Could Burundi turn out to be East Africa's own 'Greek Tragedy?'

By Ahmed Salim 

In 2007 Burundi and Rwanda became members of the East African Community (EAC). Fast forward five years on, Rwanda has become a champion of regional integration and one of the strongest supporters of the EAC while Burundi has been perceived as an enigma, a country that just happens to be part of the EAC rather than a rightful member. On August 18, 2012 Charles Onyango-Obbo, Nation Media Group’s Executive Editor for Africa & Digital Media, touched on Burundi’s predicament in a piece where he called Burundi a ‘neglected child of the family.’ A week later, Frank Ntwari responded to Mr. Obbo’s piece and questioned whether the East African media really understood Burundi. Why the misunderstanding?  

When Burundi joined the EAC, there were many skeptics that thought it was odd to integrate it due to its recent history of internal conflict. Supporters believed that integrating Burundi into the EAC would help stabilize it by expanding its economic and development opportunities as well as providing moral and political support to deepening its internal peace and reconciliation processes. The results have so far been mixed, especially with regards to human development. There is scant evidence that regional integration has improved development indicators in Burundi, providing further ammunition to integration skeptics. 





Population (2010)

9 million

Smallest in EAC

Population density (2010)

301 per sq. km

Second highest in EAC after Rwanda

Share of population living below the poverty line (2010)


Highest in EAC, little change since 2004

No. of people living in poverty

6.3 million

Increased by 1.5 million since 2004

Per capita health care spending (2009)


Lowest in EAC

Under-five mortality rate (2010)

96 per 1,000

Second highest in EAC, after Uganda

Prevalence of stunting (under-five)


Highest in EAC

Life expectancy (2009)

49.4 years

Lowest in EAC

Primary school enrolment (GER, 2009)


Highest in EAC

GDP per capita (2010, PPP)


Lowest in the EAC

Net aid disbursement per person (2010)


Second highest in EAC, after Rwanda

Corruption Perception Index (2010)


Lowest in EAC

Military expenditure as percent of GDP (2009)


Highest in EAC, double that of closest competitors

Source: State of East Africa Report 2012, SID

The table above shows that Burundi’s vital statistics are poor and vulnerable. As of now, the country is not on track to meet any of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. The situation is compounded by subtle signs of donor disengagement, just when the country needs as many friends as it can get. There hasn’t been much improvement in Burundi’s vital statistics since becoming a member of the EAC. Internal strife and corruption has also hampered Burundi’s development process and has distracted it from benefitting from regional integration. It is in this context that some media outlets have even questioned whether Burundi belonged in the EAC. Critical questions about Burundi’s relationship with the EAC need to be asked. Could Burundi’s stability and future be seen as a cornerstone to solving one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s longest conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or will Burundi be let go and allowed to ‘fail’ and descend into civil war once again? 

Burundi has a complicated relationship with the EAC but it is clearly doing its best to be a model member of the regional community. Burundi has benefitted by integrating simply by realizing the type of competition as well as the head start its neighbors have had. Civil society groups in Bujumbura have expressed that they no longer felt “intimidated by strangers” and were now feeling that regional integration is something they can work with. Burundi is clearly punching above its weight and making its mark in the region by having a troop presence in Somalia under the African Union Peacekeeping Mission (AMISOM). Interestingly enough, at the end of 2011, Burundi was the only member state of the EAC that had fully paid up its dues for the year. The irony here is that Burundi seems to have neglected the equally important task of communicating to its citizens the reasons for its membership and the fact that gains will neither be immediate nor as widely spread as might be imagined.

So how will things shape out for Burundi and the EAC? There are three scenarios that Burundians might have to face.


The Jumuiya (Community) Scenario is one that encompasses a complete shift in the EAC approach to integrating Burundi. In this scenario, both Burundi and the EAC partner states make a concerted effort in making sure Burundians are integrated more and not just at the political elite level. All key stakeholders in the region ‘buy in’ to embracing and integrating Burundi fully into the EAC.

There is a push by the governments of Kenya and Uganda to send teachers to Burundi to teach English. As a gesture of reciprocity, French is made an official language of the EAC and practical steps are made to be more inclusive and close the language barrier such as having translators at EAC Summits and East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) sessions. With increased integration and exposure, political and economic stability is gradually attained and there is an influx of investment in Burundi.

Burundi becomes the regional anchor in addressing the conflict in the DRC in spite of the re-emergence of political tensions between Rwanda, Burundi and the EAC.


The Détente Scenario entails the continuation of a lukewarm relationship Burundi has with the EAC. This mirrors the current situation Burundi finds itself in where it is included in the regional integration process at the periphery (political elites) but excluded at the constituency level. Burundi is not fully excluded from the regional integration process but it is not fully included either. The feeling of exclusion is exacerbated by the entry of South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia into the EAC. As a result Burundi’s presence in the EAC diminishes. Although South Sudan and Somalia are much more unstable than Burundi, they are of a greater geopolitical importance further contributing to Burundi’s’ marginalization.

Significant internal and political strife continues stagnating the growth of the Burundian economy.  Economic convergence, which is necessary to deepen their integration and for them to join the East African monetary union is not reached and consequently the country is not included in the monetary union when this historic moment comes to pass.


The collapse scenario sees Burundi and the EAC’s relationship deteriorate completely. The collapse and eventual exit from the EAC by Burundi is exacerbated by internal strife and conflict that reaches a tipping point leading to war. The deepening corruption, increased poverty and inequality and political killings escalate unabated over the years. What leads to complete collapse is the inability by the EAC partner states to intervene and stop the conflict.

This scenario also sees a regional shift from West to East, where countries like Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia increase their prominence at the expense of Burundi and the DRC.

Unfortunately for Burundians, politically and economically marginalized and now at war again, this represents a negative swing of the pendulum as they went from being isolated to being partially integrated to being isolated once again.


Download SID Trend Monitoring Report Burundi: How Well Integrated Is It In The EAC?


PHOTO: Ahmed Salim