Petrol shortage has ground Burundi to a halt

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People across Burundi have been queueing for hours at petrol stations (gas stations) – hoping, but with no guarantee — that there will be some petrol when they finally reach the pump. The country has been experiencing a petrol shortage since February 11 and it’s also the fourth such crisis since November 2022. For many, this situation demonstrates the severity of the economic consequences of the political crisis that has gripped this small African nation since 2015, a nation that is often listed as one of the world’s poorest.

People online have been circulating photos and videos online showing shockingly long queues in front of petrol stations in Bujumbura, French-speaking Burundi’s economic capital, and other cities since February 11. Some users have of course been complaining about the amount of time it takes now to get such a critical staple as petrol, according to news site Iwacu

During the week of February 13, petrol station after station ran dry, with citizens posting online photos of the chaos.

Pénurie d’essence à Bujumbura le 11 février 2023. © SOS Media Burundi / Les Observateurs

‘Burundians are getting used to it’

Eloge Willy Kaneza is the coordinator of SOS Médias Burundi, a collective of independent journalists.

There was nothing, not even a drop at the stations, the pumps were empty. It’s common here, petrol shortages. Since November, it’s happened three times… Burundians are getting used to it by now. At a certain time, Bujumbura had petrol, while the rest of the country didn’t. 

Starting on February 17, the situation got a bit better. You can find a bit of petrol for your tank here and there. But it remains really difficult. Petrol products are shipped to the economic capital Bujumbura first before being distributed to other provinces. 

Faced with the recurring shortages, the Burundian government decided to entrust the importation of petrol to Regideso, the publicly owned company that manages the distribution of electricity and water. The authorities hoped this would help bring  the situation under control. 

This image shows a petrol station in Bujumbura on February 11.
This image shows a petrol station in Bujumbura on February 11. © SOS Media Burundi / Observers

However, according to economist Faustin Ndikumana, the government’s decision has, thus far, yielded no success. 

Ndikumana is head of an organisation called ‘Talk and Action for Changing Attitudes and Ethics’ (known as Parcem, short for the French “Parole et action pour le réveil des consciences et l’évolution des mentalités“).

“Importing petrol isn’t what the company does, so there are logistical and storage problems,” he said, of the government’s decision to assign the task of sourcing petrol to Regideso. 

But Ndikumana is among the many economists who think the real reason for the shortage is money. 

“Burundi has a very weak reserve of dollars. Before the 2015 crisis, the country had around three months of foreign exchange reserves. Now, there is only a week or two. One of the reasons for this is that Burundi’s accounts are largely in deficit.”

In the second trimester of 2020, for example, exports represented nearly fourteen times less than total imports. Key sectors of the economy were no longer bringing in sufficient currency returns, says Gabriel Rufyiri, president of the ‘National Fight Corruption and Fraud’ (known as Olucome, in the country’s native French ‘l’Observatoire de lutte contre la corruption et les malversations économiques’).

“The coffee sector was the main source of currency but the government has practically abandoned it,” Rufyiri said. “It didn’t subsidise the sector to the extent necessary and production plummeted. For the minerals sector, we’ve established that a part of the money from these exports went to tax havens or the black market.”

According to Olucome, nearly 70% of currency from the of the country’s sale of minerals doesn’t come back to Burundi.  

‘Bad governance is to blame’

An underground currency exchange market has developed, where the exchange rate is around 3,800 Burundian francs per dollar, or nearly double the official exchange rate. 

Because of the lack of both means and currency, the company can’t stock petrol, says Éloge Willy Kaneza: 

We no longer have strategic petrol reserves in case of  sourcing issues. With the Ukrainian crisis, all of the sub-Saharan countries have had problems with lower-than-usual shipments of petrol, but they managed the situation because they have reserves. Some people here complain that we don’t have access to the sea as a landlocked country and that makes importing petrol more difficult. However, our neighbour Rwanda is also landlocked and they haven’t had shortages like us. Bad governance is to blame. 

It’s also important to know that there is a problem with the price per litre set by the government. It’s too low for the importers, who complain that they are working at a loss. A litre should be sold for at least 5,000 Burundian francs [equivalent to 2.26 euros] but, today, the set price is about 3,250 Burundian francs [or 1.47 euros].

There is still a black market, but the prices are much higher. A litre might go for somewhere between 8,000 and 15,000 Burundian francs [between 3.60 and 6.80 euros].

When contacted on February 14 by the media outlet Iwacu, the director general of Regideso, which is supposed to be importing petrol, said that the lack of petrol had to do with a technical issue in Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania, but promised that “petrol trucks were en route for Burundi and would soon arrive.”

However, as of Friday, February 17, petrol stations around Burundi remained empty.

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