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Protests over high prices strike Burkina Faso

Although somewhat overshadowed by the larger – and more dangerous –demonstrations in Cameroon last week, at least four cities in Burkina Faso also witnessed strikes over skyrocketing prices that descended into violent demonstrations.

First, on Wednesday, February 20, protesters in Ouahigouya and Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s second largest city, marched against increasing costs of oil, sugar, soap and other staples. These marches turned violent as protesters smashed signs, targeted government offices for vandalism, including demolishing the office at the government customs agency and damaging gas stations. All told, one hundred people were arrested in Bobo. The next day, demonstrations continued in Banfora, in the country’s south western corner, where protestors also vandalized offices and some ended up burning a statue dedicated to women.

Here’s a few impressions of the demonstrations in Bobo-Dioulasso, recounted by Mrs. Guevin in Africa, a Peace Corps volunteer visiting from Benin:

[W]e noticed large groups of men congregating on the streets and determined that this must be part of the strike. The shops on the streets were all closed and locked up. The men did get rowdy at times… they refused to let cars pass through the streets and I saw some guys trying to pull down the Stop sign on the corner.  They barricaded the street with big rocks and groups of people would come running down the street as if fleeing something. At one point the air became full of a stinky odor and the waiter at our hotel insisted we move inside because they were gassing the protesters.  Luckily for us we not harmed and the street we were on was not witness to the most violent acts of the day. In other parts of town, people broke windows, and took out street lights with rocks. They also tore down a statue of the Burkinabe President.

Usually it’s Ouagadougou, the country’s capital, where demonstrations begin and then move out to other parts of the country. Even as the downtowns’ of Bobo-Dioulasso and Ouahigouya were still smoldering, organizers in Ouagadougou announced a march against high prices for the city on Thursday, February 28. With the government on notice, police and military clogged the roads, protected important businesses and attempted to keep groups from congregating that morning. It was all in vain.

Here’s a very good recap of the day’s events by Burkina Mom:

By 9:30, people had started burning piles of tires and trash out in the streets near the [downtown] Rood Woko market. The usual way of getting these fires going is for the demonstrators to grab people trying to pass by on motor scooters. They are forced to watch as their gas tanks are emptied onto the barricades. The vehicle is usually returned, as long as the person hasn't protested too much about their “donation” to the cause.

At the same time, things started up in the Patte d'Oie neighborhood, near Ouaga 2000. When I write “things” I mean: destroying traffic lights, tearing down billboards (especially the fancy electronic ones), burning tires and trash in the streets, blocking the roads and throwing rocks at vehicles that try to pass by. When you get down to it, it's not all that horrible. Yes, stoplights are expensive to fix, but at least they aren't trying to harm anyone. Most of this very minor vandalism is done by students- young men mainly.

Soon after, the northern neighborhoods like Tampouey and Dapoya errupted into similar bouts of mild vandalism. Some of the demonstrators were as young as 10 years old. In fact, the news accounts and the accounts of my friends all say the same thing: the protests here were unusual because there were many very young children involved.

“[T]here seemed to be an awfully high number of riot-gear clad police around the city as David and I set out on the truck to get a few jobs done,” writes Chrisanga, who was visiting Ouagadougou.

… after ,managing to secure Senegalese visas for the 4 pax who needed them we headed off to get some diesel… as we got closer to the service station we noticed a large amount of pillars of black smoke around the city… one next to the Shell where we were headed…. closer still we saw rocks being thrown and something that looked a lot like fighting… “I think I should turn the truck around” said I to David… “Good idea” he replied… by the time we got back to the hotel there was a fair few burning tyres on the street, alot of rocks around and multitudes of army and riot police swarming around the place.

From my blog, Africa Flak, I recount a story from a friend who, by chance, returned to town right in the middle of the demonstrations.

The group came in on the Ouahigouya road…but immediately after passing the toll booth, saw “a mass of black smoke in front of us…and ahead of us was a bunch of tires people were burning.” The group decided to turn around and circumvent the city to the north and attempt to enter from a different direction. However, they were also stopped by burning tires in the middle of road. They finally entered on a dirt road where tires were burning, but gingerly drove through them. “There were lots of people standing around, but I didn’t see any violence or anything.” Near one of the barrages…there was a large post blocking the road. The group also passed a group of soldiers protecting an office of a neighborhood mayor from any violence. After dropping the group off, the driver attempted to circumvent town on the beltway called “route circulaire” past Dassasgo and Wemtenga, but was eventually blocked by rioters. Eventually, and this is third-hand, he made his way to Gounghin where he ran into other demonstrators.

In all, some 200 protestors were arrested in Ouagadougou Thursday and one reported death (but still no confirmation of that mortality).

In the aftermath of any violent protests in Burkina Faso – they take place about every 18 months or so – expatiates living here begin playing a favorite pastime: try to read between the lines of the protestors’ stated objectives to decipher their real objectives. This is where the anger of Burkinabé can be compared with people from Cameroon. Previously pointed out, both countries share the fact they are stable, former French colonies with leaders who came to power back in the 1980s. Both Presidents are nearing the end of their constitutionally mandated term limits. The 75-year-old Paul Biya and his supporters have proposed to modify Cameroon’s constitution to extend his mandate to one more seven-year term. Blaise Compaore, in power since 1987, may win one more five-year term. (Fun fact: both presidents are married to women named “Chantal.”)   

Let’s start with the stated objectives, which are easy to list, but numerous. From Girl Raised in the South, who lives in a village near Bobo-Dioulasso:

The price of goods (soap, sugar, cooking oil, gasoline) has been rising dramatically here. In my village I have heard grumblings about this. Evidently, the rumours had been spreading for days that people were going to hold a demonstration to protest the rising cost of living, or in their words, “le vie est chere” (The life is expensive).

From Under the Acacias:

The riots appear at first glance to be a popular uprising, the spark for which was recent increases in prices. We have all noticed these price rises and the word on the street accuses the new prime minister, Tertus Zongo of being behind them.

However, while steep price rises have indeed occurred recently, and the government should probably have acted earlier, all may not be as it seems. Zongo has been trying to crack down on corruption, and insisting that import taxes owed to the government – often avoided by “special arrangements”- be properly paid. This is one factor that apparently has been behind the rises.

Taxes on the wealthy are supposed to help the government pay for education and development and decrease dependence upon external aid. However, powerful and wealthy traders who offer bribes to avoid paying heavy taxes are not happy that their scams are being scuppered.

The day before the Ouagadougou protests, February 27, government ministers met the press to attempt to divert public anger about instituting new taxes, the recurring theme of high prices of foods and goods (along with government inaction) and to hopefully head-off the demonstration. The ministers pointed out that food prices continue to rise around the world and they announced to fight these increases with a three-month suspension of customs duties on such goods as powdered milk, rice, sugar, salt and pastas, costing the government roughly $6.6 million in revenue. 

Burkina Mom pointed out that more than a few saw through the limits of this three-month moratorium.

But the government plan for peace and order was defeated because- guess what? It looks like [Politician and demonstration organizer] Thibault Nana (and probably lots of other smart folks) know how to read. Foiled again, Blaise and fat cat pals! Nana and others no doubt listened to the radio, read the newspapers and immediately realized that the Burkinabé people were being thrown a bone. An insultingly tiny rotten bone.

 In Africa Flak, I had a somewhat different take on opposition politicians during an emergency meeting of political parties to try to address the issue of high prices:

As the country’s political parties met yesterday to hash out an agreement to bring down prices, Ouagadougou’s Mayor Simon Compoare was manning the barricades. A photo in the local paper showed the city’s diminutive mayor with a cell phone in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other, surrounded by security police and presumably barking out orders. When a pair of local reporters approached him for a quote, he barked: It will have to be later, I don’t have the time.

It provided an interesting contrast between a somewhat distressed Compaore out on the streets and a meeting that look like it could have taken place at some Disney World hotel.

The governmental meeting – and the photo of Simon – showed to me the divide between those in power (including those standing next to men with guns) and those without power seemed about as insurmountable as could be in its present iteration. For all the bluster from the opposition about how the government had done nothing but watch prices rise these past few months, where were other parties and their ideas even two weeks ago. Even after last week’s riots, ideas were scarce. Like administrators, they only jumped during a time of crisis. Is that what we would call exhibiting good leadership?

English-language Bloggers living in Ouagadougou noticed the alacrity at which workers tidied up and repaired the downtown district. In the outlying neighborhoods, however, where damage was most likely worse because of less police presence, you can still see the scars of burnt tires, smashed stoplights and broken signs.

It’s too early to tell the residual effect these demonstrations will have on the political culture of Burkina Faso. However, in the short term at least, few people and few members of the local media are happy about the role played by the security services during the demonstration in Ouagadougou. Burkina Mom argues that their behavior made the situation worse:

The police arrived and made a show of force. The demonstrators threw stones. The police replied with tear gas. Cecile (our cook) says it was terrible.- the CRS in trucks, chasing down the people (many of them children!) as they fled the gas. The worst thing was that the huge clouds of gas affected even the people who stayed home, closed up in their courtyards.

It seems that this very violent reaction (approved by the mayor of Ouagadougou, who was on the scene) set off a much more violent chain of protest- The parking lots of two government offices were immediately attacked and many vehicles destroyed. Some bank builings and other office buildings were attacked. Lots of other cars and small stands were targeted.

As the city turned to calm almost immediately, a demonstration post mortem from Africa Flak:

Someone told me that if word gets out that the police abused some of the 200 people who had been arrested; they will start protesting against them. This is in opposition against the minister of security’s speech last night commending the work of the police. The front page of one newspaper showed a soldier grabbing a young protester; a second picture showed another being pushed down in the back of a truck by a bunch of riot police. Let’s just say he has a look of fear on his face. It’s hard to tell if there is another person already lying in the bed of the truck.

One group that may think of striking: Students. A majority of the demonstrators appeared to be young, and they may have been the targets of police brutality. Even if not, the students are much better organized than most other groups. And, at 16,17, 18, who didn’t mind a day off from school?

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