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Burundi's Economy on Brink as Violent Unrest Persists

A farmer sows a potato field in Abugarama, a mountain village near Bujumbura, Burundi, Dec. 14, 2015.

At an intersection in this small farmers' town nestled in the misty mountains surrounding the Burundi capital, traders jostle to sell vegetables to passing motorists.

Bujumbura is only 25 miles (40 kilometers) away and yet so far, deemed unsafe to travel to by many here because of the frequent sounds of gunfire and explosions coming from the capital's volatile neighborhoods.

Business in Bujumbura is suffering greatly as a political crisis stemming from the president's seeking and winning a third term in office forces hundreds of thousands to flee into the countryside or to neighboring countries.

"Since the beginning of the crisis no one wants to transport the goods to Bujumbura. People are scared,'' said Donatien Ndayirindire, a cabbage trader in Abugarama.

So he must sell the vegetables here at half price.

President Pierre Nkurunziza's announcement last April that he would run for a third term sparked months of violent street protests that later boiled over into an attempted coup by senior military officers. The crisis has escalated since the re-election in July of Nkurunziza, with hundreds of people killed in a wave of extrajudicial killings as well as gun and grenade attacks as supporters and opponents of the regime target each other. At least one rebel group has emerged, raising the specter of civil war.

Amid the violence, the International Monetary Fund projected a 7 percent contraction of Burundi's GDP for 2015. Ordinary lives are being battered.

More than 70 percent of Burundians are subsistence farmers living off the land. A recent World Food Program study found an increase in food insecurity and warned that the situation will significantly worsen this year.

A woman shells peas at a street market in Abugarama, a mountain village near Bujumbura, Burundi, Dec. 14, 2015.
A woman shells peas at a street market in Abugarama, a mountain village near Bujumbura, Burundi, Dec. 14, 2015.

Malnutrition and hunger are not the only concerns. The slowdown in trading means people like the distressed farmers here may no longer be able to afford tuition for their children.

In a field near Abugarama, Jeanne Harerimana sows potato seeds, hoping the situation will improve and rues the lack of money to get sick family members treated at the hospital.

"Because of insecurity, it's difficult to sell the crops,'' she said. "Often we go back home with our goods because people don't come to the market to buy because they are worried of insecurity.''

In Bujumbura, market prices have doubled due to short supply. A kilogram of onions goes for 2,000 Burundian francs, double the price before April, making it increasingly difficult for families to feed themselves adequately. Many business owners have fled the violence, leading to dwindling tax revenues.

"We estimate tax revenue has fallen by 50 percent,'' said Gilbert Niyongabo, a professor of economics at the University of Burundi.

More than 50 percent of Burundi's budget is financed by foreign donors, some of whom the government has alienated with its violent suppression of the opposition. Some, like former colonizer Belgium, have cut financial support.

"The government doesn't seem to understand what is at stake,'' said Faustin Nikumana, the director of a Burundian economic think tank known as PARCEM, referring to the crucial role of foreign aid. "The consequences for the country are catastrophic. All the development projects and also all the basic services to the population are financed by foreign aid.''