Co-operatives in Burundi

Long considered as the nationalist’s workshops, cooperatives have become a major annoyance for the Belgian colonist. By 1950, economic autonomy was no longer enough, Rwagasore and his supporters wanted political independence at any cost.

Returning from Belgium in 1956, Prince Louis Rwagasore created the CWB (Cooperative of Traders of Burundi) approved in June 1957, a first Burundian cooperative that he will lead at the same time as the CCRU (Cooperative of Consumers and Traders of Ruanda-Urundi) created earlier in March 1955. From now on, these two cooperatives had a socio-economic predisposition to African competition and for Africans to trade in Arabs, Greeks and other foreigners. The main locations of these cooperatives were Buyenzi and Bwiza, current areas of the Mukaza Urban Municipality; and sometimes the prices of their products were more interesting than those applied in the stores of foreign traders. Indeed, “During the colonial era, trade was exclusively in the hands of foreigners. Rwagasore was aware of that and wanted it to change.” [1]

Even late in 2002, Deslaurier, a French author, developed the reasons for the Belgian colonist’s concerns, which were linked to the evolution of cooperatives in his doctoral thesis: A changing political world: Burundi on the eve of independence (±1956-1961) from p.380. In a second book, “Words and writings by Louis Rwagasore; (p.27)” she wrote: “An instrument of economic empowerment and a tool for political mobilization, the Rwagasore cooperatives were quickly regarded by the Belgian administration as real war machines set up against colonial rule. In particular, the collusion of the rural population with the Swahilis, a group considered subversive and unfairly considered foreign, worried the guardianship authorities.” [2]

According to the author, in the cooperative movement Rwagasore contained neutral peasants in front of the colonist, but also another class considered harmful, Swahilis and Muslims more generally while the Swahilis were among the first and largest contributors of cooperatives. The colonist’s second concern was Rwagasore himself. In just two years after the start of his cooperative activities, he had become very popular with Muslims especially in Buyenzi, but especially their intermediary with the rural world. This proximity frightened the colonan in a herculean way. With a charisma unmatched among all Burundians, in addition to being a son of the king, he would even become a symbol of Burundi’s unity; the scope of his actions was of a notary influence that was developing in parallel with that of the administration.

A final fear of the colonist is related to the rise of cooperatives in a non-administrative setting where the colonist could not know the meaning of the discussions and the messages disseminated there; this network of discussion went beyond the simple framework of economic reflection because in most cases the participants questioned colonial exploitation.

Annoyed, while in 1958 the cooperatives were in financial difficulty until they went into great debt and Rwagasore and his allies took out loans here and there to bail out cooperatives, the colonist and his administration found a windfall to form a barrier against foreign capital in the ambition of weakening cooperatives, and consequently phagocytes. This will be followed by the liquidation of the CCRU. In 1959, the complete liberalisation of the right of association led nationals into multi-party politics and facilitated the transition from “co-operators” to political activism.

From those years, the cooperative remained as a simple right of association until the last decade when, now supported by the government administration, the cooperative movement re-amplified. Indeed, it is only in the last decade that:
On May 30, 2011, Law No. 1/09 on the Code of Private and Public Equity;
On 08 August 2011, The Law No. 1/13 reviewing The Burundi’s Land Code;
On December 30, 2011, Law No. 1/23 on the Organic Framework of Pre-Cooperative Groups;
On January 16, 2015, Law No. 1/01 revising Law No. 1/07 of April 27, 2010, on the Code of Commerce;
On 03 March 2016, The Law No. 1/02 on the Reform of Municipal Taxation in Burundi;
On January 27, 2017, The No./02 Organic Framework of Non-Profit Associations
On June 28, 2017, Law No. 1/12 governing Cooperative Societies;
– June 07, 2018, the Constitution of the Republic of Burundi.

Despite the existence of certain challenges of mass training of the population, loyalty in financial management, compliance with the production and processing standards of food and packaging products as well as the implementation of ISO, EFQM, ECG and other certifications in order to be able to sell in continental and global markets without any barriers, the environment of the cooperative movement in Burundi is very favourable.

[1] Nsavyimana Deo, Dr. in History and Professor at the University of Burundi.[2] Christine Deslaurier, Lyrics and Writings by Louis Rwagasore; France; p.27.

By Jean Bosco Ndayizeye, Maat-ECG Burundi