JOHANNESBURG — African states are tightening the net in an unusual display of resolve to force ethnically divided Burundi to restore constitutional rule two weeks after a coup.
On Wednesday, Uganda and Ethiopia said they would join Tanzania and Kenya, which have applied strict economic sanctions on the Central African state. Even faraway South Africa said it would make sure sanctions dodgers did not use its airports or ports.
Although Burundi's northern neighbor Rwanda was still dragging its feet on joining the blockade, diplomats in the region say so far the sanctions are a rare demonstration of will in a region better known for its inaction against violators of democracy.
Talk of sanctions began at the Organization of African Unity (OAU) meeting July 11 in Cameroon. That summit took the unusual step of endorsing the sending of peacekeepers to Burundi, where an estimated 150,000 people have died in three years of ethnic strife.
At a July 31 meeting, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zaire, Ethiopia, and Cameroon agreed to impose economic sanctions as a more effective method of exerting pressure on Burundi.
African diplomats insist that the measures are more than symbolic and that strong pressure must be exerted to ensure that the group of minority Tutsis who now rule Burundi return the country to constitutional rule to avoid the ethnic genocide that exploded in Rwanda in 1994.
"African countries came out strongly in deciding to do something at the OAU meeting last month for the first time," says one senior African diplomat.
"There is a sense that something really must be done."
Within days of the first action by Tanzania and Kenya, the boycott began to bite in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, with long lines forming for gasoline and people hoarding fuel and other supplies. This year's harvest was good, however, so there should be enough food for at least the coming month, international aid workers say.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka predicted Wednesday it could take a month or two to put pressure on the government of Maj. Pierre Buyoya, if humanitarian aid organizations and neighboring countries also joined the effort.
So stringent have Kenya and Tanzania been that some aid workers worry about the impact on those among the country's 6 million people who can least afford sacrifices.
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) reports that humanitarian aid for 65,000 Rwandan refugees in the countryside and 705,000 internally displaced Burundians has not been able to get in so far. A UN relief plane leaving Burundi was not allowed to land in Kenya Tuesday, and 4,658 tons of aid cargo in transit is stuck in Tanzania, from where 98 percent of the humanitarian aid destined for Burundi moves over land.
"There is a concern that cutting off emergency food, fuel, and medicine could worsen the ethnic tensions," says WFP regional spokeswoman Brenda Barton, adding that the UN had appealed for permission from Kenya and Tanzania to send aid in.
The sanctions are meant to strangle landlocked Burundi's vital coffee exports and fuel imports by cutting off its access to the ports of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Mombasa in Kenya. At present, the only air access is via Air Burundi from Kigali, Rwanda, and that link soon may be cut off also.
The boycotters' hope is that then the Tutsi-led military government will reinstate political parties, reopen parliament, and begin negotiations with Hutu rebels.
Major Buyoya's seizure of power July 25 ended a fragile civilian coalition with Hutus. It was welcomed by moderate Tutsis, who were weary of the political and military stalemate that has existed over the past three years. They felt a coup by Buyoya was preferable to one long feared by more hard-line Tutsis, such as former dictator Jean-Baptiste Bagaza.
Ethnic conflict between the 85 percent Hutus and 14 percent Tutsis has increased over the past year, with massacres perpetrated by both the Tutsi-dominated Army and Hutu militias.
Buyoya, who presents himself as a moderate, received nearly $150,000 in contributions from the United States over the past three years to promote democracy via his Foundation for Unity, Peace, and Democracy. His government claims the country has been calm since he took over. But Amnesty International reported this week that between July 25 and 29 the military killed at least 250 Hutus. Aid workers suspect even more may have been killed, but few can venture outside Bujumbura to verify this.