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Friday, February 29, 2008

STOP PRESS: RIOTING IN OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO

Now in Ouagadougou (Ouaga in short), capital of Burkina Faso. Exotic sounding name, huh?
Arrived here yesterday from Mali. We had wanted to spend a few days in Burkina Faso, the most arty country in West Africa, also famous for its pan-African film festival. However, there is a general strike today and some riots had broken out. We saw a young man with black hood over his mouth setting fire to tires, tense crowds watching from afar, and riot police with their helmets and shields heading for the crowds. As we sped away in taxi, we sensed that everything was not right. Decided to continue on to Niger without seeing the rest of Burkina Faso.
Well, Burkina Faso, among the five poorest countries in the world, has been ruled by President Blaise Compoare who came to power in 1987 after a coup d'etat during which the very popular and charismatic President Thomas Sankara was murdered. Since then, he has survived a number of attempted coups and had been accused of destablising neighbouring states by supporting Charles Taylor, the warlord and ex-president of Liberia who is currently on trial for war crimes, as well as other rebel groups in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. In short, he is a guy you don't play around with. I am sure the demonstrators and rioters would not receive the best of reaction from His Excellency Monsieur le President.
We went to Air Burkina head office to try get an air ticket out to Niger but the sales office was closed. They said, most people won't come to work today due to the political crisis. In fact, we found almost all Ouaga shut down. No shops were open. We went to a few travel agencies and found them shut too. We tried to flag a taxi to the airport but found one only with great difficulty. I guess few taxis wanted to risk the riots.
We managed to get a taxi and when we reached the airport, found the Air Burkina office shut. None of the airline offices were open. The airport was like a dead city. We tried to look for a taxi back to the city but there were no taxis to be found. We began walking back to the city centre. Fortunately, Ouaga's airport was just 2km outside the city centre – I have never seen an airport of any capital city that near to the centre.
Miraculously, we came across an Air Burkina office that happened to be open, but all flights out of the country was full till next Tuesday. So we have no choice but to stay in Ouaga till tomorrow, and take the crowded bush-taxi across 600+km of desert and savannah to Niamey, capital of Niger.
Our current hotel, Le Pavilion Vert, is in northern edge of the city and very near to the rioting zone, as we witnessed this morning. The government might probably ensure the riots do not reach the city centre by deploying the troops we saw. Maybe it's safer to move downtown. We hopped into a taxi back to the hotel, checked out and then got our stuff downtown to Hotel Continental. With the help of hotel staff, we spent the next 2 hours trying to login the WIFI internet to find out what was happening.
Apparently, there were riots last week in the country's second and third largest cities, Bobo Dioulosso and Ouhigouya, and andother large city, Banfara, over rising food prices, partly causing by worldwide prices and the enforcement of import taxes which was previously ignored by corrupt customs officials who had preferred to collect bribes instead. This week, the workers' union and opposition parties had called for protests in the capital and a party had declared Ouaga a "dead ville". The government had accordingly closed all schools and send soldiers to the streets.
We had lunch and decided to come out again in the afternoon. We walked around the western edge of the city centre and found remains of burned tires and broken signboards. Serious stuff had happened. We returned to parts of Ouaga's upmarket CBD near the airport where we passed by earlier. This is where many night clubs, restaurants and chic hotels are found. A number of shop windows were broken and public signboards were destroyed. Police and soldiers everywhere. The main post office and all gas stations, which were opened in the morning, were all closed now. Looked like we had been too busy with the internet and had remained oblivious to the serious rioting that reached our neighbourhood here at the heart of Ouaga.
OK – we would stay at the hotel tonight. Don't know if a curfew is on, but probably not safe to wander around. Hopefully, the bush taxi would run tomorrow and we can get out of Burkina Faso as soon as possible.
Here is Wee Cheng reporting from riot-torn Burkina Faso. Watch out the space here for next update!
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Photos from Ouagadougou: The first photo was that of burning tire taken from the taxi in the northern suburbs of the city. Some masked youth had just set fire on them. Riot police marching in 100 meters away.
Other photos are of the aftermath of the riots, taken in the afternoon. I could only take a few photos quickly and discreetly, as there were many police and soldiers around. The situation was quite tense.

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