Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Burkina Faso: An Uneasy Peace

Photo: Olivier Monnier/IRIN. Widespread protests in 2011 led to some government reforms

Source: IRIN

One year on from the start of several months of popular revolts in Burkina Faso, the situation has settled down, but the calm is fragile, say observers.

The government has adopted several measures to appease its critics, including upping civil servant salaries, intensifying the fight against corruption, and subsidizing food prices, but high prices continue to pose huge problems for the poor. One in four youths are unemployed, and it is widely believed that the government is out of touch with the priorities of its citizens.

Protests began last year on 21 February 2011 following the killing by police of student Justin Zongo in the city of Kondougou in the central-west. The incident led to several months of civilian demonstrations against police brutality, impunity, government corruption and high prices in Ouagadougou and other cities.

At the same time (between March and May) a series of mutinies in the army threatened to endanger the regime of President Blaise Compaoré, who has been in power since 1987. Many soldiers were demanding that arrears on their daily allowance be paid. However, protests died down when the president's guard crushed a mutiny in the country's second-largest city of Bobo Dioulasso in June 2011. At the same time, many civilians stopped their protests and broke away from the soldiers.

Since then the soldiers' allowances have been paid; and a new head of the army has been appointed as well as several senior commanders as part of a restructure in which 600 soldiers have thus far been demobilized. But it is unclear whether these changes have succeeded in appeasing the army's rank and file. Meanwhile, some 300 soldiers have been imprisoned because of their alleged role in the protests and violence.

"Things have returned to normal, but they are not like before - that isn't possible," said Hamidou Idogo, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Thursday, a satirical newspaper known for its independent stance. "As long as Blaise Compaoré is in power and has not stated he will not stand in 2015, the crisis will not be over," he told IRIN.

Compaoré has been president since 1987. His political party is in the midst of trying to revise Article 37 of the constitution which stipulates a two-term limit, enabling him to run again in 2015.

Protests continue on a small scale. Most recently, for instance, on 7 February 2012 a demonstration was organized in the city of Tougan in the northwest to protest against the poor state of the roads, and turned violent when the house of the Member of Parliament for Tougan, Saran Sère, was burned.

On 10 February 2012, students from the Polytechnic University of Bobo-Dioulasso protested against the institution's poor infrastructure, rising living costs and declining teaching standards.

"There's always a cauldron of discontent bubbling away, accompanied by lots of small-scale social conflict," said a Western diplomat who preferred anonymity. "Lots of people are still unhappy," he added.

"Climate of mistrust"

While noting that violence is not a solution, few have condemned it with vigour, said Germain Bitiou Nama, managing editor of the Independent newspaper in a 10 February editorial: "The climate of mistrust is heavy, particularly between young people and those who pass for leaders and who have shown no ability to make things change."

The root cause of the events of last year: the enormous gulf between the rulers and citizens, has not been addressed, say analysts, and even now a small spark would be enough to trigger a large event, analysts, journalists and trade unionists told IRIN.

However, the government has made some concessions since last April. It increased the salaries of 86,000 employees by 5 percent in January 2012; created housing allowances for some employees; and implemented the oft-delayed promotions of civil servants - measures which collectively cost the government US$19 million, according to Alain Edouard Traoré, minister of communications and government spokesperson.

But the government has not yet had much success in curbing steadily rising food prices - a problem that is hitting poor households across West Africa. High prices and a poor harvest in much of Burkina Faso have thrown 1.7 million people (10 percent of the population) into food insecurity.

In May 2011 the government announced it would lower the price of imported and local rice, sugar and cooking oil by imposing subsidies. But even with these subsidies, the price of cooking oil and rice rose yet again. A sack of rice increased from 16,000 to 18,000 CFA between July 2011 and the beginning of 2012; a litre of cooking oil has risen from 800 to 1,000 CFA in the same period. "We are suffocating: life is too expensive. We must change things," said Nathalie Noukoubri, who owns a local bar in Ouagadougou and is a member of the women's association of the informal sector.

However, government spokesperson Alain Traoré told IRIN the government has little room for manoeuvre when it comes to controlling these prices, given its dependence on the world market. "To impose prices on merchants would basically be to set up a police state", he told IRIN.

The government was supposed to set up a price observatory to try to monitor and to some degree control prices but although a decree has been passed it has not yet started operating, according to Augustine Blaise Hien, general secretary of the National Confederation of Workers of Burkina Faso.

For Hien, a crucial problem is the lack of prospects for young people, including graduates, whose unemployment rate is about 25 percent.

"It's nice to go to university, but how many students find employment related to their educational level?" said Augustin Diabri, a second year student of archaeology at the University of Ouagadougou.

While Burkina Faso's economy grew on average by 5.4 percent between 2000 and 2011, and per capita gross domestic product rose from $233 to $670, according to the International Monetary Fund, the country remains one of the world's poorest, and is ranked 181 out of 187 in the 2011 UN Human Development index.

However, Diabri says the crisis has also had a positive effect in that people's awareness of their rights has mounted, and the president has been forced to understand this.

Impunity, corruption

In terms of good governance, there have been some improvements. A few individuals have been put on trial for economic crimes over recent months: In January Ousmane Guiro, ex-head of customs, was arrested and charged for embezzlement and corruption, accused of stealing $4 million. His trial is ongoing.

But the general feeling is that a skewed power balance between the rulers and the ruled remains amid a climate of impunity and corruption. One oft-cited example of this, residents told IRIN, was a traffic dispute between a mechanic and Justice Minister Jérome Traoré on 19 February 2012. The mechanic yelled at the minister, not knowing who he was; as a result the minister ordered that he be arrested and beaten up. The minister was then called upon to resign 48 hours later.

Burkina Faso ranks 100 out of 182 countries listed in the 2011 Transparency International perceptions of corruption index.

It is as yet unclear whether Compaoré will run again in 2015 presidential elections, but constitutional law aside, many say the opposition is currently too weak to pose a challenge. Samir Gadio, West Africa economist at Standard Chartered Bank in the UK, told IRIN: "The Burkinabe opposition is weak and fragmented. As such, the opposition's ability to capitalize on student or teachers' protests, or even some discontent in urban centres, remains limited." Further, he added: "The credibility of the opposition is also an issue, as many people feel they may not be better off under a new regime."

Perhaps the greatest threat to the current regime is parts of the military, whose 2011 mutiny was "unprecedented" said Gadio. While calm has more or less been restored, it is still unclear whether the root causes of their discontent have been met, and future mutinies cannot be ruled out.