Top officials are at odds over fuel shortages in Burundi

BY Avit Ndayiziga

As the fuel shortage crisis in Burundi persists, top officials are at odds over its root causes. Is the lack of foreign currency truly to blame, or is corruption and the devil at play? Could sabotage be a factor? The looming question remains: will SOPEBU be the solution to this pressing issue? Let’s read and see.

Since Evariste Ndayishimiye assumed office as the head of state of Burundi, in June 2020, Burundi has been grappling with a myriad of challenges. One of the most pressing issues is fuel scarcity. Fuel serves as a lifeblood or a heartbeat that keeps the body moving for economic activities.

A dried up fuel station in the northern part of Bujumbura, It is like it has never been filled with fuel.

Enumerating the consequences of fuel scarcity in Burundi remains a tale without a defined commencement or conclusion, for its effects have cast a shadow over everything and every individual, irrespective of age or status, including those who have passed away. 

While it may seem perplexing to fathom how the departed could be impacted, let’s take this illustration. Within the somber walls of the morgue lie the bodies of the deceased, and their journeys to their final resting grounds or graveyards have been delayed not by choice but by the lack of fuel to transport them there to rest in peace eternally or wait for the second coming of Jesus Christ or the resurrection for the believers.

However, this story is not about the impact of fuel shortages in Burundi but about discrepancies among top officials regarding causes behind severe fuel scarcity.

While fuel shortage has become a complex problem with multiple factors at play, various high-ranking officials of Burundi, including the president, prime minister, ministers of commerce, transport, industries, and tourism, as well as those overseeing hydraulics, energy, and minerals, along with the minister of finances, the president of the National Assembly, and the general secretary of CNDD-FDD, each provide a different explanation for the fuel scarcity. 

This multitude of explanations has made it difficult to ascertain the true underlying cause of the problem. 

On the other hand, opposition leaders argue that Burundi has never experienced such a severe fuel shortage, even during times of embargo and civil wars that have plagued the country for decades, thus, current leaders are deemed unfit to govern and should consider stepping down. Activists argue that the employment of underqualified individuals in technical roles poses a significant obstacle to economic development, further entrenching the country’s status as the poorest nation in the world.

Let’s delve into some explanations.

The devil and corruption

While celebrating his fourth anniversary on the throne on June 22, 2024, conflicting voices from opposing parties and activists brand him as mediocre, criticizing his lack of tangible projects and attributing the country’s plunge into abject poverty, a plight not witnessed even during times of war. In his address, the head of state underlined the causes of fuel scarcity. For him, both the devil and corruption are the true leading causes.

H.E Evariste Ndayishimiye addressing the Nation while celebrating his fourth anniversary on the throne.

“We have observed the root cause of fuel scarcity. It is not merely poverty that is to blame, but rather individuals influenced by malevolent forces. Picture this: instructing fuel suppliers not to deliver fuel to Burundi due to an alleged impending coup d’état. A leader from Burundi penned a statement claiming that the country is unable to procure fuel. Furthermore, at the port, the same individual ordered to unloading of boats destined for Burundi. These events have transpired. 

As for now, I urge people to entrust the situation to God; He will guide us accordingly. I am aware of corruption within my government, and those corrupt have engaged in misconduct so that I suck or fire to remain in the office. Whether you choose to act virtuously or otherwise, we are in the same boat. I assure you that Burundi will reach its vision,” he concluded.

Sanctions over Burundi

When lawmakers asked the Prime Minister of Burundi, Gervais Ndirakubuca, when fuel scarcity is likely to end in Burundi, his response was so striking that it left everyone speechless. He declared that he, as the representative of the entire Burundian government, had no answer to offer. 

Prime Minister of Burundi, Gervais Ndirakubuca, presenting in front of the National Assembly what the government has accomplished within the last six months.

“I, as the government representative, have no answer to this question. But what you should know is that this fuel scarcity stemmed from sanctions that the government underwent due to the contentious third term of the late former president Peter Nkurunziza.”He stated.

This response came from an official for the first time after nine years. The controversial third term deemed unconstitutional, led to the deadliest demonstrations, resulting in the loss of many young lives and forcing thousands to flee their homeland.

Sabotage, fuel is exported to Rwanda

According to Gelase Ndabirabe, the President of the National Assembly of Burundi, the country is facing a fuel shortage caused by malicious individuals who hoard it and illegally export it to Rwanda. He believes that the death penalty should be reinstated.

Gelase Ndabirabe, the President of the National Assembly of Burundi since 2020

“The country imports enough fuel. However, malicious people hide it and declare that the fuel pumps have dried out and finally export it illegally to Rwanda. They are strangling Burundian’s economy. I, therefore, think that the death penalty should be reinstated and legalized to condemn these malicious people.”He proposed.

This non-evident statement left many wondering how fuel can be exported where it is full and left where it is needed.

Coffee harvest decline

Reverien Ndikuriyo, the general secretary of CNDD FDD, a ruling party for nearly twenty years, openly admits that the country’s economy is in a downward spiral, primarily due to the scarcity of foreign currencies needed to purchase essential items like fuel, medications, and fertilizers. As a result of this critical shortage, Burundi is currently experiencing a severe fuel crisis, impacting the daily lives of its citizens.

Reverien Ndikuriyo, the general secretary of CNDD FDD, a ruling party for nearly twenty years, hosting a press conference in April,2024

“Procuring fuel in Burundi has become increasingly challenging due to the need for foreign currencies, particularly United States Dollars (USD). Since childhood, we were taught that coffee and tea were the country’s main exports, but their production has significantly decreased. This decline has directly impacted our ability to earn sufficient foreign currencies to purchase the necessary fuel. There may come a time when we have to rely on walking as our primary mode of transportation. However, we call upon Burundi citizens to cultivate coffee and avocados to boost our foreign currency reserves. With everyone’s effort, we are hopeful that within the next four years, we will be able to secure an adequate supply of fuel for our nation.”He concluded.

Based on the Central Bank’s coffee statistics, over the past decade, Burundi has only managed to sell 152,571 tons of coffee at a rate of 4613.5 BIF per kilogram. This translated to a total of 703,881,151.73 BIF, which is equivalent to 243,599.63 USD. This data reveals a significant decline in coffee sales compared to previous years when the country used to sell at least 40,000 tons annually, amounting to a potential total of 400,000 tons over the same period.

As per data released by the Central Bank, fuel consumption has witnessed a substantial decrease from 127,461,000 liters in 2019 to 41,782,000 liters in 2023 across all fuel variants – super gasoline, kerosene, and diesel. Despite this gradual reduction in consumption, the fleet of vehicles and motorcycles on the roads continues to surge. In 2021, the count stood at 17,558, whereas the current figure has soared to 74,090. This escalating number of vehicles may be contributing to the persistent fuel shortages experienced in Burundi.

At this point, the CNDD-FDD leader shares the same views with the  Ministry of Hydraulics, Energy, and Mines of Burundi,  who in front of legislators said that his ministry is trying to do its best to supply fuel to all consumers. However, it hits a huge challenge of insufficient foreign currencies to procure enough fuels.

Backing up him, the minister of commerce, trade, industries, and tourism, admits that the country faces a huge deficit of foreign currencies to procure enough fuel due to the enormous gap between exportation and importation.

According to the INSTITUT NATIONAL DE LA STATISTIQUE DU BURUNDI, in its quarterly bulletin of external commerce published in May 2024, the balance between exports and imports is always negative, with a deficit amounting to 638.0 billion in the first quarter of 2024, compared to 521.6 billion in the corresponding quarter of the previous year and 632.1 billion in the previous quarter. This can be explained by the fact that Burundi’s domestic exports decreased from 81.3 billion in the first quarter of 2023 to 75.9 billion in the current quarter under analysis, showing a decline of 6.5%.

While the exports continued to decrease, the value of imports increased by 18.9%. They amounted to 731.0 billion BIF in the quarter under review, compared to 614.9 billion BIF from the previous year.

In the first quarter, the most imported products include petroleum products (17.4%), mineral fertilizers (4.6%), sugar (4.5%), passenger cars (3.5%), medicines (3.4%), and cement (3.1%). Domestic exports mainly consist of coffee (23.2%), tea(11.8%), niobium ores(10.5%), malt beer, wheat flour, and soaps.

SOPEBU: The answer

As fuel scarcity persists, the government of Burundi gave other reasons different from what the president and other ministers have mentioned as the causes of fuel scarcity saying that one of the contributing factors is the lack of a public entity equipped to consolidate the nation’s supplies, ensuring an efficient management of funds allocated for fuel imports. It also accused private enterprises involved in fuel importation and commercialization of still funds allocated to fuel causing repetitive fuel shortages.

“Private companies in this sector face significant financial constraints, often turning to the Central Bank for support. Regrettably, certain companies fail to maximize the foreign currencies received for imports, exacerbating recurrent shortages.”The counsel of ministers pointed it out on January 3rd,2024.

To this end, the government has put in place (SOPEBU)Societe Petroliere du Burundi, or the Burundi Oil Company responsible for coordinating the importation, transportation, storage, distribution, marketing, and re-exportation of petroleum and gas products and their derivatives. 

The Burundi oil company, officially launched on March 14, 2024, with BIF 120 Billion as a social capital, has yet to make any significant impact, as the persistent fuel shortages continue to severely affect the people of Burundi. This ongoing crisis raises doubts about whether the new entity is addressing the root cause of the problem. Fuel at a black market has surged to BIF 40,000 per liter, while transportation fees have tripled even quadrupled in some parts of Burundi.

However, activists have expressed skepticism towards this state-owned enterprise, arguing that public corporations have historically failed to yield profits for the government. Instead, they point out that many of these entities are heavily indebted and are experiencing a steady decline. Citing examples such as SOSUMO, ONATEL, ODECA, and AIR BURUNDI, among others, they highlight the challenges faced by state-run companies in delivering sustainable returns.

The question of what is real behind fuel scarcity remains without concrete answers

What do you think are the main causes?

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