joined Mr Buyoya's calls for the sanctions to end, the sanctions definitely were not. The region's failure to realise this led to the isolation of the Tanzanian government and the Burundi peace process facilitator to realise this led to the isolation of the Tanzanian government and the Burundi peace process facilitator Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, and emboldened donors to force a change of position in late 1998.

(b)   Sanctions hurt nearly everyone in Burundi

  Although urban dwellers, because of their greater reliance on purchased goods to meet their needs, suffered proportionately more than rural dwellers, rural living standards also declined because of sanctions.

(c)   Reduced access to international funds had more impact on Burundi's economy than the embargo itself

  The embargo increased the cost of business in Burundi but its main economic effect was to make it difficult for donors and creditors to provide fresh credit. Burundi has long relied on such assistance and has gone deeper into debt without it.

(d)   Humanitarian exemptions cannot reverse a decline in social indicators on their own

  Humanitarian exemptions made exempted goods more available in Burundi but did not make them more affordable on the open market. International agencies performed impressive work ensuring their accessibility via their own distribution networks. However, this was not enough to reverse a decline in negative social indicators in the face of continued civil war, population displacement, excessive military budgets, poor weather and the general negative impact on the economy of sanctions themselves.

  Humanitarian exemptions could not reverse the influence on social indicators of the embargo alone either. This is because the economic and social consequences of reduced foreign reserves, a depreciating currency, inflation, falling real wage levels, and negative or minimal GDP growth cannot be corrected by exempting the importation of anything.

(e)   Because of missed opportunities, sanctions were suspended for the wrong reasons, damaging Africa's capacity to solve its own problems

  Sanctions were a reasonable choice of the regional heads of state in July 1996, given their understandable mistrust of Mr Buyoya's intentions. However, sanctions require the support of significant internal political actors in the country on which they have been imposed and this support came to an end with the partneriat. Regional heads of state and Mr Nyerere should have recognised this and lifted the sanctions soon after June 1998. They missed their opportunity and failed to do so. When sanctions were suspended in January 1999, they were suspended primarily because of donor pressure. This was the wrong reason to end a regional initiative designed to provide an effective and home-grown alternative to military intervention, and has severely damaged the principle to which both Africa and the West subscribes, namely African solutions for African problems.

(f)   The Arusha peace process needs revitalising

  The value of the Arusha peace process, particularly since the partneriat, has been its potential as a forum where the coalition government could negotiate directly with representatives of armed militia. The presence of minor political parties who already have a place in the enlarged Burundian National Assembly is an irrelevance and a distraction. Mr Nyerere's insistence on sticking with alleged militia-representatives who do not command the loyalty of their troops, like Mr Nyangoma, is a mistake. The real commanders of the militia should be recognised and brought to Arusha immediately, so that with the smaller parties sent home, substantial negotiations with the government can at last begin. However, the war in Congo has made this more difficult as the militia have used it to strengthen their military capacity, making them less interested in negotiated solutions.


(a)   The militia leaders must be brought into the Arusha process

  It should still be possible to bring the real leaders of Burundi's militia to Arusha, sending home in the process all the representatives of minor parties, and, if necessary, Mr Ngendekumana and Mr Minani, neither of whom appear to command much political support inside Burundi. Doing so would restore much of Mr Nyerere's battered credibility and could be a major contribution towards the search for peace in Burundi.

(b)   Sanctions should only be imposed if there is significant internal political support for them

  States pondering sanctions should be sure of the support of significant internal political actors, as was the case for example in South Africa in the 1980s. Identifying and attempting to cultivate such actors after the imposition of sanctions is not an effective alternative and does not work.

(c)   Monitor sanctions carefully

  States imposing sanctions can only react appropriately to changing circumstances if they know what is going on in the affected country and constantly monitor the political and economic effects of their policy.

(d)   Lift sanctions for the right reasons

  If countries imposing sanctions have the support of significant internal political actors, and those actors later judge for plausible reasons connected to the unfolding political process in the country that the time has come to lift the sanctions, this presents a prima facie case for the countries imposing sanctions to do so. Failure to respond at this point means that the sanctions-imposers risk alienating themselves from these internal political actors, losing the political initiative, and having to abandon the policy at a later date with nothing or even considerable political damage to show for it.

(e)   Do not expect humanitarian exemptions to reverse negative social indicators on their own

  Humanitarian exemptions are better than nothing at all, but should not be expected to reverse negative social indicators on their own. This is not just because the combined weight of all the various factors causing the indicators to decline is greater than anything humanitarian exemptions can hope to achieve, though this has been true in Burundi. It is also because sanctions damage the entire economy, and the effects of this cannot be reversed merely by easing the availability of essential goods.

Gregory Mthembu-Salter

April 1999

15   Figures taken from a UNICEF study, 1997. Back

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