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Burundi Rebuilding Following a Decade of War

After more than 10 years of a devastating civil war economic confidence is beginning to emerge in Burundi as the small Central African nation slowly lifts itself onto the long road to peace and economic recovery. But as VOA's Mwamoyo Hamza who recently visited Burundi reports, the country has a long way to go.

The sound of construction fills the air in the Kigobe neighborhood of Burundi's capital city - Bujumbura, as crews are busy at work building new homes. In the past year the Kigobe suburb, three-kilometers north of Bujumbura, has become a showcase of economic confidence in Burundi.

New, modest and gated homes are taking shape in neat rows. The finished ones have huge satellite dishes within their walls, perhaps a sign that people are eventually settling down to a peaceful existence in Bujumbura.

Burundi Information Minister Ramadhan Karenga says the government is working on programs to give economic confidence to the public.

"The Burundi vision of putting the economy on track was to organize and cut down all those basic commodity taxes and to empower medium size and small size business people so that they can contribute to the recovery of the country's economy," he said.

Ten years of civil war killed an estimated 300,000 people, forced hundreds of thousands into exile, and left the country's economy in ruins. But Burundi is slowly getting on the road to recovery.

A peace agreement between the government and several rebel groups in 2005 culminated in national elections that put President Pierre Nkurunzinza and his CNDD-FDD party in power.

Burundi Chamber of Commerce Secretary General Cyrille Sigejeje says the new government has taken major steps in creating conducive atmosphere for economic recovery.

He says, the authorities have tried to place a legal environment (that is) favorable to investment and business, which will probably generate a lot of hopes in terms of investment both national and foreign.

New businesses are opening up, as people begin to feel confident that peace will last. Sigejeje says small business has particularly picked up in the past year, but he cautions that it is big businesses and export-import activities that will put the country on real economic recovery.

Consumer confidence is noticeable. Downtown Bujumbura is experiencing rare traffic congestion as taxis; private vehicles and pedestrians fight for space in the narrow and busy city streets.

International business is also beginning to show confidence in Burundi.

Bujumbura's top hotel, NOVOTEL, is operating at more than half its capacity. During the civil war, says Front-Desk Manager Josephine Mudenge, the hotel was operating below 20 percent of its capacity and it had to lay off some of its workers.

Information Minister Karenga says the recent admission of Burundi, together with neighboring Rwanda, into the East African Community will energize economic recovery in his country.

"We have made all the efforts so Burundi can join sub-regional economic communities like the east African community," he added. "The free flow of business and people and activities between Burundi and the three East African countries - Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, we hope that the economic activities will resume after more than ten years of civil war."

But Cyrille Sigejeje of Burundi's Chamber of Commerce says a lot remains to be done and it may take another two years before the country shows real economic progress.

He says he believes if efforts to create peace, security, and a favorable business climate continue, there may be positive results to show within two years.

But many of Burundi's troubles remain stubbornly entrenched. Security has greatly improved, but human-rights groups are concerned that large numbers of small weapons in the hands of former fighters make armed crime a real threat.

Poverty remains widespread and at high rates. Economists say Burundi is caught in a cycle in which the population is too poor to consume enough to energize production.

But there is hope in the air. Bujumbura's long-time residents say one year ago, many parts of the city were filled with abandoned construction projects as people feared attacks by rebel groups trying to topple the government.

After the lifting of a dusk-to-dawn curfew that existed for nearly 10 years, things are different today. Trucks rumble along streets, loaded with building materials, passenger buses regularly ply their routes, and business activity is coming back.