Kenya: How Burundi's Departure From Isolation Helps Kenya

Burundian President Evariste 'Neva' Ndayishimiye's arrival in Kenya on Monday will mark a significant turn for the central African country.

It will be his first state visit to Kenya, but also a mark of his continued opening up, returning the tiny country on the regional map, and his fourth official trip outside Burundi since he took power in June 2020.

The 52-year-old leader, once a rebel, rose through the ranks of the military and civilian government ever since the country adopted the Arusha Accord in 2002, ending a decade of conflict.

But even after the war ended, Burundi continued to face sporadic violence as groups that didn't sign on the peace deal continued to fight. In 2015, it marked a new page: Pierre Nkurunziza, the then President, was attending an East African Community Summit when a military official identified as Maj-Gen Godefroid Niyombara announced on state radio that he had 'dismissed' the President.

All regional leaders including President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame of Rwanda were incensed with the coup. Eventually, Tanzania helped Nkurunziza back home, foiling the coup. It was the last time Nkurunziza left the country for official business.

Meanwhile, the European Union imposed sanctions on Bujumbura for suppressing the dissent.

The UN maintained a mission in the country and the African Union Peace and Security Council discussed Burundi 12 times. The bone of contention was Nkurunziza's decision to run for third term, in spite of a two-term limit in law. He argued his first didn't count because he had been elected by legislators in the wake of a peace deal in 2005.

Retracing relations

Ndayishimiye, however, has retraced his relations with neighbours, thawing relations with Rwanda, with which Burundi had traded accusations of supporting rebel movements in each other's territories.

He has also opened channels for with DRC and maintained strong links with Tanzania and Kenya where he recently sent in new ambassadors. This month, he attended President Museveni's inauguration for a sixth term, holding bilateral talks for the first time in five years.

So far, Burundian refugees in Rwanda have been allowed to go back home. On May 31, the mandate of the Human Rights Observers and Military Experts Mission in Burundi will be terminated.

A statement from the AU Peace and Security Council said there had been "significant progress and positive developments being witnessed in Burundi" making the mission established in 2015 obsolete.

The Council said it welcomed "the significant progress in the political and security situation in the Burundi since the outbreak of the crisis in 2015" as well as elections last year in May. It pledged to "Walk with" Burundi to complete stability.

That stability will be crucial for Kenya, according to senior diplomats who spoke to the Sunday Nation.

"Burundi is a virgin market with immense unexploited opportunities that Kenyan could explore in taking advantage of the excellent relations between the two countries," said a brief from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Possible areas of investment include the following: Agro-processing; Education; Health and Medical; Finance and Banking; Energy; Light Manufacturing, and construction industry," the dispatch indicated, labelling Burundi as a "strategic" country in the region, starting with their membership in the East African Community.

Key agreements

Various bilateral agreements which have been pending for the last five years are also likely to be signed.

"Burundi remains an important trade partner for Kenya with the balance of trade is in favour of Kenya. There is an immense untapped potential to expand trade relations between our two countries in terms of both value and volume," the statement said, indicating Nairobi will seek more investment opportunities in Burundi.

Kenyan firms such as KCB, Diamond Trust Bank and Jubilee Insurance already operate in the country, besides routine flights to Bujumbura by Kenya Airways.

Sources told the Sunday Nation that Kenya will seek to resolve the never-ending problem of renewal fees for residence permits. Every two years, Kenyans pay $500 to extend their stay, something that could violate the free movement of people spirit under the East African Community (EAC). Burundians do not pay renewals fees in Kenya.

In the past, the business community has requested allocation of more foreign exchanges to Kenyan firms to enable them repatriate their earnings. Burundi's low availability of hard currency makes it difficult to exchange its currency for dollars, meaning authorities have to provide the reserves to enable repatriation.

Crucially, however, officials say Nairobi sees Burundi as a key link to the network to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kinshasa applied to join the EAC and is awaiting a decision, but will need closer cooperation with neighbours such as Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda to enable a seamless market, officials in Nairobi said, considering the size of DRC.

"Burundi is an important key player in terms of promotion of regional economic growth. Bujumbura is recognised as the regional hub and entry point to Eastern DRC and the hinterland of the greater central Africa region.

"Eastern DRC border towns of Uvira, Bukavu and Goma are easily accessible and receive most of their supplies from Burundi," says the brief.

Sources told the Nation on Friday that the two sides also discuss issues of wildlife conservation, including routine relocation of endangered species under a mutually agreeable programme.

Burundi, once sent its Chimpanzees in 1995, at the heart of its civil war to Kenya. The new administration has asked for their return.

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