Thursday, March 6, 2008

Protests and power in Burkina Faso

“What am I going to do now?” is a common question asked by Burkinbé in times of trouble. Perhaps their child needs medicine. Perhaps they’ve been laid off. Perhaps they lost their moped to an accident. You wouldn’t think it was because vandals broke into their store and destroyed anything they couldn’t walk away with.

Such as the reality of the protests against skyrocketing prices that gripped the country in the past two weeks or so. As was pointed out in the fortnightly L’Evenement of Ouagadougou, what was to be a peaceful rally against government inaction against the ever-increasing grocery bills, turned violent and ugly in Bobo-Dioulasso, where demonstrators attacked what they considered symbols of power: gas stations, the mayor’s office and shops who remained opened past their designated closing time in accordance to the rules of the “dead ville.”

As a matter of fact, the mandatory closings weren’t well organized that morning (February 20) in Bobo, and it took a rumor that two children had been killed in a melee with the police sweeping through town to inflame passions and literally ignite the peripheral quartiers of the city. In some places, the paper says, the few policemen around were literally overrun by the demonstrators. When the police presence was stronger, demonstrators evaded them. By the time the authorities caught up to demonstrators, it was too late: the damage had been done; everything had been destroyed.

Which opposition movement?
What it seems, at least to me, is that the once fractured opposition in Burkina Faso, which has played bystanders to the country’s political process, has morphed into a second, more radical front: Les Jeunes Patriotes, created by former Blaise Compoare supporter Nana Thibuat. From his new perch, Thibaut ridicules the opposition for their cowardice and lack of an action plan to combat these rising prices.

For its part, the opposition claims that while it can complain about the fact the government is being run by outside forces – code words for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund – it does not actually govern, rendering its power pretty much moot. The few parties in parliament have slowly tried to gain power through the ballot box, Thibaut and his people have categorically decided to take power on the streets, mostly in messy ways. Read any summary of the demonstrations and you’ll learn of the high number of very young participants.

The important thing to understand is that the Jeunes Patriotes could be is a watershed, and potentially destabilizing, event in Burkina Faso. Whatever one thinks about the opposition here, they are mainly constitutionalists, dedicated to working through the political system to tie down some of Blaise Compoare’s power while providing a reliable political alternative to people. However, it appears that people ransacking shops and generally wreaking havoc are most likely not happy on the pace of change. Burkina’s opposition has always been accused of not paying enough attention to the pleas of regular people.

If these Jeunes Patriotes begin exercising more power – and less restraint – what would happen to the political dynamic? Would parts of society become more radicalized and begin demanding a fair share of the goods and power? Remember, one argument against massive change in Africa (if I may generalize) is that Africans themselves are too meek (or whatever) to make demands on their governments.

  • “The power is going to be out for the next three days,” says the power company. (A reality here right now.) OK, thanks for letting us know. We’ll still be paying our bills.
  • “I am tired. You have to come back tomorrow to get your ID card.” OK, what time, sir?
  • “I want to change the constitution to run for a third term!” Well, I guess that’s sounds like a fine idea, Mr. President.

These are exaggerations, of course. But you get the point.

Les Jeunes Patriotes and you
For Thibaut using the term “Jeunes Patriotes” is very interesting. It was a term that last cropped up in Abidjan, headed by Charles Blé Goudé, an Ivorian who once fought for political control of the Cote d’Ivoire’s largest university (U of Cocody in Aibjdan) against northern political leader, and present Ivorian Prime Minister, Guillame Soro. Goudé and his Patriotes militants were a shady vigilante group that helped police run checkpoints near government buildings, fought against French troops in an October 2004 scuffle, rallied the masses at pro-government political rallies held in soccer stadiums that resembled rap concerts. They were mostly known for harassing and killing foreigners (including many Burkinabé) and were later implicated in numerous human rights violations and disappearances that Goudé had an UN-imposed travel ban imposed on him. He most likely took the group’s members from the mostly throwaway kids who ended up in Abidjan with some education, but without steady work and very diminishing possibilities for the future. Their anger stemmed from the fact that for generations the country had provided for not only Ivorians, but millions of foreigners who flocked their. Now, the parade had ended. Finally, they were most likely secretly funded by Simone Gbagbo, wife of (formally?) ultra-nationalist President of Cote d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo.

It’s a questionable decision for Burkinabé to use this term, but it most likely serves its purpose to those on the streets: We are not above taking the law into our hands. The Ivorian Jeunes Patriotes grew out of need to protect themselves during chaos and malaise that characterized Cote d’Ivoire. What would a similarly named operation say about Burkinabé politics?

To that question, my first impulse would be to say radicalization and balkanization, however miniscule, of society. It became somewhat apparent (if you squint) after the city calmed down that Burkina Faso’s slowly growing middle class is perceived to be the enemy of these angry masses. Perhaps it’s because those few members of the middle are not only viewed as possessing more (money, power, etc.) than those manning the barricades, but they are perceived to be more vulnerable than those enjoying real political power. (The second part may be more important than the first: People are mad, but they know they can’t strike back at those holding power.)

A moped gap?
A friend of mine had a theory that anyone in Ouagadougou who drove a moped should be described as middle class. Owning a moto means that one can afford such a purchase, which runs at least $700. A moto translates into freedom of movement. It allows people to live in one area of town and work in another (an important feature in Ouagadougou, the Houston of the Sahel.) You can visit family and friends with a moto. Mopeds are used for moving goods, also. It takes money to make money, the cliché goes, and a moto is the perfect starter kit.

Those out in the streets during the protests most likely don’t own many motos. I know many members of the informal sector, and very, very few of them have access to motorized transport. Informal workers can never earn bank credit, keeping the purchase out of reach. (Most salaried Burkinabés are in for at least one or two loans for different items like schools and motos and house expansions. They get under this because there future is secure because it’s very difficult to fire a salaried worker.)

Most people work, however, in the informal sector. Life may not be so financially secure, but these people for years had devised ways of getting by on very limited funds. Their plans also go awry when an emergency comes around, like the aforementioned health issue or the result of a crime (a major factor why most Burkinabé support vigilante justice.) Last year’s price increases appeared to create more of a migraine than anything else. This year, with prices still rising, most people rang the bell on emergency.

Full speed to the riot, captain
Let’s go back to the reasons for the riots, then. There’s the age-old debate that revolutions actually start when times are good and economic opportunities are growing. Perhaps this small period of destabilization in Burkina is due to that. For some people, life is definitely getting better. The economy is growing; business is up; people are building houses and large buildings in every corner of town; the number of fancy new cars on the streets is unbelievable.

But those at the bottom rungs can only watch this go by, like the shiny cars and their mocking passengers Nana Thibuat talked about last week. When those on the bottom see their future evaporate while that jerk night door is clearly doing better, perhaps it is time to do something.

Part of the problems here may be the country’s stunted political culture. Burkina Faso’s riots were overshadowed by the more violent and larger demonstrations in Cameroon. However, at least one political scientist pointed out a number of similarities between the two countries: They are both French colonies with long-serving rulers who each have a distaste for truly participative government; they have been mostly stable in a sea of relative chaos; each are facing concerns that the government is out of touch with the problems of everyday people.

Most likely underlying Cameroon’s anger is that fact that President Paul Biya, in power since Ronal Reagan was calling the contras of Nicaragua “freedom fighters,” has proposed changing the constitution to provide him a third term. Blaise Compaore, who just celebrated his 20th anniversary in power, won’t have to make that decision for awhile as he’s been given one more chance to run for a five-year term, in 2010. People in Cameroon read the writing on the wall. What about those in Burkina?

Here is the list of complaints against the country and the government that arose after the demonstrations. The reasons were long and telling, not only for their breadth but also their depth.

Of course, you can’t ignore the high prices around the world in 2007 and the skyrocketing prices of 2008, which affect everybody, but disproportionally concerns those on the bottom rung. Without dear prices (as the Economist would say), nobody takes to the streets for anything other than celebrating a wedding.

Here are some others:

  • Overreach of the police and military in their tactics against protesters;
  • The adoption of a market economy during the creation of a new constitution in 1991;
  • Bad governance, which wastes human and financial resources;
  • The feeble political opposition and civil society to bring these issues into check;
  • Trust between citizens and government institutions have eroded;
  • The World Bank and IMF make most political decisions;
  • Privatization programs have lead to layoffs;
  • Stagnation of salaries;
  • The government only cares about the noveau riche.

It’s an incomplete list, of course. One thing to worry about here is overreacting, says the guy who has already penned 1,700 melodramatic words. Since I’ve lived in Burkina Faso, Ouaga and Bobo and other cities have witnessed demonstrations about every year, year-and-a-half. It’s part of the process in a country where politics are so opaque: Maybe demonstrators do it to let some steam out; maybe to settle some scores; maybe for valid political reasons. There’s always a lot of head scratching in the press afterward, and maybe the government makes some deals with the unions, but the anger always seems to dissipate. (Of course, maybe I don’t know where the anger goes.) Things return to calm for a long while, and then the place inexplicably blows up again.

Perhaps we’ll return to that period of calm. But, there’s more than a few indicators to say this unease may remain: Worldwide food and oil prices are certainly out of the government’s control, and they’ll be high for at least the next few months. This will continue to exert pressure on everybody. In the end, it’s up to Burkina’s government to provide at least a little bit of support for those willing to take to the streets. You have to wonder, though, how much of a rock and hard place are these ministers between?


Anonymous said...

I do think your analyses are correct, fair and balanced. You do better than most of the local media.

I do admire the opposition in Burkina Faso although it is an empty suit. Anybody who can really be tough can't stand Blaise Compaore ( ie Norbert Zongo, Henry Zongo, Dabo Boukary...). Some get killed and the others are forced to switche their party affiliation to save their lives or businesses.

That is why a whole bunch of politicians are forced to stay in the CDP ( ruling party) even though they have been demoted, humiliated. ie Dr. Bognessan Arsene Ye, Melegue M. Traore ( both former speakers of this rubber stamp congress). Now we have Salif Diallo, the only one with progressist ideas in this cynist system.
People like the law professeur Laurent Bado, were our hope for a new opposition. But he ended up being the easier to corrupt among all.

Nobody has the courage to stand against Compaore: his gun or his money. And Thibault is a phony guy ( some time opponent, support Compaore when come time to reelect him).

Oh yes, in the 90s a guy named Nare, tried to break with his boss Compaore. He ended up spending 3 years without trial at the Maco prison. And Norbert Zongo used to joke about this new way to punish disloyalty by calling it "La NAREfication.

This is a country so poor that all citizen should bend together to fight for prosperity and developpement, instead we are fighting each other.

Anonymous said...

I do not think that the people named in your comment have been humiliated or are forced to stay in the ruling party. The truth is that there is no opposition in this country and there will be no use for them to change their party affiliation.

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