Why sustained protests in Burkina Faso haven't brought Egypt-style revolution

Fierce demonstrations have been raging for months throughout the landlocked West African nation, but civil society lacks the strength to bring about revolutionary change.

Christian Charisius/Reuters/File
Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore adjusts headphones during a news conference at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen in this December 17, 2009 file photo. Compaore named himself to the post of defense minister on April 21 in the latest move aimed at quelling army dissent and popular unrest in the West African state.

The Ministry of Education in Burkina Faso agreed to meet some demands of striking teachers this week after thousands of public high school students across the capital demonstrated, some violently, in support of their teachers. The student demonstrations are the latest in a series of disparate protests that have been wracking the country in a manner suggesting a sub-Saharan extension of the Arab Spring.

After meetings with student activists Tuesday, the ministry agreed to a salary increase for teachers if the students dispersed protests. The teachers had gone on strike last week, demanding higher salaries and smaller class sizes.

Even with the apparent resolution of the teachers' demands, other fierce demonstrations have been raging for months throughout the nation. Protesters are attempting to call attention to issues ranging from the salaries and benefits of soldiers, the living and working conditions of university students, and democracy in the small West African country that has been ruled by President Blaise Compaoré for the past 24 years. Some scholars say this is a signal that the revolutionary sentiments of the Arab Spring in the Middle East are spreading south.

Not a sub-Saharan Spring

But Saidou Karim of the Center for Democratic Governance in Ouagadougou says that while there are similarities with the Arab Spring, revolution is unlikely.

“The root causes are the same,” says Mr. Karim, referring to rising food prices and the authoritarian nature of Mr. Compaoré’s government that has largely controlled the military, public administration, traditional rules, and the business community during its rule. “It is the kind of regime that you have in the Maghreb that is authoritarian, a façade democracy, and that is why you have all of these people demonstrating, soldiers and students, everybody is complaining about the system.”

But he says that the opposition parties lack the strength to foster revolution, as they only hold a few seats in the National Assembly and organized a demonstration last month that was attended by only a few hundred people. He points out that while there was a desire for democracy and social change in Burkina Faso, citizens had little faith in the nation’s leaders.

The issue is that people are not convinced that these people can do better than Blaise Compaoré,” says Karim.

But rather than a revolution, Karim says there is a concern that the military, who have also been rioting in the streets in recent months and looting shops in Ougadougou, could stage a coup if Compaoré fails to fulfill his agreement to improve their salaries and living conditions. Karim says the demonstrations point to the increasingly fragile state of the Compaoré government, particularly after the recent military mutinies.

“The government is vulnerable and is under threat because different groups are using violence and violence is no longer the monopoly of the state as it once was,” says Karim.

Still, he notes that the military is unlikely to offer an alternative to the government. “The main problem with this that the military have no vision, they are just demonstrating for their own private interests.”

Protests turn to riots

The students marched Monday morning in front of the Ministry of Education building downtown calling on the government to meet the demands of their teachers. The students feared that if the teachers continued to strike, they would not be able to sit for their final examinations and would have to postpone them for next year.

Many demonstrators watched quietly at the sidelines, but the protest soon became violent when groups of students began throwing large rocks through the windows of the ministry and threatening cameramen from local media outlets. The students also burned tires and furniture on the street and looted small vans carrying sachets of water. No security forces were visible at the scene.

At around 11 a.m., some students forced their way into the building and trashed the offices before attempting to set the building ablaze. Firefighters rushed to the building after smoke was seen rising from it, according to a report by the Associated Press. On the outskirts of the center of Ouagadougou, students also drove stolen buses toward the demonstrations.

A protester completing her final year of high school watched as students threw rocks at the building. She said she came to the demonstration to support the teachers, but added “I don’t agree with the violence,” she said. “It is good to protest peacefully.”

Another student protester who stood to the sideline said that teachers have been striking for the past year.

“If we don’t come here to support our teachers, we will not be able to sit our exams under good conditions,” he said. “The education system is bad here. Everything is bad here. Even the military, they [the government officials] don’t pay them. The price of the food is high and if you go to university the quality of life is not good. Life is hard in Burkina Faso, our government is not good and we need change.”

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