2 June 2018

Burundi: Is Burundi a Nation of Lions Led By Donkeys?

Photo: Govt of Burundi
President Pierre Nkurunziza
opinion

A French gift a few days angered Burundi's government.

Bujumbura ordered the quarantine of 10 donkeys that were donated to a village in central Burundi through French funding to a local NGO, considering it an insult.

The animals, bought across the border in Tanzania, were given to a village in Gitega Province, to help women and children transport agricultural products, water and wood, reports said.

A presidential advisor described the project as "an insult to the nation" and Gabby Bugaga, spokesman for the Senate president, took to Twitter to proclaim that the French were "taking us for donkeys."

You would think it couldn't have got worse, but then France's ambassador Laurent Delahousse praised "the introduction of the Land Cruiser of the animal kingdom to Burundi," and in defence of the donkeys, said that to his knowledge "all procedures were respected."

The problem is that the donkeys were a gift from hell. First, they should not have been given as part of a government fund. But once given, they are the kinds of gift you should not reject, at least publicly.

Both acts are belittling and embarrassing.

It is up with there with things like US President Donald Trump, leader of the world's richest nation, getting into a kerfuffle with Rwanda because it has slapped punitive tariffs on mitumba (secondhand clothes).

Our forefathers were aware of the risks of big people squabbling over small things, and so kings were forbidden to speak (and sometimes to open their mouths to eat in public), except on carefully chosen occasions.

Bujumbura should have left it to the local village chief to detain the donkeys, and the French should have sent the lowest official they could find to explain. Anything to keep this matter out of headlines.

But, now that it is out there, perhaps it's worth asking: "Why would any foreign government, not just the French, think that a few donkeys would be a big deal for a Burundi village?"

The uncomfortable answer is that in a Burundi, which has been in varying stages of civil war since President Pierre Nkurunziza started manoeuvring to change the Constitution and give make himself president for life, the country is all but a basket case.

Big deal

Ten donkeys in an economically depressed part of rural Burundi, are a big deal for poor families. After all, in recent months, we have seen photographs of President Nkurunziza kneeling and praying for potatoes in a peasant's small garden.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, there have been suggestions that Bujumbura is playing ponies and donkeys on this, because France criticised the recent referendum that opened the door for Nkurunziza to be president for at least another 16 years.

Ideally, Burundi's best option is that it shouldn't be in a position where anyone would think of giving any aid - small or big - at all to its villages.

The French were culturally tone deaf on this one. However, if they had donated cows instead, though they wouldn't have been touchy gifts, they still would have spoken to Bujumbura's failure to provide for the people.

It's why, though we haven't heard from the villagers, if they had the voice, one suspects they would tell Bujumbura not to talk the hind legs off their donkeys.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs.

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