A new Burkina Faso in the making

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Photo: Martin Wegmann

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Photo: Martin Wegmann

“Burkina is proud,” declare the billboards along the capital Ouagadougou’s major thoroughfares. When they were first put up in December 2015 to mark the election of a new government, many citizens were not only proud, but also hopeful that they could at last start building the “new Burkina Faso” they had long imagined.

The country had been through a lot. An authoritarian regime that had been in place for more than a quarter of a century was finally ousted in October 2014 in what the Burkinabè call the “popular insurrection.”

The fire-blackened ruins of the old National Assembly building still stand in the city centre as a stark reminder of the public fury that forced then-president Blaise Compaoré to flee to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. The subsequent year of transition was a troubled one, with important reforms but also missteps, punctuated by a failed coup attempt in September by Compaoré’s notorious presidential guard.

When elections were finally held in November 2015, they were greeted with relief. Observers certified them as the most open and democratic ever in the country. They also brought in the first elected civilian leader in nearly 50 years, President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. Hearing his pledges to fight corruption, pursue further democratic reforms and tackle poverty and hunger, many believed that things would at last begin to improve.

But then came an unexpected attack on 15 January this year by fighters loyal to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who had infiltrated the capital from across Burkina Faso’s northern borders. More than 30 people, foreigners and Burkinabè, were slaughtered in the heart of the city. It was by far the worst terrorist assault the country had experienced. Once the initial shock lifted, a sombre mood remained. Popular hopes did not vanish, but there was a sober realisation that the road ahead would not, after all, be straight.

Striking a balance

When President Kaboré was inaugurated at the end of December, people’s hopes were pinned on tangible improvements: lower living costs, expanded schooling and healthcare, jobs, prosecution of the corrupt, greater social and political justice. In his first speeches, the president focused mainly on how he would meet those expectations.

Before his cabinet ministers were even sworn in, however, the terrorist attack made security a clear priority for both government officials and ordinary citizens. Yet strengthening security would not mean minimising or postponing other goals for the population.

In a French television interview, Kaboré outlined the path ahead. “If we do not ensure that there is development, hope and work for young people, then the ground on which terrorists operate – poverty and misery – will remain,” he said. “So it is important that while struggling for security, we must also work for the development of our country.”

And he pledged, as development efforts continue, security is being reinforced. Reforms are ongoing to restructure the army following the dissolution of the presidential guard regiment that tried to seize power last September. Not only should the reforms ensure that the military stays out of politics, as the president told his generals in early February, but they should lead to better coordination, an upgrading of arms and equipment and specialised anti-terrorist training for security forces.

Ouagadougou and the other main cities are on high alert, with armed checkpoints at key facilities, roads and hotels, night patrols, video surveillance and so on. France and the United States  whose special forces joined Burkinabè units against the terrorists in January  have pledged more assistance.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, during an early March visit, assured the Burkinabè of the international organisation’s firm support. “The stakes are high,” said Ban. “The country is on the path of prosperity and long-term reforms, including that of the security sector.”

Safeguarding the country must not be left solely to those in uniform, says Hervé Ouattara, a leader of one of the movements that helped topple Compaoré. “Burkinabè are organising themselves in their arrondissements [districts] to watch what is going on and expose anyone working with the [jihadist] fronts from the north,” he told Africa Renewal in Ouagadougou. “Security in our country is not for the army alone, but for everyone.”

A struggling people

Meanwhile the population’s economic and social needs remain daunting. In 2014, according to recent estimates by the National Institute of Statistics, just over 40% of all Burkinabè lived in poverty, a rate that reached 70% in the arid north. That was better than the 46.7% registered nationally five years earlier, but still leaves the country one of the poorest on the continent.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that this year some 660,000 Burkinabè will need food aid and that half a million of the country’s children will continue to suffer from acute malnutrition. Although a slightly better cereal harvest than last year’s is anticipated, the government still expects that a third of Burkina Faso’s 45 provinces will experience deficits, and is budgeting about US$52m to assist the food insecure.

In a policy speech to parliament on 5 February, Prime Minister Paul Kaba Thiéba focused on a “new social contract” with the people. Besides improved security, it is to include resolute action to combat corruption (and thus conserve scarce state resources), measures to stimulate economic growth and investment, the introduction of universal medical insurance, and the construction of hundreds of new primary health clinics, secondary schools and teacher training colleges.

The government will begin implementing a new mining code, adopted last year as required by the World Bank, for the release of $100m in budget support for the West African country. It abolishes a previous 10% tax break on mining company profits and obliges firms to pay into a local development fund.

In a country known mainly for cotton and livestock exports a decade ago, gold mining is now the biggest economic sector, producing more than 36 metric tonnes in 2014 and earning $1.6bn in foreign sales that year. But the previous government’s rapid mining push also brought major problems, including water contamination and persistent social conflicts around mining sites. The new code is intended to strengthen environmental safeguards, ensure higher revenues for the state and oblige companies to invest much more in local health, education and other community facilities.

Monitoring officeholders

The ouster of Burkina Faso’s former leader and the successful November elections stirred expectations that the new authorities would not only conduct themselves with greater integrity and openness, but also support more democratic reforms. Yet activists are aware that Kaboré and several of his closest colleagues long served in the old government before joining the movement for democracy.

While acknowledging the authorities’ repeated promises to govern differently, many remain cautious and watchful. “We are not giving them any honeymoon,” says Ismael Diallo, spokesperson of the Front for the Reinforcement of Citizenship, one of the country’s main civil society coalitions. “We have to be vigilant.”

Just a day earlier, Diallo said a number of civil society groups plan to launch a “Présimètre” (“president metre”), online, to periodically track how well the president fulfills his promises. When it is operational, the results will be available to everyone on the web. The activists sent a delegation to inform Kaboré about the initiative. “He said he likes the idea,” Diallo laughed. “But, even if he doesn’t like it, we will do it.”

Women’s rights will be one area under scrutiny. While gender equality is protected under Burkina Faso’s constitution and law, in practice, female genital mutilation, forced and early marriage and domestic violence are widespread, says Amnesty International. Decisions about pregnancy and marriage are often taken by male family members. As a result only 17% of women in Burkina Faso use contraception and more than 2,000 die in childbirth every year, according to Amnesty International.

Despite an increase in women voters in November, only 12 women were among the 127 deputies elected to the National Assembly  half the number chosen in the last parliamentary election, in 2012. The political parties generally met the official quota of 30% female candidates, but tended to rank them lower on their slates, so few were actually elected.

To partially address parliament’s gender imbalance, Prime Minister Thiéba named seven women to his 29-member cabinet, including Finance Minister Rosine Coulibaly, a former UN Development Programme resident representative in Benin. Kaboré has promised that in areas where the government develops new land for farming, between 25% and 30% will be allocated to women.

Marie Madeleine Somda, a women’s activist who served as a deputy in the interim transitional parliament last year, is disappointed but still optimistic about the future because women, especially young women, “are beginning to become engaged,” she told Africa Renewal, adding, “They are starting to see that if they themselves don’t do politics, politics will just be done to them.”

More generally, Somda is pleased to see the emergence of a generation of youth “who are conscious, active, determined. Youth are becoming more and more responsible. They see themselves as a force able to take their place among decision makers.”

This article was originally published on Africa Renewal.