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Burundi Unions Threaten Strikes as Cost of Water, Electricity Skyrockets

Prices risen more than 400 percent in past three months; Civil society groups accuse state of inaction because government officials do not pay for these services

Labor unions in Burundi are threatening a countrywide strike next week unless the government controls the skyrocketing costs of water and electricity. Prices have risen more than 400 percent in the past three months. Civil society groups accuse the state of inaction because government officials, police officers, and the military do not pay for these services.

Burundi's leading civil society groups and labor unions met with the country's 2nd vice president in Bujumbura Tuesday to discuss the rising cost of living across the nation, one of the poorest in Africa.

Frustrations have nearly reached a boiling point as the price of water and electricity has quadrupled over the past three months.

Joanna, a restaurant owner in Bujumbura, is hard hit. "The prices went up something crazy," she said. "For example, I used to pay 30,000 [$23.30] a month for the electric, now for 30,000 [$23.30] it lasts only 10 days."

The inflation has also impacted the price of food. Just one month ago, one kilogram of rice cost about $1. Today it costs about $1.50. The price of one kilogram of flour has risen from about 35 cents to 77 cents. Staple foods are becoming unobtainable and the threat of widespread hunger looms.

Hundreds of civil society organizations have coordinated to call for government action. They say the burden of the price hikes falls on the most vulnerable populations. Meanwhile, government officials, police officers, and military do not pay for water or electricity.

The protest in Burundi reflects a larger trend throughout East Africa. In Kenya there has been an upsurge in workers’ strikes against high inflation in the country. Last year in Uganda, the opposition held "Walk to Work" protests against the high cost of fuel. Those protests prompted a violent government response.

Pierre Claver Mbonimba, a prominent human rights activist, attended Tuesday's meetings in Burundi.

"We already gave the preliminary announcement for the strikes," he said. "If the 2nd VP fails to convince the government to address the high cost of living, to control organizations such as the REGIDESO Water and Electricity Company, we will call for demonstrations."

Labor unions have given the government until the end of the week. If their demands are not met, protests are planned for next Tuesday and Wednesday.