VOICE OF LIBERTY AFRICA: Burundi: The Sick Man of East Africa ~ Alex Ndungu



A while ago Western Europe had its sick man, a country called Turkey, that seemingly failed in to jump into the ship of industrialization, age of science and technology and exponential economic development. Turkey failed to seize the moment, its insular nature and the cultural gulf between Turkey and the rest of Western Europe meant that Turkey failed to benefit from the industrial age. The East Africa Community has its own sick man to contend with, and voila it is Burundi. Burundi has failed to seize the moment in this age where integration within the region provides opportunities for countries within the region to double their growth figures. So what makes Burundi not tick?


Burundi was a German colony until 1923 and a Belgian colony thereafter under the Rwanda-Urundi colony in Central Africa and then became independent in 1962. A country of 6 million people and 27,834KMs makes it one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Half of its population is under 15 years old & 80% are living below UN poverty levels, Adult literacy levels are under 36%, Over 25% of all primary schools have been destroyed, while international donors cut aid to education by over 70% in the past decade. The country continues to rank second only to Rwanda as a blood-drenched nation, subject to recurring bouts of ethnic genocide. Though its ethnic dichotomies are less extreme, Burundi is sometimes referred to as Rwanda’s “false twin”. Since October of 1993, Burundi has been embroiled in a deadly civil war characterized by armed political & ethnic confrontations. The cost has been high: approximately 300,000 people have been killed and some 800,000 displaced as refugees.  

Burundi remains queerly disparate in a region that is slowly moving to extricate itself from a decade long under-development impasse. How come Burundi has not taken the mantle from Rwanda, which has shaken off its blood-drenched status to become a paragon of progress in the East African region?

Much of the conflict through Burundi’s history has been ethnic, between the Hutu of the 85% population and the Tutsi 10%.  The ethnic conflict in Burundi, itself an anomaly, for the Hutu and Tutsi are genealogically homogenous with the Hutu being crop farmers and the Tutsi being the cattle people. The ethnic acrimony in Burundi has its past anchored in the colonial policy of divide and rule which pitted the Tutsi’s the minority who were used as veritable tools of Hutu annexure.  

Moreover Burundi’s landlocked status and a lack in abundance of natural resources makes it of relatively little geo-strategic importance which in part has led to donor and Western apathy or ignorance altogether.

Ethnic analysis though, only tells part of the story, for the Burundi is a country that has simply refused to come of age. Data from The Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom posits that Burundi’s economic freedom score is 48.1, making its economy the 157th freest in the 2011 Index. Its overall score is 1.5 points worse than last year, mainly because of deterioration in the management of public finance. Burundi is ranked 37th out of 46 countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa region, and its score is worse than the world average.Continuing its status as a “repressed” economy, Burundi performs worse than world averages in many of the 10 economic freedoms. The fragility of the country’s foundations of economic freedom is reflected in very low scores for property rights and corruption that undermine the rule of law. Moreover Burundi ranks below the world average in critical areas like; Limited Government, Rule of law, regulatory inefficiency and open markets.

Does Burundi have a solution, a magic bullet to sort-off wish the problems of the present and the past away? Although the answer to this question might involve sorting out the insecurity matrix with the Great Lakes region there is something Burundi can do to attract a future not so bleak. Strengthening her institutions and insulating her people and corporations from arbitrary plunder especially by the military would go a long way in attracting Foreign Direct Investments more-so from the East African region. Reforming her tax regime, and respect for property rights are both critical in unlocking the people’s potential to make wealth.


Alex Ndungu Njeru is a columnist under the AfricanLiberty VOICE OF LIBERTY AFRICA platform

Are these harsh words from Alex or a reality Burundi must accept to change?