OUAGADOUGOU, 28 April 2011 (IRIN) - President Blaise Compaoré is increasingly cornered, and must adopt a series of urgent reforms to avoid further waves of unrest in the country, say West African analysts.
In the latest uprising, police fired their guns in the air in the capital, Ouagadougou, on 27 and 28 April, and in the second largest city Bobo-Dioulasso in the west, calling for a new salary scheme, approved by parliament this year, to be implemented. This followed protests by shop-keepers in Koudougou in the centre-west on 27 April, who burned the mayor's house, parts of the local market, and the military headquarters. Earlier this month, soldiers in the capital staged protests over unequal pay.
Observers told IRIN they were not surprised by the violence, given that mounting discontent in the country had largely fallen on deaf ears.
"A crisis was to be expected," said Alexander Ouedraogo, permanent secretary of the African Center for Strategic Studies (ACESA) in Burkina Faso. "We have seen impunity, embezzlement and senior military officers getting fat while the rest of the population suffers, but the government has not listened," he said.
Compaoré, now also the self-appointed Minister of Defence, has pledged to meet the increased pay demands of army officers and to try to address the problems raised by trade unions incensed by the high cost of living. He is holding meetings with army officers and trade union representatives this week.
Idiatou Bah, head of political governance research at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) in Dakar, said it was the first time Compaoré appeared to be "shaken".
"Compoaré has always been West Africa's mediator and peace-maker, but his image has been tarnished, and he now doesn't appear to be as strong, either to his populace or to the region as a whole," she told IRIN.
His unease is evidenced by the "dangerous move" he made in appointing himself head of defence on 21 April, she added.
On 14 and 15 April the president's security regiment opened fire in the presidential compound in Ouagadougou. They were then joined by two additional regiments, which took to the streets and fired into the houses of higher-ranking army officers, including the former head of the army, the then defence minister, and former chief of the army.
Soldiers called for their daily subsistence allowance to be increased from 1,300 CFA (US$2.60) to 1,500 CFA ($3), and for the military hierarchy to be dismantled.
The president then dismantled the government, and on 18 April, appointed a new prime minister, Luc-Adolphe Tiao, who pledged to meet soldiers' demands, within the limits of the existing budget.
Since 22 and 23 March 2011, when soldiers originally took up arms, fractures between the military's top and bottom echelons have widened, as lower-ranked officers feel they receive few of the benefits of their superiors, said Marius Ibriga, legal professor at the University of Ouagadougou.
Shop-keepers and business owners in Ouagadougou added their voice to the anger after their properties were looted or destroyed. The government promised to allocate money for damaged property.
A coalition to fight rising prices has been convened for several years, headed by Tolle Sagnon. On 8 April thousands of people marched through the streets of Ouagadougou, demanding better living conditions and an end to impunity.
The cost of living rose significantly in 2008 and has not dropped since: one litre of oil used to cost $1.77 and now costs $2.77; 1kg of rice was 44 cents in 2007 and is now 94 cents, according to Sagnon. "All of our concerns have reached a tipping point, and we have explained that to Compaoré," Sagnon told IRIN. [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=77211 ]
The coalition has also demanded that salary arrears for promotions in 2006 be met, and that healthcare consultation fees be dropped. In 2011 the government raised consultation fees at government health centres from $4 to $6. Average earnings are $1.41 per day, according to the World Bank.
Room for manoeuvre
The president still has room for manoeuvre, as long as he addresses issues of impunity and the country's economic problems, said ACESA's Ouedragogo. The government faces little competition from the six main opposition parties, which are not united on messaging or policy.
But Compaoré needs to undertake deeper security sector reform, said OSIWA's Bah. "The country needs a deep security sector reform - of its army, gendarmerie and police. The security sector is too swollen, and were it cut down, the government might free up money to address other social woes."
Rather than try to further entrench power, the president should step down in 2015, said Bah. The opposition fears that Compaoré will amend the constitution, allowing him to run in 2015.
The government must also address impunity issues, say analysts. In February, students protested against the death of colleague Justin Zongo in unclear conditions in Koudougou in the centre-west of the country. While officials said he died of meningitis while in detention, students said he died of maltreatment. Two policemen were jailed over the case. Students took to the streets again in early April, setting fire to the house of the outgoing prime minister and the headquarters of the ruling party in Koudougou.
There are precedents for popular uprisings ousting a president. In 1966 Maurice Yameogo was ousted following protests by trade unions, leading to a military takeover.