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Burundi's Political Instability Is Worsening the Country's Food Crisis

Marché de Bubanza, Burundi. 17 August 2014. Credit: Sara, via Wikimedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

In recent months, East Africa has been hit with a serious food crisis. Extreme and erratic weather, related to the “La Niña-El Niñoweather phenomenon, has led to stock shortages and sent food prices soaring in several countries, including Kenya and Tanzania. Aid agencies are ringing the alarm, calling for immediate action to avoid any repeat of Somalia’s disastrous 2011 famine.

In some cases, however, political instability is compounding the problem.

In Burundi, unpredictable weather patterns, characterised by heavy rains and long droughts, have hit crops. The resulting food shortages have affected school attendance and has even led to starvation-related deaths. In January, humanitarian agencies and the government investigated and called for international assistance, although ministers refuse to describe the situation as being a result of ‘famine’ preferring the term ‘deficit‘ of agricultural production instead.

According to Olucome [a Burundian anti-corruption NGO], the government should call for international solidarity to alleviate the famine

Around a quarter of Burundi's population — about 3 million people — now reportedly need food assistance. Food shortages have contributed to displacement, with over 400,000 people becoming UN-registered refugees and an estimated 150,000 internally displaced.

Officials argued the crisis over food is the only reason for the displacement. Yet, in March, the UN’s Radio Okapi in the Democratic Republic of Congo reported on new refugees who were fleeing the country because of political insecurity. Some have returned, but Burundians exiled in Uganda remain sceptical of the government's call to return home, saying that they still opposed President Pierre Nkurunziza's third term.

Ruyigi [a province]: the maize harvest to be poor due to bad weather

President Nkurunziza's 2015 decision to stay on in power after the end of his two terms in office sparked a political crisis, characterized by “violence, fear, socio-economic decline and deepening social fractures” as International Crisis Group wrote in May 2016. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization said that, while extreme weather has contributed to food-access problems, Burundi’s political insecurity exacerbates it.

Reports of shortages and inflation –13.8% in 2016 – in basic goods have been more common, and banknote shortages further complicate everyday exchanges. The depreciation of the Franc, Burundi's currency, has affected imports, adding to lower production and incomes and hitting many with lower food availability and affordability. The Famine Early Warning System Network noted, though, that a better upcoming harvest could hopefully stabilize “atypically high” prices.

Highlighting the everyday impact, blogger Bella Lucia Nininahazwe described a child’s hardships, going to school hungry, unable to buy everyday items:

Seigneur, mes chaussures sont déjà usées, et je vois déjà le visage de maman s’obscurcir quand je vais lui dire que j’ai besoin de nouvelles chaussures. Je sais déjà sa réponse : «  Tu sais que les prix montent vite ma fille, aujourd’hui je peine à trouver ce que vous allez manger, attends que je trouve de l’argent et je t’achèterais de belles chaussures ».

“Lord, my shoes are already worn out, and I already see my mum’s expression cloud over when I go to tell her I need new shoes. I already know her answer: “You know that the prices are rising quickly my girl, today I can barely find what you’re going to eat, wait for me to find some money and I’ll buy you some beautiful shoes”.”

An increase in malaria cases – linked to climate changes and insecurity – has added another challenge affecting millionsaccording to the World Health Organization. Burundi's Health Minister declared a malaria epidemic on 13 March. Iwacu newspaper also reported on inflation and shortages making everyday medicines inaccessible to many.

‘What sovereignty for a country where ¼ of the population needs food aid?’

Burundi is among the poorest countries in the world, and as such it generally has less resources and infrastructural capacity to respond to and recover from natural crises. Aid restrictions, as result of the political crises, have created budgetary shortfalls that have impacted the government's response to the food shortage. The country also suffers from corruption – it is ranked 159/176 in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Index – which undermines governance.

Some believe resilience to shocks is part of economic independence, as Twitter user Emmanuel highlighted in response to Burundi Minister Alain-Aime Nyamitwe discussing diplomatic relations:

Ikihiro: Important interview: “Burundi is sovereign and Belgium would be the last to know it”

Emmanuel: What sovereignty for a country where ¼ of the population needs food aid?

International response

Some argue climate change is responsible for the crisis and that the famine should not be used to score political points:

The famine that has hit Burundi is due to climate change and has hit the whole region. Nobody should exploit it politically

Relations between Bujumbura and international partners have unfortunately deteriorated since 2015. In late 2016, Bujumbura deepened its isolation, reducing cooperation with the International Criminal Court and United Nations Refugee Agency among others, while international divisions have also blocked a coherent response to the crisis. The country also rejected a UN Security Council mandated police force to help with stability.

Recently more dead bodies have reportedly been appearing, and prominent NGOs are calling for targeted sanctions. A report by the new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to the UN Security Council in February expressed concern for continuing rights violations and political repression. He was also troubled by indications that President Nkurunziza would run for a fourth term, which could further deepen tensions.

In response, Vice-President Gaston Sindimwo asked the UN to remove all its Burundi-based staff, complaining that the criticism was misinformed. Officials have also accused Rwanda and the West, especially Belgium, of plotting its overthrow.

An effective short-term response to assist those in urgent need depends on governments, international organizations, and NGOs overcoming or at least working around these tensions, before addressing longer-term issues. Otherwise, many could face grave health risks and further displacement due to ongoing political insecurity now overlaid with serious food and medicine shortages.

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