Once thriving Rwanda-Burundi border withers

31 August 2016 - 12:02 By AFP

"Before, at this time of year, we imported beans from Burundi but now they say they don't want to sell their crops to 'the enemy'," said Evariste Ndikumana, a trader on the Rwandan side of the border. Worsening relations between Burundi and Rwanda mean the once-bustling border town of Akanyaru is suffering, hitting the economies of both countries.Always awkward neighbours, Rwanda and Burundi have fallen out since a domestic political crisis enveloped Burundi in April last year, while spiteful policy-making in Bujumbura has made a bad situation worse.In Akanyaru, bored traders and mobile phone scratchcard vendors kill time on a low wall beneath a shady awning.The nearby pavement cafes are deserted and the brand new covered market is empty. The heaving lines of travellers that once crowded the immigration offices and the long queues of vehicles are a thing of the past.Politics is to blame, say the idle traders.Trade has slowed dramatically since April 2015 when Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a controversial third term, a move that also triggered a diplomatic crisis with Bujumbura accusing Rwanda of backing Burundian rebels.Rwanda denies the allegations, but UN investigators say they too have found evidence to support the claims."When there are political problems between countries, we, the people, are the ones who are affected," said Pierre Sibomana, another trader.In the tit-for-tat nature of Kigali-Bujumbura relations, Rwanda has in turn accused Burundi of supporting Rwandan rebel groups in the east of their shared neighbour, the chronically troubled Democratic Republic of Congo.For the people who rely on border trade for a living, things were bad enough even before Bujumbura issued a decree suspending food exports in late July.The reason given was food shortages due to drought, but at the same time security officers on the Burundian side of the border began stopping bus passengers too, citing unspecified security concerns.In theory, Rwandan exports to Burundi are still permitted, but other difficulties and dangers mean trade has slowed."In Burundi, if they see that you are Rwandan, the police or even ordinary Burundians insult you," said Judith, a tea seller who did not want to give her full name.She said she prefers to speak the regional Kiswahili language, rather than Kinyarwanda, when in Burundi to disguise her nationality. In any case, she said, Burundian officials seek bribes when she brings in Rwandan tea telling her, "There's enough tea here in Burundi."Other Rwandan traders have fared worse, accused of being "infiltrators" and arrested.In August, Rwanda's trade minister Francois Kanimba said the result has been a 40 percent fall in the volume of exports to Burundi in the 2014-15 fiscal year.Rwanda imports cheaper Burundian fruit and vegetables, palm oil and Lake Tanganyika whitebait.Declining supply and illegal imports mean some commodities have doubled in price, according to traders in the Rwandan capital Kigali.Kigali has tried to fight back, describing the Burundian decision restricting trade as "illegal" under East African common market rules. But their complaints have so far only added to the angry rhetoric and bad feeling between the two countries.

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