Burundi Needs a ‘Garden City Shopping Mall!’

Burundi Needs a ‘Garden City Shopping Mall!’

As Burundi continues to teeter on the brink of an all-out civil war, with its leaders grandstanding with the AU on the merits of a peacekeeping force and President Nkurunziza saying he would consider such a force as an ‘’invading army,’’ it must not be lost on all of us that the real sufferers are the citizens of this small country that has not known real lasting peace since the 1990s. Meanwhile, as the AU digests Burundi’s official reaction, the caption on a Tupac-(the singer) –emblazoned shirt- ‘’me against the world-’’ that Nkurunziza-then an ordinary young man- wore in the ‘90s seems to have come ominously true. It’s Nkurunziza’s view of life and personal interest against those of the world around him.

Burundi, a country of 11 million people must not be allowed to slide back into another civil war. It will be remembered that the 1993-2005 civil war cost the lives of an estimated 300,000 people and only seemed to end with a peace process that brought in a new constitution in 2005 which promised fair representation of both Hutus and Tutsis. Nkurunziza, a Hutu became President, promising to serve for only two terms. He just broke that promise, the reason for the current turmoil.

Since becoming President, the country achieved relative stability, but the horizon never cleared sufficiently to give Burundians and indeed the region and the investor world at large the confidence of flying capital into Bujumbura. As a result, poverty remains endemic. According to the World Bank, over 60% of Burundians are still food insecure. The WB also reports that the country's government does not have enough money to fund needed programs with the economy relying on dwindling commodity (read coffee exports). Tax revenues are minimal.

The dire nature of the country is felt the minute you land at the airport. Until a few years ago, you would land and yours would be the only commercial plane on tarmac. It felt scary sometimes.

A visit to the Heroes Cemetery in the Capital reveals a country that has had its fair share of Presidents in its 50 year history. But clearly, they left the job half done throughout their tenures. Burundians are generally a peaceful but active people and a visit to the famous market that burned down a few years ago, brought you face to face with a teeming army of young and old Burundians struggling in the hustle, selling all manner of wares-striving to make a living. The impact of the market fire in January 2013 was so huge one trader, a 32 year old mother, was then quoted saying "When the market was burned, I lost everything, it is as if my life had stopped. I found myself helpless, four of my children were in private school and had to stop studying, I had to beg for food." Now with the battles and the killing in the suburbs of Bujumbura, the economic case could only be dire with thousands of livelihoods affected.

 

Burundi has been part of the regional Bloc-the EAC since 2008 when together with Rwanda were ‘admitted’ into the then EAC Customs Union. But while the peoples of these countries are similar, their current fortunes could not be more different. While Rwanda, took on the brave face of an urbane on-the-move-country,’ certainly helped by the return of a sizable diaspora to run the affairs of both government and private sector (Rwanda has perhaps some of the youngest CEOs in government and industry), Burundi continued on a business as usual, laissez-faire approach. Rwanda’s approach has paid off in a big way.

Perhaps combined with the absence of a proactive media, (am not sure if President Nkurunziza like Kagame is on twitter), and scant news except when there has been ‘rebel gunfire news’ coming out of Bujumbura-the country has not been able to attract the necessary investor confidence and money to drive jobs and input tax revenues into government coffers for required services. Meanwhile the President just seemed contented with the title. Would a strategic marketing blitz have helped the country? We can only speculate.

Is it any wonder then that even as young men have been pulled out of their houses and killed, that this did not meet with the commensurate swift anger and demand from across the region to stop the killings? Reactions have been rather muted and made almost reluctantly, even from Nkurunziza’ s peers in the EAC.

Could this be a pointer to the general view that ‘’there isn’t ‘much to lose in Burundi?’’ Put another way, would Burundi be suffering this attention lethargy if there was significant business investment by outsiders in its economy-manufacturing, finance and service on the level of say Bidco, Garden City Mall, Westgate Mall (to use Kenyan examples) in the Bujumbura Suburbs? The stake of a country seems to rise with the level of ‘’international and regional investor and political interest’’ in the country. Burundi may have little of both.

Perhaps if and when calm returns to Bujumbura, we may need to start by helping our fellow regional citizens with building a ‘’Garden City Mall’’ of their own. Let the outside world also throw some money into Burundi to improve government service delivery. It is arguably going to be an egg and chicken allegory. Do we invest to stabilize or do we stabilize first so investors can come. Whatever the case, Burundi needs to get on the road to development. And only a peaceful environment will guarantee that.

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