UNTIL very recently Ouagadougou, the capital of Upper Volta, was a distant and mysterious town where few Europeans had ever ventured. Things have changed now though — thanks to the Sahel drought of the 1970s and the subsequent foreign aid programme.
After a decade of ‘development’ Ouagdougou is now a bustling cosmopolitan city where the traditional is rapidly giving way to commercial push. Under the watchful eyes of countless vultures, the colourful central market stocks everything from sorghum to Sony tape recorders. And spacious air-conditioned supermarkets serve the ‘Voltaic’ and expatriate elites. Along the tree lined boulevards that the French left behind, the mopeds and the Peugeots of civil servants and businessmen now outnumber the donkeys and the bicycles of the poor majority.
The superficial prosperity of Ouagadougou, however, cruelly masks the naked poverty of the rural areas. This semi-feudal world has hardly evolved in 20 years of independence. And stagnating food production, poor health and underemployment all contribute to the tragic exodus of the youth to the plantations of the Ivory Coast.
Concentrating scarce resources in the towns has meant that Upper Volta has one of the lowest levels of literacy and health care in the world. And there is no easy escape from the vicious cycle of poverty in most peasant communities. Banks make loans to civil servants to build villas. But a subsistence farmer hasn’t much hope of ever obtaining credit for a plough.
The years since independence have seen a succession of weak military and civilian governments — with a laissez-faire attitude that has provided a haven for foreign trading companies as well as the international aid community which is here en masse. The Voltaics have become the guinea pigs for every and any kind of aid. But it is the local planners and peasant farmers who have suffered — for they are the ones who are blamed when the projects fail, as they often do. One positive result of this experience, however, is that the need for consultation and organization at the village level is beginning to be understood.
The progressive trade union movement in the towns is another encouraging feature nowadays. Despite internal divisions it has successfully avoided making party political allegiances and its thirst for economic and political democracy has held many an authoritarian government in check.
A wave of strikes in 1980 led to the fall of the 14-year-old Lamizana regime and with it the conservative politicians who had governed for twenty years or more.
The new military government under Colonel Zerbo has made the expected bold promises to tackle basic problems.
But the recent repressive measures against the trade unions and opposition groups suggest it has an even greater interest in consolidating its power.