Burundi arrests union chief for organising tea sector

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza. FILE | NATION 

Burundi police have arrested the head of the main union confederation over plans to organise tea farmers, who account for the country's second biggest export product, the union said Thursday.

The president of the Burundi Confederation of Unions (COSYBU), Tharcisse Gahungu, was arrested Wednesday with three other union activists, said the organisation's vice president Celestin Nsavyimana.

He told AFP they were in Ijenda, some 30 kilometres (18 miles) from Bujumbura, ahead of a planned meeting with tea farmers who were to officialise their own union on Thursday.

While the reason for the arrest was not confirmed by official sources, AFP has seen a letter from the head of the Burundi Tea Company (OTB) to the minister of public security urging him to "take all necessary measures to prevent the meeting planned to constitute a syndicate for Burundi tea farmers."

The letter, which was copied to COSYBU, added that the union "would create disorder and chaos in the tea industry by pitting farmers against their traditional partner, the OTB, while they already have an association led by this state office."

Burundi's tea industry is made up of tens of thousands of small-scale farmers who sell tea directly to the OTB, which has long held a monopoly over the industry, keeping prices low. Smallholders receive a fraction of the price for which the tea is later sold.

Tea is Burundi's biggest cash crop after coffee, and more than 90 per cent of it is exported.

Nsavyimana said that by arresting the union officials, the government had "besmirched the constitution", and called for their immediate release.

Many unionists in Burundi have fled the country since it plunged into crisis in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third term, fearing a wave of repression which has strangled private media and civil society.

President Nkurunziza's third term run sparked a failed coup attempt and months of protests that led to a government crackdown, armed attacks and assassinations.

More than 500 people have been killed in the current turmoil, and more than 300,000 others have fled the country.

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