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Military Mutiny Spreads In Burkina Faso

This article is more than 12 years old.

Students burned down the ruling party headquarters and the prime minister's house in a central city on Monday and a soldiers' mutiny spread to several corners of Burkina Faso, posing a grave challenge to a president who seized power in a bloody coup 24 years ago.

President Blaise Compaore had announced Friday he was dissolving his government and naming a new army chief and a new head of presidential security. But the steps have failed to stem the discontent that is sweeping over this impoverished, landlocked nation in West Africa that seems inspired at least in part by revolts in Arab nations.

The mutiny began Thursday night in Compaore's presidential compound in Ouagadougou, the capital, when members of the presidential guard began firing into the air, demanding unpaid housing allowances. By Monday, soldiers in several cities north, south, east and west of the capital had joined in. Calm returned to the capital after soldiers there got paid.

Anatole Kiema, a teacher at a grammar school in the town of Kaya, north of Ouagadougou, said Monday that schools in the area closed after soldiers shot into the air from Sunday night until early in the morning.
"There was a panic in town and we have closed classes as precaution measure," Kiema said.

Tassere Koanda, who lives in Tenkodogo, east of the capital, said soldiers stole cell phones and demanded free drinks in bars. They shot into the air for hours Sunday night before returning to their barracks.

Unrest hit this country that formerly was known as Upper Volta in late February, when students protested a young man's death in custody. The government said he had meningitis, but accusations of mistreatment fueled protests in which at least six people died and buildings were torched.

On Monday, the unrest spiraled back to students who burned more buildings down in Koudougou, the same town that was the epicenter of the earlier protests.

"There's pent-up concern and hostility that's been simmering for a long time," said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to the country.

Shinn, who is an adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University, said it is likely the early protests by students were inspired by developments in Tunisia and other north African countries that have seen regime changes.

There was no indication the student unrest and the mutiny by soldiers was being coordinated, but together they pose the most vocal challenge to his Compaore's rule in more than a decade.

Shinn said the last time Compaore faced such uprisings was after the killing of Norbert Zongo, the publisher of a popular weekly. Zongo died on Dec. 13, 1998, in a mysterious car fire while investigating the torture and killing of the chauffeur for Compaore's younger brother, Francois. His killing was never solved.

The journalist's death touched off violent strikes and street demonstrations.

The escalating cost of living is at the root of the current unrest, said Cema Blegne, who works for the National Syndicate of African Teachers of Burkina Faso, a group that protested food prices and impunity on April 8 and again last week.

"We have translated the anger and feeling of frustration that these students and their teachers feel each time there is corruption. We have blasted impunity and bluntly told our truths."

Government leaders in Burkina Faso are often accused of using state money to fund their lifestyles.

Burkina Faso is near the bottom of the United Nations' Human Development Index, which measures general well-being, ranked 161 out of 169 nations. It has high rates of unemployment and illiteracy. Most people get by on subsistence agriculture.

Soldiers, many of whom have families to support, have been frustrated that their own payments have been late, or stolen.

"All the time complaints are issued, but we realize that nothing is transmitted to the authorities. So the only way to be heard is to shoot bullets," Somnoma Rabo, a soldier serving in Ouagadougou, told The Associated Press.

Compaore, a former army captain, came to power in a 1987 coup in which Burkina Faso's first president, Thomas Sankara, considered one of Africa's shining hopes, was killed. Since the coup, Compaore has won several elections that lacked transparency. He was re-elected again in November. The opposition said the vote was rigged.

Shinn and others say it is unclear whether the unrest will bring down Compaore. Shinn said he might be simply buying time with his government reshuffle and other moves, and that the soldiers who are mutinying have narrower, more personal concerns than who is in power.

"I doubt the soldiers are concerned about who are running certain ministries," he said. "Generally speaking, soldiers are interested in more mundane things such as pay and living circumstances."

This program aired on April 18, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


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