Friday, February 22, 2008

Price protests: As goes Bobo-Dioulasso, so goes the country?

As I hunkered down for a few days of work, Burkina Faso has seemingly flown off the handle. Protests turned violent (as they often do here) in both Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s second city, and Ouahigouya, where my wife was caught in the fun of burning tires and rock throwing. (She had a hide in somebody’s house for an hour.) Thursday protests continued there (with a 100 arrests), but to a lesser extent than Wednesday, and also spread to Banfora, in Southwestern part of the country not far from the Ivorian border and Sya (see correction) where protesters ransacked the mayor’s office.

Ouagadougou was supposed to “get hot” Wednesday, also, but the strike was called off because, as someone told me, a vendor had been killed early that morning in Bobo for refusing to accept the strike and shutter his store. I don’t know if that really why he was killed, but killed he was (although I’ve seen no confirmation).

The strikers are protesting the high prices for nearly every good and food staple. (When international media wrote stories about rising prices around the world last year, they always mentioned a food riot in Burkina Faso; a happening I never heard of or could prove. I guess now they have their food riots.)

The mostly hesitant, but occasionally confident daily press is full of photos of the damage: protesters really let loose in Bobo at the offices of customs officials. Although there are no photos available, I heard four gas stations had been burned in Bobo (petrol has faced major price increases). At my gas station yesterday – I was preparing for the chance they’d be shuttered in town this weekend – I spoke to a few workers who seemed a little nonplussed by the whole thing. I asked why nobody seemed to be protesting in usually very political Ouagadougou.

“That’s because people in Ouagadougou think things through,” one told me, with the approving nods of his co-workers. “People in Bobo don’t reflect on such things.”

Of course, in the paper today is an interview with a member of the group heading the protests, who said in fact people will be shutting Ouagadougou down on the 28th. Today, Friday, Burkina Mom reports that police are all over town, something I didn’t see last night when I was out.

The stated reason behind are the protests is clear, but the real reason is vague. (In Burkina Faso, peoples’ political actions are affected by many, many underlying factors.) The press reports that some food stuffs have gone up by as much 65 percent this year alone: soap, oil, sugar and rice. But why? Some blame a new government tax, which it strongly denies. Others claim that the new reforming Prime Minister has struck down much of the culture of bribes that the customs agents had set up with larger food merchants and grocery distributors. These larger firms, the rumor goes, kept their prices low by sidestepping customs duty by providing customs officials with “donations.” Now, with these businesses obliged to pay regular customs tax when their goods enter the country, their goods have naturally increased overnight. (Import duties are especially troublesome in a country where nothing much is made, but an important part of government revenue.)

Prices on goods have been increasing for the past year, so the question, of course, is why are these protests now so violent? In today’s paper, one letter writer speculates that perhaps the customs agents are stirring things up to destabilize the Prime Minister in the eyes’ of others. Or, perhaps the opposition is finally understanding the plight of the common person and trying to make the government look malevolent? Finally, another letter writer connects the dots and makes today’s most wild assertion: Kenya was also once seen as a stable country. Is Burkina Faso heading down that path? There’s a fine line between crazy and prescient.

Wait and see.


ANNA said...


Thanks for this blog which opens a window to the reality of Burkina faso, usually ignored by the Western countries general media.

I would like to ask how would you relate the increase of the food prices, to the global market economy, rather than the local/regional causes that you explain... What is the role of the global politicla eocnomy in this situation?

Thank you!


fatoumata_toure2002 said...

Sya is an old name for Bobo Dioulasso and dates from 15th century and is not another town in Burkina Faso.

Africa Flak said...

Thanks for the correction, Fatoumata. I now know why so many of my Ouaga-based friends didn't know where it was, although my wife recently sat in on a training with a man who said he was from there.

Thanks again.

Africa Flak said...

Thanks for your excellent question (and nice words), Anna. The short answer would be: A lot. World food prices have been at near-record levels for nearly a year; on top of that oil prices remain high, meaning that transport is expensive (Burkina, like most W. African countries, imports a lot of food and commodities) and petroleum-based products doubly expensive. Not to mention that people are paying more to drive. Let's say the PM's move against corrupt customs agents has increased food prices because the big retailers and commodity distributors are now paying custom tax on their products. But that's only been happening for a short time; like everywhere else, food prices in every category have been climbing for the past 9 or 10 months.

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog. I'm making my first trip to Burkina this I did want to see if you know anything about plans for riots there as I'm supposed to be visiting a government ministry on monday to get research permits. But I'll be returning again multiple times so if this trip doesn't go smoothly it's OK.

Also, do the high prices filter down into the small villages around the county? And is there anger and frustration there as well? Or do they rely more on subsistence agriculture?


Africa Flak said...

Anonymous, an excellent question. The whole country sounds pretty calm right now. There are rumors that people will march in Ouagadougou on the 28th, but it is still to be seen whether the police will accept any demonstration. If you are going to the ministry of culture, it is somewhat out of the way of major demonstration thoroughfares. Enjoy.

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