An Assessment of Sanctions Against Burundi:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 moveMr 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
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
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
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
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
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. 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
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
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
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
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
(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.
15 Figures taken from a UNICEF study, 1997. Back