Tinette Schnatterer, who recently spoke to student activists in Burkina Faso, looks at developing mass protests and strikes in the impoverished West African country, which has one of the lowest GDP per capita incomes in the world and is ranked the 127th poorest nation.
Brutal police action against student strike
After months of protests, 17 June saw university students in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, go on strike to increase pressure for more classrooms, higher grants and lower tuition fees. Studying conditions are catastrophic. The entire department for German Studies has to share two dictionaries and two computers. Over the last few days, another demand has been added by the students: the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the police from the university campus.
Police shoot at students
On 17 June, the biggest student union, ANEB, called a demonstration and a sit-in in front of the rector’s office at the university. They wanted to force the administration to react, which until then tried to ignore the protests. But instead of negotiating with the students, the authorities called in the police. The police shot live bullets at the peaceful demonstration. It is reported that 62 students were arrested and many injured. One student told us: “A student has been shot in the leg. We thought we were in Darfur“. Since then, the campus has been surrounded by the police, even though access to the campus by the police is prohibited by law.
Some of the arrested students had to be released because of a lack of evidence. Four students were sentenced to 6 months, released on probation, and fined 5,000 Franc CFA. They have been accused of ‘damaging property’ during the demonstration. Contrary to what has been reported in the media, the students only started to fight back when the police started to shoot at their demonstration.
During the court trial, which lasted 48 hours, hundreds of students waited in the overcrowded courtroom, and in front of the court buildings, to show their solidarity with their fellow students. This is why the court sentences were much less than that demanded by the prosecutor.
University principal shuts down the university
To underline that they will not be intimidated but will continue to struggle until their demands are carried out, students called another demonstration for 26 June. The University Administration reacted immediately and closed down the whole university. “For the moment, we shut down all the social services, particularly the hostels, the canteens and the health stations for the students”, said Bibia Robert Sangaré, President of the National Centre of University Institutions.
This led to enormous problems for the striking students. Most of them have homes far away from the university, share a small room in student hostels and have no finances. The university administration is now trying to literally starve out the protesters. At the same time, a student told us:”The University Principal threatens us with the annulment of the term, they want to boycott our results and make us repeat the academic year.”
Nevertheless, the students organised further protests. “The Campus is surrounded by the police. We have no possibility at all to get into contact with our rank and file members. But, on Monday, we will organise a big rally of all the students on the campus”, said Adama Baguiyan, President of the General Alliance of the Students Burkina Faso (UGEB), the umbrella organisation to which the ANEB belongs.
Growing anger at neo-liberal policy
During the last months, there were growing protests in Burkina Faso, as in the whole region, against the effects of neo-liberal policies. Big demonstrations and strikes against rising food prices and against the EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU) shattered the country. The brutal police actions against the students show how much the government fears these protests.
Parallel to the student protests, workers in the health industry responded to a strike call from the Synsha trade union and went on a three day strike. To transform this widespread anger into effective resistance, the unions should organise, as the next step, a one day, country-wide, general strike of workers, students and the urban and rural poor. Also political representation, that does not look for an alliance with Western banks and big corporations, but unites resistance against capitalist globalisation internationally, is necessary. Capitalism demonstrates, daily, that profits of big corporations are more important to it than food and education for millions.
“Don’t shoot, you can’t kill ideas”
“Don’t shoot, you can’t kill ideas” - These were the words spoken by the former radical, anti-imperialist president, Thomas Sankara, one week before his assassination in a military coup in 1987. The growing enthusiasm for Sankara, especially among young people, is the expression of a search for alternatives. Despite repression, thousands participated in protests to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Sankara’s assassination, last year. But, unfortunately, the tragic end of Sankara’s four years rule showed that a complete break with capitalism is necessary to open the way to real liberation from imperialism and the first steps towards a socialist planned economy. These steps cannot be introduced from above, or simply by a chief of government. Only a revolutionary movement of workers, youth and peasants (in Burkina Faso, 80 % of the population work in agriculture) will be able to replace the dictatorship of profit with a society where the mass of the population democratically decide what to produce and how. The mass movement is key to succcess, and the example of Venezuela shows current these debates are today.