Didier Kiendrébéogo, how are you?
Personally I’m well, but I can’t say we’re doing well in Burkina Faso.
Why? How would you describe your life in the pandemic?
Life is twice as difficult. Before the pandemic, it was already hard. Now the authorities have imposed drastic measures without accompanying support.
A hard life—how was this characterized before the pandemic?
There was already widespread insecurity associated with attacks by armed groups and targeted assassinations linked to death squads, which are at the service of the current government and its allies. But we also had increased difficulties due to the lack of water, electricity, health care, employment, and so on.
Didier Kiendrébéogo is a teacher and activist of the youth organization Organisation Démocratique de la Jeunesse du Burkina Faso (ODJ), a long-term partner of RLS West Africa. He lives in Koupéla, 140 kilometres from the capital Ouagadougou.
How did life change with the measures to limit the spread of coronavirus?
The overwhelming majority of Burkina Faso’s population lives from day to day. Measures such as market closures, curfews, or quarantining towns have made life untenable. Then the government took advantage of the pandemic to prevent trade union demonstrations and illegally suspend the salaries of almost 750 civil servants. The support measures later announced by the head of state did not really benefit the poor, and instead revealed the corrupt nature of the government.
The government used the Defence and Security Forces (FDS) to ensure that the curfew, in place between 19:00 and 5:00 and later from 21:00 to 4:00, was respected. What were the consequences?
We have witnessed massive human rights violations perpetrated by elements of the FDS. Several people were beaten, mistreated, humiliated, and filmed, with images posted on social media by FDS. In other cases, members of FDS visited people at home and tortured them when they had not even violated the curfew. In several regions such as the North, East, Sahel, and North-Central, where terrorist attacks are recurrent, national and international civil society organizations as well as relatives of victims regularly raise accusations regarding extra-judicial executions, mass executions, and stigmatization. Thus, rather than the increased presence of security forces being a source of calm, it is a source of concern, fear, and mistrust.
What space remains to resist the current government’s policies?
Apart from violations by the FDS, the government is doing everything to criminalize the insurgency of 2014 when the Burkinabè people ousted the long-time president, Blaise Compaoré, and is multiplying repressive actions. But the spirit of the insurgency remains alive. The people resist, develop initiatives even to mitigate the failure of the state on various issues, such as insecurity, lack of water, road degradation etc. Despite the misery imposed on them, people in cities and in the countryside are fighting to defend their rights and for a change to their benefit.
What are the demands of civil society regarding government responses to the coronavirus?
Women’s, youth, business, and trade union organizations are all calling for the reopening of places where they used to live, for adequate care for the sick and the confined. They stand up for transparent donation management, for the provision of adequate equipment for health centres, for the lifting of taxes on small and medium-sized enterprises, and for a reduction in the price of basic necessities (oil, soap, cereals, hydrocarbons, etc.). There are also demands for an end to the repression of workers fighting against unfair taxes imposed on their income, and for the opening of investigations into abuses and other extrajudicial executions.
In addition to these demands, which are related to the current situation, structural ones remain. These include an end to the plundering of the country’s resources, access to quality education for all children, and the prosecution of blood and economic crimes.
I imagine that the means of protest have changed because of the measures in place?
Yes, organizations are criticizing more through the written press or the radio. Social media is also used as a tool. But street demonstrations and barricades are also organized despite the coronavirus, because people can’t take it anymore.
You are an activist in the youth organization Organisation Démocratique de la Jeunesse du Burkina Faso (ODJ). What is ODJ doing at the moment?
Currently, all ODJ structures across the country are conducting a campaign, sometimes in coalition with other civil society organizations. It aims to raise awareness about the disease as well as measures of protection and prevention of its spread. In this campaign, we also criticize the chaotic way the government manages things and invite people to organize to defend their rights. Our activists also organize women to teach them how to make soap locally, as this is an important good, but not accessible to everyone.
Is it actually possible to mobilize people in the current situation?
It is absolutely an opportunity to raise awareness. People pay attention when you try to explain things to them, such as the failure of the health care system, the neo-colonial nature of our country and our army. It is essential to mobilize people and to support them to organize themselves to better resist this dramatic situation.
To what extent can we use this moment to change the structures of the state, the economy, or social policies?
This is a big question that is at the heart of all the debates in our country. For a real and lasting change, we believe that there is only one way: revolution. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis will certainly impose a heavy additional liability. Our imperialist masters, facing difficulties, will certainly seek new forms of exploitation of our peoples. But when we look at the awareness of the youth and their desire for emancipation, we are full of hope.
Which role should the societies of the Global North play here?
We call for internationalist solidarity. The pandemic has reminded us that when you put people’s health in the hands of big capitalist firms, they do what they want with it. Today, we see once again that one of the sources of our misfortunes in Africa is the policy of neo-colonial domination conducted by the imperialist governments. However, we have also seen measures in Europe and the United States that sound like a shameful recognition of the failure of the capitalist system. Revolutionaries, sincere democrats, and progressives must stand in solidarity around the world.