Not all about jogging bans and a hamfisted president: Seven things you didn't know about Burundi

The tiny country has made some largely unheralded gains despite a legacy of a debilitating civil war and social tensions.

AMNESTY International has just released a robustly-worded review of Burundi, in which it says that the ruling party is carrying out a “relentless campaign of intimidation” against the opposition and critics, ahead of a presidential vote next June. 

As a tiny landlocked—or landlinked—country tucked away right in the heart of Africa, little is known about Burundi, leading to an information free-for-all, not all of it flattering. 

The country has recently been in the news over tensions between the opposition and the government that observers say, rightly, may see President Pierre Nkurunziza break constitutional term limits.

These political fragilities—coupled with social instability— have led to curbs on restrictions of assembly, including the famous jogging ban (link) and the regulation of church congregation sizes. 

But, beyond the problems, there have been a number of notable gains in Burundi that do not attract quite the same big headlines. We look at some of them: 

1: Since 2012, it has been possible to register a new business in the country in one day, and for less than $30.

The country has made major gains on the World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking and is now regarded as one of the world’s star economic reformers.

This year it ranked 140th, from 157th in the 2013 ranking. It has notably jumped 72 places in the ease of registering property, and also made gains in the trading across borders indicator. 

2: It has increased hotel bed capacities from under 800 three years ago, to 2,000 today, as it spruces up its service industry in a bid to attract tourists. Tourism currently accounts for three per cent of revenues, with a number of popular tourist attractions that are slowly being improved. 

Big chains such as the Hilton have an interest in the country with its Double Tree development that would help burnish the country’s investment credentials.

3: The country’s budget for this year projected 633 billion Burundi francs ($411 million) in revenues, but will fall 44 billion francs short. Even so this will exceed 2013 revenues of about 560 billion francs, as it seeks to reduce dependence on donors who currently foot half its bills, and the benefits of improved collection and a clamp on graft begin to bear fruit. 

4: The country is developing a Bujumbura City Master Plan to counter population growth and the attendant pressure on public utilities. 

Its partners on the project that would bring in order to a cluttered environment include the United Nations Development Program, and Singapore. The country is also looking to link the capital city to Kenya’s coastal town of Mombasa to make it easier to trade, using a 1,545km corridor. 

The port city has a population of about 500,000 residents and counts a history back to 1871. 

5:  Burundi has just signed a deal with the World Bank for a $100 million grant to finance two dams that will generate a combined 48 Megawatts of electricity. 

This is part of a plan to correct years of under-investment in energy, coupled with a peace-time rise in demand and technical losses.  

It currently has a total installed capacity of about 40 MW for its 9 million inhabitants, meaning only four per cent of Burundians have access to power.

Under a wide plan the main electricity grid will be rehabilitated, while other generation methods are also being explored.  

6: The country has made significant gains in health: 45% of under-fives now sleep under insecticide-treated nets, helping bring down a high infant mortality rate—still one of the highest in the world. The under-five mortality rate fell from 164 deaths per 1,000 births in 1994 to 104 in 2012. 

Donors have also helped bring down the high maternal mortality rate. At one MSF project site in Kabezi, maternal mortality in 2011 fell to 208 per 100,000 live births, still unacceptably high, but a big step compared to a national average of 800 per 100,000 live births. It was at 1,100 in 1990. The country last year adopted a National Child Protection Policy, giving hope that the wide problems from the civil war can be tackled. 

7: The country remains among the poorest in the world, ranking 180th in the latest Human Development Index. It however made a small overall gain from 2012, not enough to shift it upwards, but enough to ensure it did not drop further.

Between 1980 and 2012 its HDI value increased from 0.217 to 0.355 (64% increase), and in 2011 the country was 185th out of 187 countries.

In a country with such fine margins—67% are under the poverty line and social fragility bubbles just under the surface—this cannot be downplayed.


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