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"With our new political orientation, everything is possible," stated His Excellency Pierre Nkurinziza, the newly elected president of Burundi. Three weeks after his installation as Burundi's President, the former rebel leader discussed the post-conflict reconstruction challenges that confront his country, and outlined his government's priorities and strategies.
Since its independence from Belgium in 1962, Burundi has been mired in a seemingly unending cycle of conflict and violence. Now, a decade of negotiations to end a brutal civil war and widely praised democratic elections have provided Burundians an opportunity to begin anew. The newly elected government, led by Nkurinziza, is focusing on Burundi's historically neglected rural population, and has made education and health care key priorities of its reconstruction program. The President also stressed his government's commitment to gender balance, noting that women hold over thirty percent of the positions in the new government, including many key posts; he added that he hoped this figure the will increase over the years.
During his address, the President outlined the array of challenges that the country is facing: security sector reform, disarmament and demobilization, the reintegration of refugees and internally displaced persons, and the rebuilding of much of the country's economic infrastructure. The President emphasized that Burundians now are intent on substituting political cooperation for conflict. The first step of the new government was to abolish school fees and to lay out a three-year plan that aims to have adequate school facilities in place for grades one through six by 2008.
President Nkurunziza highlighted the country's health care requirements as another key priority, stressing the need for skills-based education to train doctors and nurses, and for a more substantial health care infrastructure.
A further objective of the new Burundian government is to improve the economic position of the 90 percent of the population currently engaged in low-yield subsistence agriculture. Required is the establishment of rural markets that will not only facilitate the exchange of agricultural goods and other commodities, but will also diversify the labor market by expanding the local service sector.
Asked to discuss the government's approach to disarmament, President Nkurunziza reiterated his commitment to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants. He noted that since the end of 2004, 20,000 soldiers have been disarmed. The difficulty remains the ability of the government to financially compensate the demobilized soldiers. However, success of the disarmament process is evidenced in the fact that only one rebel group remains active. On the other hand, there is also a need to disarm the general public. The proliferation of weapons among the citizenry can lead to problems in the reintegration of refugees and internally displaced persons. Beyond the issue of weapons, in the President's view, the most serious challenge to peaceful refugee reintegration is the absence of a legal framework to deal with disputes arising over limited land availability and land tenure rights. These economic challenges of reintegration are complicated by still deep-seated fears and suspicions among the citizenry.
Concerning the government's approach to HIV/AIDS education in Burundi, the President advocated abstinence as the preferred preventative strategy, but noted that one had to be realistic and accept the need for alternative preventative methods as well.
The President strongly advocated new tourism and sports initiatives to supplement and diversify Burundi's economy. As a former soccer coach who trained five players who now compete at the international level, the President was proud to announce the creation of Burundi's first Soccer Club. He emphasized the important role the Ministry of Sports will play in encouraging athletic talent in youth.
The president also cited the Burundi Leadership Training Program (BLTP), developed and led by the Wilson Center's Africa Program, to facilitate post-conflict political integration, as helping in his country's transition to peace. The BLTP has been working to deepen the collaborative capacity of an ethnically diverse cross-section of Burundian leaders drawn from all social sectors This program is one of the efforts that the President hopes will help to ensure peace and security and lead to the establishment of internationally respected, sustainable, democratic governance.
The President spoke of the need for good governance, transparency, and continued security in Burundi if the country is to attract critically needed foreign assistance and investment.
Drafted by Marianna Ofosu