19 September 2012

Burkina Faso: A Beacon of Stability?

Photo: Sidwaya
The protest was led by opposition leader Zéphirin Dabré.


More than a year after civil unrest broke out in Burkina Faso, observers and analysts say despite some progress, and sustained support for President Blaise Compaoré, tension between his government and the population remains.

In April 2011, discontent from soldiers over salaries turned into mutinies in five cities - the capital Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, Tenkodogo, Kaya and Po. Some members of Compaoré's presidential guard also took part, opening fire inside the presidential compound in Ouagadougou.

President Compaoré responded harshly to mutineers: he took direct control of the Ministry of Defence; dismissed several important high-ranking officers, and appointed a new army chief of staff. Over 300 soldiers were arrested and a further 600 removed from the ranks.

The president also met some of the soldiers' demands, giving them bonuses for housing and food, though the amounts are unclear. But the problems were not fully resolved, say analysts. The 300 detained soldiers still await trial, and a significant number of weapons that were seized during the military crackdown are still freely circulating.

"This unsolved crisis is a ticking bomb. Until the issue is fully settled, the mutineers could get out again", says a Western diplomat.

Civilians took to the streets several times in 2011 and 2012 to protest against the high cost of living, and what they perceive as corruption and impunity in government ranks. Compaoré has made attempts to tackle the latter, sacking several high-ranking officials on corruption allegations, among them Customs Director Ousmane Guiro and Minister of Justice Jérome Traoré, but despite these and other measures, faith in the integrity of the government remains very low, Ouagadougou residents told IRIN.

Rising prices

The price of basic commodities - rice, oil, milk and fuel - which rose significantly in 2008, have dropped little since, with prices 20 percent above the five-year average as of August 2012, according to USAID's Famine Early Warning System, FEWS NET. For three months following the riots, the government upped subsidies to reduce by one quarter the price of rice, cooking oil, sugar and fuel, but prices shot up after that and some say traders simply kept prices the same, using the subsidy to increase their personal profits.

Some two million people have been receiving aid to avert hunger this year.

With fuel prices fixed, SONABHY, the national company responsible for importing and regulating oil prices, will have to absorb any increases in costs, creating potential capacity problems, according to Isabelle Adenauer, country representative of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Burkina Faso.

Economic growth contracted from 7.9 percent in 2010 to 4.2 percent in 2011, according to the IMF, partly due to high food and fuel prices, drought which affected 11 of the country's 13 regions, and the global financial crisis.

This year, the economy is expected to perform better with a projected 7 percent growth rate partly linked to an upsurge in gold exports and a projected stronger harvest, but vulnerability remains. Just under half of the population lives in poverty, and a lack of economic diversity means a significant proportion of Burkinabe are reliant on the cotton sector, which is vulnerable to drought and severe price fluctuations.


Meanwhile, with regional tensions about to mount, given Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) military intervention plans across the border in Mali, Burkinabe officials are shoring up the border militarily, while preparing for the potential for more refugee arrivals.

Since the May 2012 coup d'état in Mali and the takeover of its northern territories by rebels and Islamist groups, Compaoré has tried to play a mediation role, holding talks with Islamist groups in the north, pushing them to sever ties with Al Qaeda, and calling for a clear timetable to form a stable, unified government in the south. His efforts have led to some accusations of partiality and meddling - as they did when he mediated in Côte d'Ivoire - but analysts say that when it comes to Mali, he is at least not seen by most as bullish, and he has had some modest successes.

The Burkinabe government has reinforced military security on its Mali border, with two helicopters in place, and military checkpoints set up. US drones are in operation, partly operating out of Ouagadougou under Operation Creek Sand, according to a Washington Post report, though US officials have not officially acknowledged this.

While bloody seasonal skirmishes between agro-pastoralists and pastoralists on either side of the border have arisen this year, as they do most years - with at least 25 Burkinabe reportedly killed in a land-claim dispute near the Malian border in the town of Sari in May - the over 100,000 Malian refugees currently sheltering in Burkina Faso have been largely warmly welcomed, despite their presence allegedly having upped food insecurity in some areas.

The Burkina Faso National Refugee Commission, CONAREF, is now planning for potential further refugee influxes. Such an influx has aid agencies nervous, given that only just over half of the US$126 million needed to cope with current aid needs has come in thus far.

Côte d'Ivoire still wobbly

Stability in Burkina Faso is vital for regional stability, said a Western diplomat, given the recent conflict in Côte d'Ivoire and the current situation in Mali.

Burkina Faso suffered economically from the post-election violence in Côte d'Ivoire, with an estimated 200,000 Burkinabe workers, including many who had been born and raised in Côte d'Ivoire, returning to Burkina Faso, fleeing violence and growing discrimination against perceived "outsiders".

Trained mechanic Amadou Coulibaly, from Djibo in northern Burkina Faso, was born in Côte d'Ivoire, but left with the electoral troubles last year. "It was impossible to stay," he told IRIN. He used to send money to his family who live in poverty in northern Burkina Faso, but he no longer can, he says.

While many workers have returned as Côte d'Ivoire focuses on stabilizing its cocoa sector and boosting extractive industries, nonetheless, discrimination continues to contribute to bloody clashes.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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