Burkina Faso: Amid Police Firings, Eyes on Last Year’s Riots – and on 2015 [UPDATED]

Last spring, Burkina Faso experienced weeks of protests by trade unions and students, with an overlapping series of mutinies by soldiers and police. For a time it looked as though President Blaise Compaore, who has ruled the country since 1987, might be losing his grip on power. In June, a combination of personnel changes, policy reforms, and crackdowns on mutineers brought the nation’s intersecting uprisings to a close. But nearly a year later, Burkina Faso and its rulers are still sorting through the fallout of last year’s explosion – and looking ahead to 2015, the year of the next scheduled presidential elections.

The 2011 uprisings were back in the news last week when the government announced the firing of over 100 policemen accused of joining the mutinies. A list of the fired officers (French) shows that most came from units in Ouagadougou, the political capital, and Bobo-Dioulasso, the economic capital. Both cities were centers of protest last year. Given earlier disciplinary firings of mutinous soldiers, the firing of mutinous police came as no surprise (French).

The firings suggest that last year’s uprisings are still on the government’s mind, but also that the government is feeling relatively strong. International actors seem to share that view of the Compaore regime’s strength. The US State Department‘s conclusion regarding the 2011 uprisings is, “As of late July, the government’s actions had produced greater calm and stability.” The IMF’s December review of loan programs to Burkina Faso makes no mention of the uprisings, but generally depicts the country as stable and making progress on the IMF’s desired reforms. The IMF does say, however, “In view of the Burkinabè economy’s vulnerability to exogenous shocks that affect the most vulnerable in the population, the authorities need to place special emphasis on the preparation of a social safety net.” This is noteworthy because two frequently cited drivers of the uprisings were the post-electoral crisis in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire and increases in the price of basic foods.

The Africa Report adds more perspective on the regime’s new strategy and how it has been received internationally:

The new government has increased its actions, most notably by reducing prices of fast-moving consumer goods and agricultural input products, promoting civil servants or suspending unpaid penalties for delayed electricity bills.

In pole position is Luc Adolphe Tiao, who has embarked on a campaign to seduce Burkinabes and economic partners. The former journalist and diplomat has a somewhat pedagogical approach to his duties.

[...]

They also seem to desire an improvement in governance, social dialogue and the economic environment, in line with the recommendations of the World Bank.

[...]

Moreover, while meeting in Paris in the beginning of February, international partners gave their support to the Burkinabe government’s social and economic programmes, with a total budget of US$14.3bn for the period 2011-2015.

Their ambition is to reach a two-digit GDP growth, the only lever to real sustainable poverty reduction.

Many observers, then, agree that calm has been restored for the present. But those same observers are questioning whether stability can hold. The Africa Report wonders whether population growth will overwhelm economic growth. Morale among soldiers and police may have taken a hit from firings. And the shocks – particularly rapid increases in food prices - that contributed to crisis not only last year, but also in previous episodes, could return.

Some uncertainty about Burkina Faso’s political future centers on the president and his intentions. In Jeune Afrique (French), Marwane Ben Yahmed writes that Compaore is facing pressures (including from abroad) to step down when his term ends in 2015, but also getting encouragement (especially from his circle) to remain. Ben Yahmed writes (my translation) that Compaore already knows what he intends to do, but that “he cannot commit himself to leave, at the risk of undermining his authority and launching a premature war of succession, just as he could not, evidently, announce that he will cling to power.” The guessing game about the president’s intensions, which could run for over two years, will ensure that a hint of tension remains in Burkina Faso’s politics for some time to come.

UPDATE: IRIN tackles the same topic. Definitely worth a read.

A Flurry of Meetings on Sahel Security

Tomorrow and Thursday, security experts from Sahelian countries will meet in Algiers to discuss anti-terrorism efforts in the region. This meeting is the latest in an ongoing series dedicated to deepening regional cooperation:

This is a technical meeting which will be attended by experts in the framework of the activities of the Global Forum on Anti-terrorism. The first meeting had officially been held on 22nd and 23rd September, 2011 in New York.

Since 2010, four Sahelian countries, including Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, cooperate militarily as part of a Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff based in Tamanrasset, in the extreme south of Algeria.

Moreover, Algeria held on 7th and 8th September a conference on the partnership, security and development in the Sahel, which had established the foundations for partnership development and security between countries of the Sahel and the West.

Other recent meetings in the region with relevance for security issues include talks between North African and European commanders in Nouakchott in late September; a parley on Sunday between northern Malian politicians and Tuareg fighters; and a visit Monday by Nigerien Prime Minister Rafini Briji to Burkina Faso. Last but not least, Magharebia reports on a meeting of Sahelian ministers and Obama administration officials in Washington, DC, last week. More here (French).

The pace of these meetings reflects the deep concern, both regional and international, over issues such as loose weapons, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, drug smuggling, kidnapping, and rebellions caused by fighters returning from Libya. As talks continue, new military aid to Sahelian governments is arriving.

New resources and shared interests may push Sahelian countries toward tighter cooperation. But talks and money are not the only necessary ingredients in this endeavor, and there are obstacles to cooperation as well. The challenges each country in the region faces differ, and lingering political tensions and mistrust may continue to limit or slow the development of cooperative frameworks.

Burkina Faso, Chad, and Sudan Recognize Libya’s Transitional National Council

Yesterday, news that Burkina Faso had offered sanctuary to Libya’s Colonel Moammar Qadhafi got some attention. Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore has a long and close relationship with the Colonel, so the exile offer wasn’t a big surprise. Also unsurprising, but perhaps more significant, was the news that Burkina Faso and Chad have recognized the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) in Libya.

As recipients of Gaddafi’s largesse during his decades in power, the governments in Ouagadougou and N’Djamena had previously been hesitant about taking sides the conflict.

Libya’s rebels have often accused neighbouring Chad of backing Gaddafi by sending mercenaries to put down the uprising, a charge denied by N’Djamena.

But a council delegation was in Chad on Wednesday when Moussa Dago, secretary general for Chad’s foreign affairs ministry, recognised its authority and called on it to protect Chadian interests in the country.

Chad had been moving in that direction for months.

Burkina Faso and Chad join Sudan, which according to a few sources (English and Arabic) has also recognized the TNC. These shifts mean that most of the Sahel has decided to back the TNC either officially or unofficially. From what I can tell, Mali and Niger are still hesitating, a hesitation that becomes more conspicuous as the pool of TNC supporters grows. Barring a wild military reversal, I imagine that Mali and Niger will eventually recognize the TNC, but it is interesting to think about whether the order of who recognizes the TNC says anything about who is most nervous about a post-Qadhafi future. Perhaps Mali and Niger are now watching Burkina Faso and evaluating the success of Compaore’s attempt to preserve an old friendship, while still acknowledging a new reality.

Climate Change, the Sahel, and Predictions of a Troubled Future

A new report, “Mapping Hotspots of Climate Change and Food Insecurity in the Global Tropics,” contains some grim news for the Sahel. Greg Mills and Terence McNamee of the Brenthurst Foundation write in the Independent Online about the report’s implications for Mali. Noting that the report “predicts that global climate change will curb agricultural output in Mali more than any other country, except its West African neighbours Niger and Burkina Faso,” Mills and McNamee outline the interlocking challenges Mali faces. These include security problems (such as AQIM), rapid population growth, weak employment prospects for youth, and entrenched poverty. The authors see potential for economic growth in mining and cotton, but they recommend serious political and economic reform, such as passage of the new family code. They argue that the next president, to be elected in 2012, will have to make tough choices that could strain the consensus-based fabric of Malian democracy:

Stability in Mali has been achieved in part through a strong tradition of inclusiveness and building broad consensus, ensuring that no groups are excluded. Yet this otherwise positive trait makes it almost impossible for the government to make hard decisions in the national interest, the kind of decisions that are to the short-term detriment of some but in the long run help the country’s development.

[...]

If the government avoids the hard choices, its much-admired democracy is sure to falter under the weight of young Malians’ unfulfilled expectations.

The thrust of Mills and McNamee’s suggested reforms makes me uneasy – will further privatization of key industries really benefit Mali, and is it really to Mali’s advantage if politicians force through unpopular reforms? – but their point about Mali’s challenges is irrefutable. Moreover, their argument that “there is nothing Mali can realistically do to mitigate climate change either, but it can adapt to it” sounds ugly, but is correct to the extent that Mali cannot force more powerful countries to stop polluting. Government policy (or even regional initiatives like a proposed “great green wall“) can only do so much to mitigate the effects of climate change, and in some cases these policies carry significant downsides, even in ecological terms. Mali is in a bad spot.

The regional implications are equally frightening. Mali’s problems, as Mills and McNamee say in the beginning, are also Burkina Faso’s and Niger’s. The political landscape varies from place to place, but both countries have their own serious problems: Niger faces an influx of refugees from Libya, recurring droughts, and the challenge of AQIM, while Burkina Faso saw weeks of protests and mutinies this spring. Niger and Burkina Faso also, like Mali, have rapidly growing populations and weak economies. As the physical temperature of these countries rises, the political temperature seems likely to rise as well. Leaders in all three countries, already in complicated positions, will face even tougher choices going forward.

Sahelian Leaders Look to a Post-Qadhafi Libya

During his long rule Colonel Moammar Qadhafi has exercised substantial influence over Africa. The Colonel has aided client regimes, helped bring rulers to power or ruin, and intervened in conflicts as participant or peacemaker. As this map shows, his influence has been particularly pronounced in Sahelian countries like Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad.

The civil war in Libya has dramatically affected the Sahel: Niger and other countries are absorbing thousands of refugees, Sahelians are being accused of serving as pro-Qadhafi mercenaries, Libyan weapons have reportedly traveled south, and money flows have been disrupted or altered. Perhaps reflecting the interlinked fates of Libya and the Sahel, the latter has been well represented in the African Union’s peace efforts, providing two of the five members of the AU’s committee on Libya (they are President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania, who chairs the committee, and President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali). This AU group, at least initially, tried to broker a peace that would have allowed Qadhafi to remain in power.

Given all that, it is significant to see several Sahelian leaders begin to speak about – and act to bring about – a post-Qadhafi Libya. Senegal appears to have led the trend, with President Abdoulaye Wade establishing relations with the Libyan rebels in mid-May. Last week, Wade met with rebel leaders in Benghazi and said that Qadhafi should step down. Gambia also recognizes the rebels. Wade’s call for a transition was seconded last week by Mauritania’s Abdel Aziz, who said that Qadhafi’s “departure has become necessary.” With this, Abdel Aziz seemed to speak for the African Union as a whole. Another Sahelian leader, Chad’s President Idriss Deby, soon added his voice to the chorus. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chadian Foreign Minister Moussa Faki met on the sidelines of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) forum in Zambia last week, and afterwards Clinton announced that “the Chadian government does not support Gadhafi.”

To say there is an emerging Sahelian consensus against Qadhafi would be going too far. I have not seen a statement from Mali’s Toure calling for Qadhafi’s resignation, nor to my knowledge has newly elected Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou gone beyond calling for a solution to the crisis (without stating a preference on who rules Libya). President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, according to one source, has continued to proclaim solidarity with Qadhafi. And further east, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir has not demanded Qadhafi’s ouster either. So if the baseline position among Sahelian leaders three or four months ago was support for Qadhafi, or neutrality, many of them have not moved. But the movement that has occurred in the region has been toward breaking with the Colonel.

AFP has discussed the Senegalese and Mauritanian statements in the context of a larger African shift away from Qadhafi. Attention to the Sahelian context is also important, though, as Qadhafi’s departure could affect the Sahel more than any other region in Africa. The calculated risks that Wade, Abdel Aziz, and Deby are taking indicate that the political landscape in the Sahel has already shifted even though Qadhafi still clings to power. These decisions also suggest some confidence on the part of Sahelian leaders that siding with Qadhafi’s foes is a better bet than staying neutral, or continuing to support the Colonel on the chance that he might weather the storm. If and when Qadhafi does go, the relationships forged in this time of crisis, both between the Sahelian countries and the rebels as well as among the Sahelian countries themselves, will influence the direction of regional relations in the future.

Burkina Faso: Compaore Regime Moves to Halt Protests

Throughout months of student protests, soldiers’ mutinies, merchants’ demonstrations, and other anti-regime actions, Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore has employed a mixed strategy of offering concessions, reorganizing the government, promising talks, and using repression. On June 2-3, Compaore used force against mutinous soldiers for the first time, sending his presidential guard into Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s economic capital, where mutineers had been rampaging for three days. In the aftermath of that crackdown, Compaore is taking steps that seem geared toward preventing any further protests, especially mutinies.

The hard might of the fist and the soft touch of the glove are both being felt in Bobo-Dioulasso now. Dozens of mutineers – 93, AFP reports – have been arrested there, and many will face prosecution. This move raises the stakes: would-be mutineers now know that the regime may punish them severely, as opposed to the lighter treatment mutineers got from March through May. But with force, Compaore may be able to dissuade soldiers from protesting.

The move appears to have some popular support:

Many in the capital, Ouagadougou, expressed support for the government’s actions.

This resident says the government’s reaction was late but necessary. Enough is enough, he says. Those soldiers who would rob, destroy public property and attack women are no longer soldiers and should be dealt with.

Meanwhile, the regime is trying to reduce tensions in Bobo-Dioulasso through its continued campaign of outreach to civilians:

A government delegation on Monday arrived in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second biggest city, to appease  the population…The delegation, led by the minister of Territorial Administration, Decentralization and Security, Jérôme Bougouma, includes the ministers of Civil Service, Soungalo Ouattara, Justice, Jérôme Traoré, and Social Action, Clémence Traoré. It visited the family of the 14-year old girl killed by a stray bullet, the religious and community leaders and those injured and on admission at the university hospital of Sourou Sanou and announced that the government would compensate victims of the mutiny.

The number of ministers who came and the symbolic actions the delegation took show how intent the regime is on properly managing the aftermath of the mutiny. This may not be enough – merchants whose property was damaged want compensation soon, one source says – but the regime is trying hard to cut out the roots of further civilian protests.

The protests and mutinies in Burkina Faso have come in bursts and there may be more ahead. But the regime’s approach in Bobo-Dioulasso says to me that they are keen to end this protest season here, rather than riding it out as they seemed to be doing before.

For more reading on the protests, see here.

Burkina Faso: Mutiny, Protest in Bobo-Dioulasso

Burkina Faso has been experiencing mutinies by soldiers and protests by students, merchants, and workers for months now, but the situation in the country’s second largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso, sounds like it is really getting out of control:

Soldiers…fired shots in the air during a third day of unrest as shopkeepers protested the troops’ looting of their stores.

The firing started overnight at a military base in the city and continued today, said resident Karim Cisse in a phone interview. A 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew was issued for the city, according to a statement read on state-owned television.

The conflict in Bobo Dioulasso comes amid a series of army protests over delayed pay and allowances.

AFP has more details:

Soldiers left their camp again midday on Thursday, firing shots in the air while some rode on motorcycles through several neighbourhoods, a resident told AFP.

The local public radio and television station closed its broadcast centre after a group of soldiers arrived hoping to broadcast a message.

A resident told AFP that by Thursday evening the town was deserted with all shops closed.

Between the soldiers, who are angry at the regime over unpaid salaries, and the merchants, who are angry at the regime for failing to control the soldiers, President Blaise Compaore is facing huge pressures from various directions. Drew Hinshaw says Compaore’s time may be up, but Compaore is one of the region’s savviest leaders and he’s already weathered weeks of unrest. What do you think will happen?

Burkina Faso: Teachers Strike, and Students Protest in Support

Burkina Faso’s protest movement has been notable in large part for the diverse social groups it has drawn in, especially students, soldiers, and merchants.*

Last week, yet another constituency entered the fray. Teachers began a strike, adding their voices to the public outcry over economic stagnation, and contributing to the disruptions in schools and universities that the country has experienced since February:

National teachers’ union secretary general Mamadou Barro said the strike began Thursday to protest unresolved demands by the teachers including overcrowded classrooms and promotions.

“Demands raised long after ours have been resolved. Billions have been allocated to satisfy the soldiers and millions to compensate traders. The teachers believe no citizen is more deserving than another,” he said.

Students have reacted to the teachers’ strike in a largely supportive way:

Hundreds of students marched in Burkina Faso’ capital Ouagadougou on Friday to demand striking teachers return to the classroom.

“We want to go to class”, “We want government to solve our teachers’ problems,” the college and high school students shouted, gathering in front of the education ministry, national assembly, public television and prime minister’s office downtown, an AFP correspondent reported.

Friday’s protest was peaceful, but yesterday students returned to the streets and did some damage:

Thousands of students demonstrated in Burkina Faso’s capital on Monday in support of a teachers’ strike over pay and class size, some of them breaking windows and ransacking offices at the education ministry.

[...]

A Reuters witness said at least 3,000 students had demonstrated in the capital, most of them in front of the Ministry of Education, and that there was no evidence of security forces in the area.

Dozens of protesters threw rocks through the windows of the ministry, while others ransacked the offices on the first floor, the witness said.

Burkina Faso’s government has attempted to respond to the demands of different social groups, but clearly many grievances have gone unresolved. As protests continue, and as anger continues to target the government, the alliances that are emerging among different protesting groups show the potential for a broad-based, anti-regime movement.

*For background, see here (subscription only) and here.

Another Round of Protests in Burkina Faso

Despite intense efforts by President Blaise Compaore to resolve the political crisis in Burkina Faso, diverse social groups continue to hold protests, especially security forces, merchants, and students. The social and geographical extent of the unrest continues to represent a serious threat to the regime.

Yesterday, a number of events happened in different places in the country. Police in the capital, Ouagadougou, mutinied. The police officers’ mutiny follows several uprisings by disgruntled soldiers. Despite Compoare’s move to take direct control over the security forces, it is clear that many rank-and-file soldiers and policemen are fed up with their working conditions.

Koudougou, a city in the west, also saw protests yesterday:

Merchants set fire to the mayor’s home, the police headquarters and several other buildings. They were protesting an official’s decision to shut about 40 stores in Koudougou’s central market over unpaid rent.

These actions by merchants follow earlier demonstrations by businessmen over the looting done by disaffected soldiers. Not all of Burkina Faso’s protesters are working together, but the problems of different social groups are increasingly interconnected. And just as protests by security forces threaten Compaore’s control over the military aspect of power, protests by merchants undermine the regime’s credibility in the economic sphere. The trigger for the protests – the closure of shops by a government official – also highlights the tensions between merchants and the government.

The merchants protesting in Koudougou found kindred spirits in Bobo-Dioulasso, a city even further west where cotton growers marched yesterday to protest low cotton prices. Cotton growers have even “threatened to boycott the crop season,” a move that could exacerbate tensions in the country, and that could spread the protest movements beyond their urban bases and more into rural areas.

Students, who have played a role in the protest movement since its beginnings in February, apparently joined in some of yesterday’s protests.

Protests are coming now in waves, a trend that has so far given Compaore time to improvise. Probably wisely, he has not resorted to brutal repression of demonstrators. His adjustments have so far prevented his fall, but have not halted the protests. Indeed, dissatisfaction is spreading. Whether Compaore can stay in power seems to be an open question.

Here is a map of Burkina Faso, with (left to right) Bob0-Dioulasso, Koudougou, and Ouagadougou marked: