Keep Africa's good-news story good

After the genocidal wars in Burundi and Rwanda in the 1990s, the international community focused almost exclusively on the latter, perhaps because its genocide was larger and faster. Ever since, Rwanda has been synonymous with "genocide."

About 300,000 died in neighboring Burundi's long-running conflict, many more were wounded, and hundreds of thousands fled or became displaced. But today, Burundi is synonymous with "peace-building."

Burundi is not a perfect success story. It remains the world's third-poorest country, with a per capita annual income of just $140. But its ability to establish a stable, peaceful government following so many years of violent conflict offers powerful lessons about progress to Africa and those who wish to see it prosper.

Burundi's positive momentum is threatened, however, by flood and famine. To prevent a return to bloodshed, donor nations must step up their support, particularly in health and education. There are few places on earth where small sums would make a bigger difference.

When the Arusha Peace Accords that ended the conflict were signed in 2000, few observers held high hopes for Burundi. Fear, illiteracy, AIDS, violence, power games, and economic deprivation were still rampant; you could not mention Hutu or Tutsi in public places.

It's here the good story begins. A power-sharing structure and transitional government took hold, tens of thousands of adult and child soldiers were demobilized, and a cease-fire agreement was signed with the last rebel group. In a referendum, a new constitution was adopted that most people, including the illiterate, understood to mean peace. Free, fair, and peaceful elections were held, helped by a well-organized UN mission (ONUB) and a determined NGO community.

A former fighter, Pierre Nkurunziza, was elected president in 2005; he admitted publicly to having done bad things in the "dark years" but is now popular and seen as a visionary. He's a soccer-playing man of the people and a born-again Christian deeply concerned about the next generation's education and value orientation. He is also determined to rule out corruption. He hands back unused travel funds when returning from trips. His door is open to visitors every Tuesday. The government's policy plan is filled with humanistic vision.

It all corresponds remarkably with the longing for peace, reconciliation, development, security, and democracy expressed by Burundians. Many have concluded that their civil war was not an "ethnic" war but a struggle for power amid poverty, corruption, and class divisions; ethnicity was merely the vehicle for playing it out. They have relied on the bashingantahe – councils of wise community leaders, which have traditionally been used to mediate conflicts in the bush. I've seen far more reconciliation and postwar coexistence here than anywhere in the former Yugoslavia.

ONUB was yet another UN success story that Western media ignored. Other good news for Burundi is also going unpublished. A new, smaller UN mission (BINUB) is now in place to support the peace process. The new UN Peacebuilding Commission has chosen to focus on Burundi. There is talk about creating a truth and reconciliation commission. The economy is picking up, and Burundi has joined the East African Community.

Those stories don't make for good headlines. Instead, if you've read anything about Burundi recently, it was probably about the arrest of people accused of planning a coup d'état. I have yet to meet someone here who believes that it was anything but an ill-considered intrigue. Indeed, 5 of the 7 "plotters" have been released. As anywhere else, there are power games here.

In addition, some journalists have been arrested for writing about this coup and digging up unpleasant stories of the past. Government sources point to the still-fragile transition and say they cannot accept "bar brawl" journalism. Journalists complain about the lack of a free press. It's a learning process, and these are minor bumps on the road to peace.

But what really could derail Burundi's peace process is the almost complete lack of international attention and assistance. Burundi's positive developments must be rewarded now to prevent regress to violence and war. For instance, demobilized soldiers want food, housing, jobs, and good education for their children. Without them, they will go back to the profiteering and killing fields. Hunger is rampant in the north of Burundi, floods repeatedly hit destitute people, and refugees are returning. Right now there are about 300,000 flood victims and famine is widespread.

The annual Consolidated UN Appeal for pure humanitarian aid stands at less than $150 million for Burundi; every year, less than 50 percent of this appeal is met. Major donors' aid machinery is dangerously slow, hampered by bureaucrats in Europe and America who don't seem to sense the urgencies.

Are we really going to have to ask one day why violence broke out again in Burundi? If it does, the main reason will be the economic misery compounded by the international community's lack of action. Donor countries still have not learned to reward peace. Even if Burundi has no strategic resources – only the world's best coffee and tea – there ought to be enough generosity to save the lives of countless people there by giving $150 million for 2007. It is the equivalent of the daily cost of US troops in Iraq.

Burundi can continue to be a good story of peace-building – but only if we care enough to help it stay the course. And we must do it now.

Jan Oberg is director of TFF, the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research in Lund, Sweden.

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