African Nations Losing Will to Punish Burundi

Burundi is filled with ghost towns and ghost roads. One of them is Route 1.

Once a major thoroughfare, the road, which stretches from the border with Rwanda to the capital, Bujumbura, is virtually deserted. It passes through empty towns, vacant houses, and shuttered shops. There is no one to buy from them and their stocks have long run out.

War and sanctions have emptied roads like this one across the tiny Central African country. Burundi's neighbors are trying to force its Tutsi-led military government to adopt more democratic methods. The result is that a struggling country has become even poorer.

"We don't see any positive political consequences of the sanctions," says Jean-Luc Siblot, head of the World Food Programme's (WFP) Burundi mission. "Thousands of people are jobless. Agriculture has decreased, and industrial production is down. But the government has managed to do what it wanted to with or without sanctions," Mr. Siblot says.

The trade embargo was imposed in August in response to the July 25 coup by Maj. Pierre Buyoya, who ousted the interim power-sharing government led by Hutu President Sylvester Ntibantunganya.

Major Buyoya claimed he took power to save Burundi from the Tutsi-Hutu ethnic violence that has claimed more than 150,000 lives since 1993. But nearby countries, tired of the conflict destabilizing the region, saw it differently. In a rare gesture by African leaders to crack down on one of their own, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Zaire, and Rwanda declared the blockade to force Buyoya to adopt democratic reforms.

So far the sanctions, which were renewed on Oct. 12, have done little to achieve their aim. Buyoya has made only limited changes - reinstating parliament and allowing opposition parties to operate in a restricted fashion.

The sanctions seem to be hitting the poor the hardest, aid groups say. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization says the embargo, coupled with the conflict between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-led Army, makes it almost impossible to relieve food shortages.

Because of gas shortages, food cannot get to markets and people can not get to work. The towns are filled with businesses that have closed down. The prices of some foodstuffs have soared by 500 percent.

Burundi says the embargo has cost it more than $150 million. Coffee exports, the main source of export revenue, have virtually halted. The main industry, a brewery, is operating at 50 percent capacity.

Sanctions-busting does occur. Clandestine shipments of fuel and food slip by Rwandan border officials, who are lax about searching trucks. Industrious individuals risk ambushes on the highway to sneak supplies into Burundi. People smuggle supplies on the twice-weekly Ethiopian Airlines flight to Nairobi, which is chartered by the WFP.

"It's worth the danger," says one mechanic who is making a minor fortune carrying in diesel fuel from the Rwandan border.

A condition to lift the sanctions was that Buyoya hold negotiations with Hutu rebels and institute more-profound constitutional reforms. But he shows no signs of budging, saying rebels must declare a cease-fire first. With the political stalemate continuing and the poor hurting, many countries are increasingly questioning the wisdom of the sanctions. Some believe the embargo has put even more pressure on Buyoya to pander to militants.

Pressure is increasing in the region to lift the sanctions. Earlier this month, a summit for Central African leaders in Brazzaville, Congo, recommended ending the embargo. A similar call was made at a French-African summit in Burkina Faso.

Some diplomats believe that the break-up of Hutu militant refugee camps in eastern Zaire last month has eroded cohesion among the countries adhering to the blockade. Zaire is in great disarray, with a rebellion spreading. Rwanda turns a blind eye when goods slip through its border. Ethiopia and Cameroon apparently have lost their enthusiasm for sanctions. Only Kenya and Tanzania seem to be standing firm.

"The front was strong before. The pressure was a means to an end. Now it is just an end and is collapsing," one diplomat says.

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