New Internationalist

Burkina Faso

Issue 444
AFP/Gamma
Students rioting in Ouagadougou on 23 May AFP/Gamma

Burkina’s capital, Ouagadougou, known to locals as ‘Ouaga’, retains the engaging feel of an overgrown village in a country still dominated by subsistence farming. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world but at the start of this year it seemed like an island of calm in a troubled region. While nearby countries in West Africa had undergone brutal civil wars, Burkina had sailed blithely on. After 24 years in power, President Blaise Compaoré was being billed as a regional peacemaker, despite his own distinctly murky reputation, and in the November 2010 election he won 80.2 per cent of the vote.

But then, out of the blue, Compaoré was hit by successive waves of opposition. The trouble started in February when a schoolchild was allegedly killed by police, setting off a wave of demonstrations by students across the country. In April the biggest mass protest for many years took place in the capital, over rising food prices partly derived from the ongoing conflict in Côte d’Ivoire.

More disturbing still for Compaoré was the mutiny in April by police and soldiers – including many from the élite presidential guard – protesting that the government had not paid their housing allowances. In Ouaga, 43 people were wounded by gunshots, women were raped, shops were ransacked and hotels were attacked. The home of presidential guard commander Gilbert Diendéré was razed to the ground. The mutiny spread to other cities – to Pô, Kaya and Tenkodogo – before Compaoré agreed to their demands and sacked his own government, appointing himself Minister of Defence.

But his troubles were by no means over. Traders whose property had been damaged by the rioting soldiers took to the streets, setting the ruling party’s headquarters on fire, and attacking the National Assembly and other key public buildings before their demands for compensation were met. In May, teachers entered the fray, striking in protest at the government’s failure to respond to their long-held grievances over allowances and overcrowded classrooms. Students took to the streets in support, and at one point offices in the education ministry were ransacked. In this case, too, the government eventually acceded to all the teachers’ demands.

Resentment has always bubbled beneath the surface in Burkina. Independence from France in 1960 was followed by a bewildering series of military coups that did little to help the country’s battle against chronic poverty. In 1983, however, the latest of those coups turned into one of Africa’s most promising revolutions, led by the inspirational Thomas Sankara, who is still revered well beyond the continent for his wisdom and idealism.

Sankara was assassinated in 1987 by his former friend and comrade-in-arms, Compaoré, who seized the presidency and proceeded to curry favour with the West by doing its neoliberal economic bidding. An inevitable byproduct has been a harbouring of massive wealth by a rich élite, many of whom, like Compaoré himself, now live in opulent mansions in a newly built section of the capital called Ouaga 2000. Corruption is an ever-growing problem – the newspaper Le Reporter uncovered huge loans secured by ministers from the nation’s social security fund to build themselves these ‘futuristic villas’. Sankara’s renaming of what used to be Upper Volta is beginning to seem like a curse – Burkina Faso means ‘land of the incorruptible’.

Compaoré has governed through patronage and the shrewd distribution of Western money while actively cultivating political apathy – in the November election only 1.6 million Burkinabès voted, out of a total population 10 times that size. But the genie of protest is now out of the bottle and Compaoré’s aura of invincibility has been shattered. Politics in Burkina has at long last come alive again.

Burkina Faso Fact File
Leader President Blaise Compaoré.
Economy GNI per capita $510 (Ghana $700, France $43,990). Burkina’s GNI per capita has doubled since it was last profiled 10 years ago. Cotton accounts for 60% of export earnings. Burkina has harvested Western aid and debt relief in return for jumping through all the privatizing and market-liberalizing hoops set in front of it by the IMF and World Bank. Much of this has been spent as it should have been, on schools and health clinics. The US has also allocated Burkina around $480 million from its Millennium Challenge account to for poverty-reduction projects.
Monetary unit CFA franc.
Main exports Cotton, livestock, animal hides and gold.
People 15.8 million. Annual population growth rate: 3.7%. People per square kilometre 57 (UK 253).
Health Infant mortality 91 per 1,000 births (Ghana 47, France 3). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 28 (France 1 in 6,600). HIV prevalence rate 1.2%. Access to clean water 76% and to decent sanitation just 11%.
Environment Desertification remains a problem, particularly in the north. The soil is generally poor and the remaining trees have to be carefully guarded to stop their use as firewood.
Culture Around half the population are Mossi. Peulh/Fulani nomads comprise around 20%. Among the other groups are the Bobo-Fing (south-west), Bisa (south) and Gourma (east).
Religion Muslim 50%; traditional African religions 40%; Catholic 10%.
Language French (official). Moré (the Mossi tongue), Dioula, Gourmantche and Peulh are the most widely spoken local languages.
Human development index 0.305 (Ghana 0.467, France 0.872).
Last profiled link May 2000
Burkina Faso ratings in detail
Income distribution
The poor do have marginally more income than in 2000 but a small urban élite based on the President’s cronies are now very rich indeed.
Previously reviewed
2000
Life expectancy
53 years – up from 45 when last profiled in 2000 (Ghana 57, France 81).
Previously reviewed
2000
Literacy
29%. Burkina shares the world’s lowest adult literacy rate with Niger, but even this is up from 19% 10 years ago.
Previously reviewed
2000
Position of women
Female genital mutilation is still common, though the government has made genuine public education efforts. Many female-headed households due to men working in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.
Previously reviewed
2000
Freedom
There has apparently been enough democratic sheen to satisfy the West but political opposition has been difficult and the judiciary is compromised.
Previously reviewed
2000
Sexual minorities
There are no laws against same-sex activity. But gays and lesbians face significant discrimination as well as traditional and religious hostility.
NI Assessment (Politics)
Compaoré changed the constitution in 2002 so that presidents were limited to two five-year terms – though by then he had already served two seven-year terms. He was talking of changing it again so that he might run in 2015. The current unrest may at least have taken that off the agenda, though he may try to pass power on to his brother François, who is already known as ‘le petit président’. The opposition needs to build a coherent movement from the current protests. For its democratic health, Burkina desperately needs politics no longer to be a family business.

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