Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

BURUNDI: Sanctions Begin To Bite, UN Intervention Force Distant

LONDON, Aug 21 1996 (IPS) - Economic sanctions imposed on Burundi by its neighbours are having a crippling effect on the country, and relief agencies fear they could precipitate violence against their staff as looters try to get at their stockpiled supplies.

Some fear that the grip of the Tutsi-led military junta may weaken in the face of widespread hunger and unrest among the majority Hutu rural population, triggering violent confrontation between Tutsi troops and Hutu protestors.

On Tuesday U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali warned that Burundi could face genocidal massacres, similar to those that occurred in neighbouring Rwanda two years ago, if the country does not receive international help. “Military intervention to save lives might become an inescapable imperative,” he said.

But the international community prefers to keep the pressure up through sanctions, announced at a summit of east and central African states just days after a Jul. 25 putsch returned army Major Paul Buyoya to power.

The sanctions include a ban on commercial flights, oil shipments and essential supplies in and out of the land-locked country.

Regional and international powers are increasingly split on the policy — keen to use sanctions to see the multi-ethnic government of ousted President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya back in power, but also aware that sanctions will raise the temperature of the crisis.

Analysts believe the sanctions will hit hardest in the capital Bujumbura and other large towns — where the Tutsi minority are concentrated and where the majority Hutu community has been reportedly targeted since Ntibantunganya went into hiding after last month’s coup.

Buyoya and his officials have mounted an all out public relations exercise to convince the international community that his takeover is only intended to restore calm, and not just a bid by the privileged Hutu minority community to recover their historic power over the Tutsi majority.

The efforts have had some success, particularly in the United States, but the sanctions pressure is being kept up regardless. The alternatives — to allow Buyoya to carry on in peace or deploy an international peacekeeping force in Burundi — have few supporters.

“Sanctions are biting bitterly,” says Martin Cottingham of the British emergency aid NGO Christian Aid. ” If they continue, the pressure will increase on the agencies, and people hit hard by the sanctions may use violence to take supplies which we had been stocking in the event of an emergency.”

The urban centres — heavily-dependent on food from rural farms worked mostly by Hutus — have been experiencing shortages since the main Hutu rebel group, the Council for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD), called on farmers to stop sending harvests to the towns.

There have been across-the-board price hikes for necessities from salt to bread and cereals.

Rebels have also been attacking trucks transporting coffee and tea, both of which account for 80 percent of the government’s foreign exchange earnings. But even if these crops could somehow find their way to washing stations and processing plants in Bujumbura, the embargoes would stop their export.

The government’s revenue-earning capacity and its war effort have been dealt a severe blow by last month’s destruction by rebels of the Teza tea factory. The factory, say sources, used to provide the army with an estimated 200,000 dollars a month in extra income for the fight against the rebels.

Rebel sabotage against electricity-generating plants has also severely disrupted production at Bujumbura’s Baraudi Brewery and other firms. The brewery alone accounts for over 40 percent of tax receipts, squeezing the salaries of civil servants and the 17,000- strong army.

“The sanctions are hitting where it is likely to hurt most, by preventing the army and the powerful Tutsi business community from getting their main source of finance,” says a London based African journalist. He and others note that sanctions are less costly than military intervention and would reinforce former Tanzanian President Julius Nyrere’s current efforts at mediation.

But Peter Willetts, an expert on terrorism and peacekeeping in Africa at London’s City University, said: “I’m not saying that sanctions are wrong, but they should not be used to push the regime against the wall.

It would be better to use the sanctions as a way of persuading the leadership to invite a peacekeeping force to keep the combatants apart. Then you can begin to work towards a political settlement.”

But support for such a force has been lagging. So far, out of some 80 countries asked by the United Nations to lend support for a possible peacekeeping mission, only three — the African states of Chad, Malawi and Zambia — have offered to send troops, Boutros- Ghali noted in a report to the U.N. Security Council Tuesday.

Three other African states — Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda — are ready to send troops as part of a voluntary African force planned in recent weeks, U.N. under-Secretary General Kofi Annan said recently.

But, Annan added, “a voluntary force… simply isn’t going to happen that quickly.” Speedy action is necessary “before everything blows up in our faces,” Annan cautioned.

U.N. officials have noted that no Western country has offered to lead a U.N. force, a move they deem essential for a successful mission. Given Burundi’s terrain and land-locked location, Boutros- Ghali said, major logistical and transport support of the kind only available to Western powers are needed.

“The United Nations is ready to help, within its limited capacity. But I am convinced it is a delusion to think that such an operation could be planned, deployed and commanded by the United Nations as if it were a peace-keeping operation,” Annan said.

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