Rumblings of discontent in Burkina Faso

The convulsions in North Africa have in the past three weeks found an echo south of the Sahara.

The death in custody of a student in Burkina Faso has sparked a series of student protests against the brutality of Blaise Compaoré’s regime. At first these protests were limited to Koudougou, where the student died. Koudougou is traditionally a hotbed of Burkinabe agitation, and the government assumed it could confine the protest within the city boundaries by closing schools and clamping down on demonstrators.

But by extending school closures to the whole country, the government seems to have fanned the flames. The protests have spread to at least seven other cities, with police stations burned down, prisoners freed from jails and in one city the headquarters of the ruling party set on fire. The students, moreover, have been joined by hawkers and ordinary citizens.

Compaoré, as is his wont, has responded forcefully. When early concessions did not work – the Koudougou chief of police and regional governor were fired to placate the students – his security forces opened fire on protesters, killing four so far, with one policeman lynched in return. A peaceful march is planned for today in Ouagadougou, the capital, with student unions demanding the removal from office of the minister of security as a condition for halting the demonstrations.

There are many similarities between Burkina Faso and her Middle Eastern counterparts. Compaoré, like Mubarak, Ben-Ali, and his close friend Gaddafi, runs a dictatorial government that brooks no dissent (Western governments count Burkina as a democracy because it holds occasional rigged elections, but few in the country share that view). There are hordes of underemployed young men whom the population explosion has deprived of a livelihood (and if war breaks out in the Ivory Coast their numbers will be swollen by many of the three million Burkinabes currently living there). Food price rises are exacerbating hunger and poverty (the main cities were rocked by food riots in 2008). And the older generation has sequestered the nation’s resources, creating great resentment among the youth.

So far, the protests have focused on police brutality rather than on the repressive government as a whole (in a similar way to Saudi Arabia’s day of rage yesterday and the early rallies in Tunisia and Egypt), but they may become more wide-ranging. Compaoré assuaged the 2008 food riots by subsidising staple foods, but his latest concessions have not been so effective. It would be a stretch to predict that the discontent will harden into a revolutionary movement, but it is not impossible, and given the underlying conditions in the country (and indeed in West Africa as a whole), Compaoré might have to get used to a rougher ride.