Journalists’ Syndicate Protests in Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso, state media employees are dissatisfied with their working conditions and the censorship they reportedly face. The Autonomous Syndicate of Information and Culture Workers (SYNATIC) organized demonstrations on July 16 in Ouagadougou (French), the political capital, and Bobo-Dioulasso (French), a major economic center. In Ouagadougou, the journalists staged a sit-in by the Ministry of Communications, and in Bobo-Dioulasso they rallied in front of the regional government building.

From the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which adds that the Association of Journalists of Burkina helped organize the sit-ins:

It was the first time that journalists from state-run media have publicly broken their collective silence over what the public has long believed to be entrenched practices of editorial direction and control by official censors. The show of discontent was the latest in a series of recent demonstrations by various segments of society opposing government policies and protesting the standard of living, according to news reports.

The government tried to dismiss accusations of tampering with news coverage after the sit-in was announced. “I have never given directives to anybody,” Communications Minister and Government Spokesman Alain Edouard Traoré declared at a press conference on Monday, according to RTB. He said the station “operates in total independence” from his office. “We do not constitute a ministry of propaganda,” private news site Burkina 24 quoted him as saying.

During the first half of 2011, Burkina Faso experienced waves of protests and mutinies that drew serious concern from the government of President Blaise Compaore. The current protests have not yet reached nearly the same level of seriousness. Yet when journalists protest in Burkina Faso, it is worth paying attention. For one thing, the assassination of the journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998 continues to cast a shadow over relations between the state, the press, and the people. Protests against censorship, in other words, speak to broader tensions in the country.

Portraits of Malian Refugee Camps in Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso

Alongside armed conflict in northern Mali, Mali and its neighbors are experiencing a refugee crisis. I keep bringing this up in an effort to ensure that the scale of the crisis will not be ignored. UNHCR’s country pages for Mali and Mauritania show that massive numbers of people have been displaced: over 200,000 inside Mali, 70,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, 50,000 in Niger, and 40,000 in Burkina Faso. Those numbers are all expected to rise by year’s end, to a total of approximately 540,000.

A few portraits from camps:

Niger:

The Mangaïze camp was officially created in May, following an influx of a large number of Malian families fleeing to Niger, said Idrissa Abou, a member of Niger’s National Commission for Refugees.
Besides a monthly food ration, refugees have access to drinking water from three small boreholes and primary health care. There are sanitation facilities with 250 showers and toilets, and a household waste management system. Refugees also have access to administrative services, a school and, with the opening of a police station, a security service.

“At the moment, there are 1,522 families, which amounts to a population of 6,037 mainly made up of Malian refugees, but there are also Nigerien returnees,” Abou told IPS, adding that an overwhelming majority of the refugees are from Ménaka, the closest Malian town to the Ouallam municipality in south-western Niger. He added that the numbers in the camp had increased in February after some 1,700 refugees from the nearby Bani Bangou camp were transferred to Mangaïze.

Mauritania:

Nearly 67,000 refugees—mainly women and children—have arrived in the border town of Fassala, Mauritania, since January 2012. “At the border crossing at Fassala, Mauritania, people are arriving thirsty and showing signs of fatigue,” explains Karl Nawezi, MSF project manager in Mauritania. After being registered by the authorities, refugees wait in a transit camp before being transferred to Mbera, a small, isolated village in the Mauritanian desert, just 30 kilometers [about 19 miles] from the Mali border.

The refugees in Mbera are totally dependent on humanitarian aid. An insufficient number of tents has been distributed, however. Families are assembled under large tents called “meeting points” that leave them exposed to the elements. Fed up with waiting, some construct their own makeshift shelters out of straw mats and pieces of fabric to protect themselves from sand and dust storms. “In Mauritania, as is the case elsewhere [in the Sahel refugee camps], people are suffering from diarrhea, respiratory infections, and skin infections because of the poor conditions in the camps,” says Nawezi.

And France24 has a video report from Burkina Faso here.

Burkina Faso: After “Coupled Elections,” A Shifting Political Landscape

On December 2, Burkina Faso held “coupled” legislative and municipal elections. Legislative results can be found here, and municipal results here (.pdf, French). In the legislative elections, the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) won 70 of 127 seats in the National Assembly, a slight decline from when it won 73 of 111 seats in the last elections in 2007. The new president of the National Assembly is outgoing cabinet minister and current CDP member Soungalo Ouattara.

Two parties tied for second place with 19 seats respectively. The Alliance for Democracy and Federation-African Democratic Rally (ADF-RDA, whose French-language website can be found here), which supported President Blaise Compaoré in the 2005 and 2010 presidential elections, increased its total seats in parliament by five. The absence of the ADF-RDA (French, includes a list of cabinet members) in Prime Minister Luc Adolphe Tiao’s new government, whose formation was announced around the new year, has generated some discussion in the Burkinabé press (French). The other party, the Union for Progress and Change, is new, having been created in 2010 (French). RFI (French) calls its leader, Zéphirin Diabré, “the new head of the Burkinabé opposition.” According to Jeune Afrique (French), the president’s camp controls 97 seats (this tally must include ADF-RDA), while Diabré’s controls 30.

Turning briefly to the local elections, the Burkinabé press has two notable stories about conflicts playing out in different localities: a tense-sounding wait for revised results in certain quarters of the economic capital Bobo-Dioulasso (French), and a struggle between two conflicting versions of the official results in the rural commune of Tema Bokin (French).

Finally, this editorial (French) contains some interesting musings on the coupled elections as a “crucial step before the presidential election of 2015″ and on their results as evidencing not so much “change,” but rather “renewal.” The author writes, “The national political chessboard is indeed being completely rearranged, between announced divorces and assumed reconciliations…”

Quick Notes on Elections in Somaliland and Burkina Faso

Two major elections took place recently within this blog’s zone of coverage. On November 28, Somaliland held municipal elections. On December 2, Burkina Faso held parliamentary and municipal elections.

Somaliland

Initial international commentary on the elections in Somaliland has largely focused on assessing the integrity of the process. You can read the preliminary report from an international election observation mission here. An excerpt:

With a fuller team assessment to come in early December, preliminary indications suggest that, despite some reports of violence, and no voting taking place in some disputed districts in the country’s east, Somaliland’s electorate has, once again,turned out with enthusiasm and in large numbers.

Particularly heartening has been wide participation by female voters, a boost in numbers of female candidates and, thanks to the lowering of the qualifying age, youthful candidates standing in significant numbers. However, at this interim stage, a few concerns have emerged, including, once again, apparent attempts at underage and multiple voting.

Observers have also reported excessive use of force by security forces outside polling stations in some areas; some poor organisation surrounding the electoral process, including delayed opening of polling stations; insufficient electoral materials; and technical problems with voter safeguards, such as the ink designed to prevent multiple voting.

Aaron Pangburn has more on various concerns about the elections. He also lays out how the outcome of these elections will affect the political arena going forward:

The new electoral law passed in 2011, allows for officially registered political associations to challenge Somaliland’s three legal political parties (President Silanyo’s KULMIYE, UCID and UDUB) in municipal elections. Five new associations (UMADDA, DALSAN, RAYS, WADANI and HAQSOOR) met the registration requirements and were approved by the RAC.

In order to become an official party, the law initially requires a minimum of 20% in each of Somaliland’s six regions. The system limits their populations’ choices to three political parties to ensure broad based policy platforms, and to avoid previous tendency of narrow clan-based coalitions. The campaign was particularly vibrant and regulated, with each party adopting a different color and symbol to bring their supporters together, but with a structured schedule for the party rallies.

Pangburn also comments, significantly, that “unfortunately for the people of Somaliland a transparent and mostly peaceful process will not drastically redefine their standing in the international community. Rather, it will be how they manage their external relationships with Somalia and their regional neighbors that will have the greatest effect on their pending application for statehood.”

Burkina Faso

International coverage of the “coupled” parliamentary and municipal elections in Burkina Faso has focused on several interlinked themes. Commentary has focused largely on assessing the prospects for the stability of the regime of President Blaise Compaore. Recurring themes in coverage include:

  • Noting that these elections follow the protests and mutinies of spring/summer 2011 (see AP and AFP);
  • Assessing the integrity of the vote, especially the performance of the National Independent Electoral Commission, which was reformed after the protests (see VOA);
  • Speculating that if the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress wins a “decisive” majority, it could seek to undo term limits on Compaore’s tenure as president (see Reuters).

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Results are expected by December 7 in Burkina Faso (French), and soon (though I have not seen a specific date) in Somaliland.

What do you see as the significance of these elections?

Burkina Faso: Parliamentary Elections Twelve Days from Now

On December 2, Burkina Faso will hold elections for seats in its 111-member National Assembly, along with elections for local government positions. Parliamentary elections take place every five years, and the previous election occurred in May 2007. Presidential elections also take place every five years, but on a different track – the last presidential vote happened in 2010, when President Blaise Compaore was re-elected for the fourth time. The President’s party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP, whose official website is in French here), currently controls 73 seats in the National Assembly.

Here are several resources you can consult for information on the upcoming vote and Burkina Faso’s political landscape:

  • The Assembly’s official website and a list of members elected in 2007 (both pages are in French);
  • The Assembly’s Wikipedia page;
  • The website (French) of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI). Here, you can read about the reformulation of CENI in July 2011 in the wake of several months of protests and mutinies in Burkina Faso. You can find more on the reformed CENI and its new president, Barthélémy Kéré, here (French);
  • The International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ overview of elections in Burkina Faso;
  • and Freedom House’s 2011 “Countries at the Crossroads” report on Burkina Faso.

Given the paucity of news sites that focus on Burkina Faso, it is difficult for me to get a sense of the campaign from a distance. This article (French) reports on the campaign of a relatively new party, the Union for Progress and Change, to win the mayor’s seat in Tenkodogo (map) as well as legislative seats in the surrounding province. This article (French), meanwhile, reports on the Socialist Party’s campaign.

As the ruling CDP, under its National Security Assimi Kouanda, mobilizes its partisans for the elections (French), it seems likely – given President Compaore’s dominance and the substantial majority the Party enjoys – that they will hold the majority. Yet the election bears watching as the first contest held under the new CENI, the first vote since the crisis of spring 2011, and one possible indication of the country’s political trajectory as we look toward the 2015 presidential election.

Burkina Faso Debates Its Family Code

Several former French colonies in West Africa have witnessed major struggles over the content of “family codes” and “personal status laws,” statutes that deal with marriage, divorce, inheritance, and related matters. These struggles have pitted ostensibly secular governments (influenced by legacies of French secularism or laicite) against constituencies from what you might call “Muslim civil society.” One such struggle occurred in Senegal in the 1970s, while another broke out in Mali from 2009 to 2011.

In 1990, Burkina Faso* implemented a “Code for Persons and the Family,” the text of which I have been unable to locate. Recently the country’s Ministry for Women’s Advancement commissioned a study (French) on amending the Code. A new debate concerning this law has begun. It will be important to see who joins the debate and how it proceeds. Here are two perspectives from the Burkinabe press:

One author (French) says, “Even though perceived as being an advance in favor of the rights of women, it is noticed more and more that this text includes clauses that discriminate against women and girls” with regard to inheritance, property, and other matters. She goes on to cite discrepancies between the Code and the international statutes on women’s rights that Burkina Faso has ratified. The article, quoting an official from the Ministry for Women’s Advancement, suggests that the age of marriage may be a key focus of debate.

Another commentator (French) focuses on the renewed debate in the country concerning polygamy, which remains legal. The author questions whether such a debate is “opportune” for the country at a time when “the worries of Burkinabe women are far from this [issue].” Women have more pressing material and economic concerns than polygamy, the author continues. “How can one find this debate on polygamy opportune when female circumcision, obstetrical fistulas, and the weak attendance at maternity wards are still a reality?” The author goes on to discuss the issue of indigenous versus foreign cultural values, suggesting Burkina Faso must rely on its own values.

The portions of the Burkinabe press that are accessible online give us only a limited glimpse into popular opinion in the country. But it is noteworthy that neither of the linked articles discusses religion at length, focusing more on questions of national culture and its interaction with international norms. We will see if Muslim associations and constituencies (or Christians and other non-Muslim groups!) begin to put forth arguments with a specifically religious character.

*where Muslims represent a smaller proportion of the population (60%) than Mali (90%) or Senegal (94%).

Update on Cholera Outbreaks in West Africa

Cholera is a recurring problem in parts of West Africa, but this year it has caused even more alarm than usual. An outbreak in Gao, northern Mali, along with elevated numbers of cases in other parts of the region, has drawn major concern. More background here.

One zone of concern is Niger, which has recently suffered a one-two punch of floods and cholera:

Floods in Niger have killed 81 people since July, the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs announced Thursday, adding cholera outbreaks have killed a further 81 people.

[...]

Cholera is spreading fast in at least four places, making 3,854 people sick and notably affecting the Tillaberi regions lying by the Niger river and close to the border with Mali, OCHA said.

In the provinces and in the capital, where the Niger river level is rising significantly, most of the people stricken by flooding are being housed mainly in schools, as well as mosques and public buildings.

OCHA’s Niger page is available in French here.

Some worry that the cholera epidemic in Niger could spread to neighboring Burkina Faso (French).

Meanwhile, some coastal West Africa countries are experiencing major cholera outbreaks. By late August, some 12,500 people had contracted cholera in Sierra Leone, and the disease had killed 224. The Financial Timeswrote, “The World Health Organisation estimates the number of cases could reach 32,000, with the outbreak peaking towards the end of September. The mortality rate of 1.8 per cent is almost double the emergency threshold.” This is Sierra Leone’s worst outbreak since 1994. Cholera has also struck in Guinea, with nearly 6,000 cases and over 100 deaths, in the worst outbreak since 2007.

The World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent are working to vaccinate people in affected countries and treat victims. But the epidemic, it seems, is still growing, adding to the tragedies West Africa is facing this year.

Rappers and Politicians: Burkina Faso Edition

At times, hip hop and politics have gone hand in glove. In certain ways, American rappers in the 1980s and 1990s (and to a lesser extent the 2000s and the 2010s) were (literally and symbolically) heirs to black political leaders of the 1960s. Tupac Shakur was the son of Black Panthers and he caused almost as much political controversy in his time as they did in theirs. The album cover for KRS-ONE’s 1988 By All Means Necessary recreates a famous photograph of Malcolm X. Many rappers, especially in the early 1990s, were influenced by the Five Percent Nation, founded in 1964 by a one-time student of Malcolm X. The list of linkages between the political activism of the 1960s and the musical florescence of the 1980s and 1990s goes on and on.

What of African hip hop? An interesting case presents itself in Ismael Sankara, who may (French) or may not (French) be the son of Captain Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso. The elder Sankara, who took power in a 1983 coup, ruled until his death in a 1987 coup by his one-time companion (and current Burkinabe President) Blaise Compaore. Captain Sankara is famous for his outspoken Marxism and the dramatic changes he introduced in Burkina Faso (which he renamed from Upper Volta). These changes included refusing foreign aid, nationalizing key resources, promoting women’s rights, and pursuing rapid development through expansion of infrastructure and other programs.

Ismael, if one accepts that he is Capt. Sankara’s son (some members of the extended Sankara family reject the claim), was born in 1987, six months before his father’s death. He grew up with his mother mostly in Miami, where he became involved in music. As captured in a short documentary about him entitled “The Rhythm of My Life,” on a 2010 trip to Gabon he made contacts who helped him record an album that is due to appear shortly. Several videos from the album have already circulated, including a song entitled “Real Africans,” embedded below.

How does Ismael deal with his father’s legacy? In “The Rhythm of My Life,” he states that his father “knew that this vision wouldn’t last long,” but frequently said that “music is the future.”

Ismael has not, from what I can tell, specifically addressed or criticized the existing political situation in Burkina Faso. At one point (either 2008 or 2010, according to different sources), Ismael performed in Burkina Faso with Sean Paul, and accepted an invitation to dine with President Compaore. There seems to be no open enmity between the two men.

The video for “Real Africans” is worth contemplating for what it says about more subtle forms of the elder Sankara’s legacy, as well as for its depiction of Africa. The video makes no reference to Capt. Sankara, except perhaps for Ismael’s invocation of his “royal bloodline,” but the video is reminiscent of Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock”: in both cases, the viewer sees the musician totally at home, a leader, in his and his father’s land, a man of and yet adored by the people. In Ismael’s case this is underscored by the chorus’ repeated line, “I never left but they sayin that I’m back again.” The video was not, however, filmed in Burkina Faso, but rather in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire; to have filmed the video in a city like Ouagadougou would have, I believe, seemed like an overt act of political dissent against Compaore.

Lyrically, “Real Africans” portrays Africa in mostly grim terms. Violence, political repression, corruption, conflict, and poverty are recurring themes, as Ismael speaks of “child rebels with automatics and dark minds.” The visual tone of the video is somewhat less grim: amid a montage of scenes from dirt streets, the people often look happy. There are, of course, other ways to present Africa, so it is interesting that Ismael has chosen this mixture. How he defines the “real” is also significant given that he is a rapper from the diaspora making an overt claim to belonging.

Africa has produced dozens of excellent rappers, both on the continent and in the diaspora. Many of them address political themes and some have been active in politics, notably in Senegal. But Ismael Sankara, if his lineage is genuine, presents a special connection between music and politics. It will be interesting, when the full album comes out, to see whether it sheds more light on how he deals with his father’s legacy and with Africa’s present.

On US Bases in Africa

The Washington Post‘s Craig Whitlock published an article yesterday entitled “U.S. expands secret intelligence operations in Africa.” The piece is a sequel of sorts to one he and Greg Miller wrote some nine months ago, entitled “U.S. assembling secret drone bases in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, officials say.” As with that last article, there is a mix of old and new information; while the 2011 article focused on East Africa, and was particularly noteworthy for passages on Ethiopia, the new article is noteworthy especially for passages on Burkina Faso and Mauritania – although as the article points out, US forces and contractors have been operating in those countries for half a decade or more.

The following passage not only highlights the length of the US military’s tenure in Burkina Faso, it also hints at the political complexities, both within the US government and between the US government and its partners, of having such a presence:

The U.S. military began building its presence in Burkina Faso in 2007, when it signed a deal that enabled the Pentagon to establish a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment in Ouagadougou. At the time, the U.S. military said the arrangement would support “medical evacuation and logistics requirements” but provided no other details.

By the end of 2009, about 65 U.S. military personnel and contractors were working in Burkina Faso, more than in all but three other African countries, according to a U.S. Embassy cable from Ouagadougou. In the cable, diplomats complained to the State Department that the onslaught of U.S. troops and support staff had “completely overwhelmed” the embassy.

In addition to Pilatus PC-12 flights for Creek Sand, the U.S. military personnel in Ouagadougou ran a regional intelligence “fusion cell” code-named Aztec Archer, according to the cable.

Burkina Faso, a predominantly Muslim country whose name means “the land of upright men,” does not have a history of radicalism. U.S. military officials saw it as an attractive base because of its strategic location bordering the Sahel, the arid region south of the Sahara where al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate is active.

Unlike many other governments in the region, the one in Burkina Faso was relatively stable. The U.S. military operated Creek Sand spy flights from Nouakchott, Mauritania, until 2008, when a military coup forced Washington to suspend relations and end the surveillance, according to former U.S. officials and diplomatic cables.

The article is very much worth reading in full.

In my view having bases in a country involves the US in (or exposes the US to, if you prefer) local politics, one way or another. US military involvement in local politics, including in Africa, is nothing new. But it is worth pointing out, time and again, that most of the key partner countries for the military in Africa are run by presidents/prime-ministers-for-life: Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi (in power since 1995), Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore (in power since 1987), Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (in power since 1986), Djibouti’s Ismael Omar Guellah (in power since 1999), etc. The contradictions between such partnerships and stated US ideals of democracy promotion are now so familiar as to be hardly worth mentioning. A more pragmatic point may be that the stability won through decades of rule by one person or clique can often prove quite brittle when put to the test. Sub-Saharan African leaders who faced strong protest movements in 2011 (or in years previous) tended, unlike their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, to survive those tests (this includes Compaore), but sub-Saharan African protest movements have at least shown the potential for serious tension to break out in places where the Pentagon might not have expected it to. The example of how the 2008 coup in Mauritania disrupted US operations there merits reflection.

I have not seen much of a reaction to the Washington Post story in different African countries’ online press so far, save this article on a Malian site (French). The Nigerian papers often track US news quite closely, so we will see if they pick up this story in the coming days.

Conditions Facing Malian Refugees in Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso

In April, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins san frontieres estimated the number of people displaced by the fighting in northern Mali at 260,000 – roughly half of them inside Mali, and roughly half in Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger. A May estimate from the same  group put the number of refugees outside Mali at 160,000, while another estimate from the United Nations has   the numbers at 64,000 refugees in Mauritania, 61,000 in Burkina Faso, 41,000 in Niger, and 30,000 in Algeria.

Despite the efforts of governments and relief agencies, the refugee crisis poses severe problems for a region already wracked by drought. Coming rains, ironically, may cause difficulties in sheltering refugees. Climate Wire warns of a potential “breaking point,” when food-stressed local communities would begin to oppose giving resources to refugees. The situation is a humanitarian crisis.

Here are some excerpts from news reports on how refugees are faring in Mali’s neighbors.

Mauritania:

Malians sheltered at Camp Mbere [estimated refugee population: 75,000] in northeast Mauritania face food shortages and other troubling realities as more and more displaced victims arrive.

Abou Bakr Ould Sidi and his family were among the first Touaregs to escape fighting between rebels and the army in northern Mali in January.

“Camp Mbere’s guests, displaced by war in northern Mali, are suffering poor conditions and challenges on a daily basis,” Ould Sidi told Magharebia. An allotment of 5 bags of oil, sugar, 4 kg of rice and a few bags of peanuts per person per week was not enough to prevent malnutrition, he added.

UNHCR, the Mauritanian Commissariat of Food Security and the International Fund for Food Security are all working to address these problems.

More on Mbere, with photographs, here.

Burkina Faso:

More than 60,000 refugees have fled Mali’s troubled north to Burkina Faso, where nearly three million people are already facing dangerous food shortages after poor rains and a failed harvest this year. The compound crises are straining relief efforts for the refugees, as well as local communities.

In northern Burkina Faso, near the Malian border, thousands of refugees have settled here in Mentao Camp, including Basséta Waleta Sidi and her family.

“We fled the violence and the killing in Mali. We are safe now, but the future is uncertain,” said Sidi.

Aid organizations are supplying food and medical attention. But Sidi, who has one child and is seven months pregnant with another, is worried about malnutrition.

“All we eat here is rice and oil, which we are not used to,” added Sidi. “And the amount is not enough, even for one child.”

Many refugee children in Burkina Faso also lack access to schools. For more on Burkina Faso, see this important but somewhat dated article from March.

Niger:

Already hard hit by a poor growing season in 2011-2012, with rain at the wrong time and in all the wrong places, the population of North Tillabéry in Niger now has to share its meagre resources with the many refugees arriving from Mali.

According to the authorities in Niger, more than 30,000 Malians from the Ménaka area and an estimated 8,000 Niger nationals living in Mali have found refuge in Niger since the beginning of the year, fleeing the fighting between government forces and armed groups.

Amanita Walid, from Ménaka, arrived in Niger with nothing but the clothes on her back. Members of her family and other people she knew ended up scattered across several sites. Despite the difficulties, she had a genuine sense of security: “The real change when we arrived here was not hearing any more gunfire.”

The group Plan International has produced a video on Malian refugees in Niger. I leave you with that: