Der Traum der Goldgräber

Am Goldbergbau in Burkina Faso verdienen vor allem Minenbetreiber und große Handelshäuser. Die Bergleute dürfen dafür schuften – aber sie hoffen beharrlich auf den großen Fund.

Feiner grauer Staub durchsetzt die Luft in Alga. Wie Mehl legt er sich über Gebäude, Maschinen und Tausende von Menschen, die auf der Suche nach Gold einen Stollen nach dem anderen in den harten Fels treiben. Seit mindestens drei Jahrzehnten werde hier nach Gold gesucht, erzählt Elia Sawadogo, dessen Cousin einen der Schächte finanziert. Der richtige Boom kam vor ein paar Jahren, als ein großes Vorkommen des Edelmetalls gefunden wurde. „Jeden Tag kommen 40 neue Goldgräber“, sagt Sawadogo.

Read more on Weltsichten.

Conspiracy Theories Multiply After Terrorist Assault in Burkina Faso – Attack which killed 30 has this quiet nation on edge

The bloodiest terror attack West Africa has experienced in recent times was a shock, but not surprising. Three years ago, I lived in Burkina Faso’s peaceful and relaxed capital, Ouagadougou, where it wasn’t rare to hear talk about the possibility of a large-scale atrocity as Islamist groups rampaged through neighboring Mali.

On Jan. 15, three assailants detonated two car bombs along the city’s central Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, before spraying the Café Cappuchino — a stylish hangout popular with wealthy Westerners and Burkinabé — with bullets. The attackers then moved on to the upscale Splendid Hotel across the street and took hostages.

Read more on War is Boring.

Think Africa Press: How Much Longer Can Compaoré Rule Last?

On October 15, President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso will celebrate his 25th year in power. To spend that much time in office, he had to run coups against two governments. In the first in 1983, he helped his friend and fellow revolutionary Thomas Sankara become president. In the second, four years later, Compaoré took power. Sankara was killed and Compaoré lost all appetite for socialism. He put in place a system of power so exploitative that 25 years later Burkina Faso remains one of the least developed countries in the world.

During this time, Compaoré has expertly managed to keep local elites and international donors happy, and marginalise all political opposition in Burkina Faso. It attests to his political prowess that he has had a hand in virtually all civil wars in the region, from Sierra Leone to Ivory Coast and Mali, but has been able to keep an exceptionally low profile internationally, avoiding criticism from western donors and NGOs. […]

Read the rest on Think Africa Press!

African Arguments: Blaise Compaoré And The Politics Of Personal Enrichment

I’m extremely happy to have a piece about Burkina Faso/Blaise Compaoré published on the excellent African Arguments blog of the Royal African Society today. The article developed from this earlier rant and develops some arguments further.

By African standards, Burkina Faso is not a particularly spectacular country. It is small, has a tiny population and internal politics which most foreign correspondents tend to find somewhat pedestrian. No wonder that it receives only little attention, even in Africa-focused publications.

In those rare cases when something is published on the internal politics of Burkina, it often only scratches the surface and conveys a deceiving image of the country and its primary actors. […]

Read the rest on African Arguments!

“The roads are wide and well maintained …”

"Well maintained" road in Ouagadougou. My picture.

I was incredibly happy to see that the African Arguments blog of the Royal African Society published an article on Burkina Faso today. Well researched analysis of political affairs here are few and far between and usually, African Arguments is the place to go for this kind of stuff.

The piece titled “Compaoré’s Continuing Will to Power“, by Michael Keating and Coulibaly Nadoun, showed some initial promise, tackling the dark past of President Compaoré’s 25 year reign over Burkina and delving into the question, if he has the will to push this reign over the constitutional term limit of the 2015 election. But then the article unfortunately degrades quite a bit, with little critical analysis regarding Compaoré’s legacy as a leader of the Burkinabé state and his current involvement in regional politics.

Let’s start with his frantic efforts at mediating in every conflict in the wider region, which are internationally “much appreciated” as Keating and Nadoun assure us. Clearly, the region has plenty of those and everybody would be happy to have a skilled and capable mediator bringing the parties to a table and negotiating a peaceful solution. The post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire and the current rebellion in North Mali come to mind. But while Compaoré has jumped at every opportunity to involve himself with these conflicts, his success must be questioned. With regard to Côte d’Ivoire, he is hardly a neutral power, having organized financial and military support for the northern Rebels, as well as allowing them to recruit fighters in Burkina, basically helping to “resolve” a conflict he helped to create. In Mali, he has been involved in negotiating a settlement for the 2007-09 Tuareg rebellion. This basically followed the pattern of all settlements in this conflict before it: money and army positions for the fighters, hollow promises of political participation and development for the population. Needless to say that the “peace” held only a good two years.

I would argue that President Compaoré follows one objective in these negotiations and one only: To secure a maximum of regional political cloud, so as nobody (western donors included) gets funny ideas like supporting the domestic burkinabé opposition. He has without doubt succeeded in this, though I fail to see how the resulting length of his term – bought through marginalizing all local opposition and keeping outside intervention at bay – “in some sense confers legitimacy” on him, like Keating and Nadoun would have it.

Which brings us to the question of Compaoré’s legacy of bringing development/wealth/health/enter-your-favourite-indicator-here to his people. Keating and Nadoun concede that “the poverty needle for the majority of citizens has not budged” during his 25 years in office, but they argue that the feeling of Ouagadougou (the capital) “is different from neighboring capitals” and that “the streets are wide and well maintained”, building the argument up to the crescendo that Compaoré deserves to be called a “benign” dictator.

Regarding the streets: Wide they are, but you may judge the typical level of maintenance on the picture on the top of this article. I took this ten minutes ago, stepping out of my front door. The house of the local mayor is two houses down on the same street. Every street in Ouagadougou looks more or less similar, safe the main arteries and some streets in the city center (but not even there all are paved). Those which are paved have often been patched over many times, making for a bumpy ride on a Scooter, which becomes downright dangerous due to the many ginourmos potholes.

I honestly fail to see how you would have something positive to say about President Compaoré in the department of development. After 25 years in office, only every fifth Burkinabé is literate. After 25 years in office, almost 40% of all children under the age of five are underweight. In 2015, when his current term ends, Burkina Faso will likely not reach a single Millenium development goal.

Meanwhile, years of subtle but deadly (ask the children of murdered journalist Norbert Zongo) suppression has left Burkina without a political opposition to speak of. The government is filled with relatives and cronies and the army is so undisciplined and incapable, that nobody even mentioned them when it was discussed who should provide the troops for an intervention in Mali (this is probably on purpose, as Compaoré knows the danger of a well organized army, having used one in two coup d’États himself).

The only possible nice thing to say about Blaise Compaoré is that he has kept his country from the all-out civil wars that some neighboring countries descended into. If that is really enough to describe an African statesman as reasonably successful in an article on a respected blog on African affairs, (West) Africa is in a sorry state indeed.

I could go on about how the article left out some important aspects of the coming 2015 power struggle in Burkina, like the role of Blaise Compaoré’s brother as a possible successor. But I have already written enough. If you are interested, I will cover this in a future post. Interested?

World Politics Review: The Origins and Consequences of Tuareg Nationalism

World Politics Review has brought out a new special on “peoples without borders”. They look at Kurdish, Basque and Tuareg minorities in their respective countries, and I am happy to tell you that I contributed a feature article on Tuareg nationalism for the issue:

At the beginning of April, after a loose coalition of Tuareg rebel groups forced the Malian army to abandon Timbuktu, one of the armed factions involved in the fighting didn’t lose much time in announcing its ultimate objective: “We, the people of Azawad declare irrevocably the independence of the state of Azawad,”read the communiqué issued by the National Liberation Movement of Azawad — known by its French acronym, MNLA — five days after the ancient city fell.

The bold declaration is of course mostly wishful thinking. No state or international organization has recognized the independence of Azawad, as the Tuareg refer to the border-spanning region they inhabit, and it is unlikely that this will change in the near future. The situation in northern Mali remains chaotic, with various armed groups, criminal networks and terrorist organizations competing for influence, while the Malian government and army still reel from the effects of a coup d’état that shook the capital of Bamako in March.

But the Tuareg bid for independence does not come from out of thin air, nor does it come at a normal time for the countries of the Sahel region and North Africa. Tuareg minorities in Mali and Niger have fought for self-determination for more than 100 years. And following the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya last year, regional political dynamics are evolving rapidly, which may yet prove to be either a boon or bane for those Tuareg rebels interested in independence.

Tuareg nationalism as a political ideology is rooted in the effects of colonization. It was sharpened by decades of marginalization and oppression, and has since become a useful tool in the hands of regional powerbrokers. Yet today, even as the MNLA makes the boldest bid yet for Tuareg self-determination, many Tuareg have actually come to accept the countries they live in as legitimate, making the future of Tuareg nationalism as well as its implications increasingly difficult to discern. […]

World Politics Review is a subscription journal. It’s well worth your money, but you can read the rest of this article for free, if you follow this link.

Artisanal Gold Miners in Burkina Faso [Video]

Last month, I visited a gold mining camp in northern Burkina Faso. Here is a short video from that trip.

Around 30 families live in that location and search for gold. The work is fully manual and unbelievably hard. Temperatures here reach 40°C in the shade easily and there is not much shade to begin with.

If the miners (both men an women ply this trade) are very lucky, they find enough gold to sell for around 2,000 Franc CFA every few days. That equals about three Euros.

Sahel food crisis: The situation in Burkina Faso

Recipients of an Oxfam Cash-for-Work program in North Burkina Faso wait for their payment. Peter Dörrie photo.

This is part of a series of posts, looking at the state of the Sahel food crisis. You can also find a regional overview and a report on the situation in Chad on this blog so far.

On Tuesday, I was invited by Oxfam to look at one of their projects addressing the current food crisis in the wider region. A car took us from Ouagadougou, the capital, north to Kaya and from there to several surrounding villages.

The dry season has the country in its hot and dusty grip now. Temperatures are above 40°C every day and it hasn’t rained for weeks. The ground is barren and doesn’t look like it could feed anybody, not to speak of the thousands of people who live here dispersed over several villages and small towns.

And indeed, the last agricultural season brought serious shortfalls: officially, the national harvest has been 5% below consumption, but nobody knows if this figure is correct and shortfalls here in the North were greater anyway. One of the beneficiaries of the Oxfam project tells me later, that she only harvested three sacks of millet instead of the normal eight to nine, which she needs to feed her household of nine persons. One sack comes at five kg.

Oxfam reacted early and with money from ECHO started a Cash-for-Work program in the region: The villagers were shown how to enhance their fields with a simple trick; Many small holes dug into the earth would catch and hold more water once the rain comes, increasing the next harvest. Everybody applied the technique on his own field and was now paid for this work.

This creates a theoretical win-win situation. The villagers will have some money to buy food on the market until the next harvest arrives, which will be larger due to the increased productivity of the fields.

To maximise the effect, Oxfam wants the villagers to buy subsidized millet, which the government currently sells as part of its food crisis emergency program. This program has received lots of acclaim by the UN and other donors. Subsidized millet costs 11,000 Franc CFA (ca. 16.5 €)per sack, which is less than half the usual 25,000 FCFA price tag.

Anticipating this price, Oxfam paid the villagers 25,000 FCFA each, enough for two sacks of subsidized millet and some necessary condiments like cooking oil and sugar. Therefore, the consternation was great when the villagers told us that they wouldn’t buy subsidized millet and instead buy the normal stuff at the considerable higher price.

Recipients leave their fingerprints as proof that they received the money. Peter Dörrie photo.

The reason for this is of course not that the Burkinabè hate a bargain or are not aware that one sack of millet won’t bring them over the lean period. But during the last delivery, the government provided only seven sacks of subsidized millet for the village in question, which has over 4,000 inhabitants. Nobody knows when the next delivery will happen, but it is already clear that there won’t be nearly enough for everybody. And the people need the additional food now, so they have little choice.

Once the food runs out again, they will take out a loan to buy more. This way, between NGO relief programs, the government emergency aid and going into dept, there will probably be enough food for everybody to survive the hunger crisis in Burkina this year. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t have very negative effects on many people.

The debt will have to be paid back after the next harvest. If this again fails or only stays average, many people won’t be able to fully pay off their loans and keep enough food to not hunger again next year. To safe money, kids will be taken out of school to work on the gold fields of the region instead. And not dying of hunger of course doesn’t mean that one can’t get ill or malnourished, which has a range of disastrous consequences of its own.

In conclusion, Burkina will be one of the least impacted countries of this year’s hunger crisis. This is due to its geographical advantages, but also the early and relatively comprehensive reaction by the government and NGOs. Still, many people will be off worse after the crisis than they were before. Lets hope that they won’t be forgotten as soon as the crisis is declared over.

Sahel food crisis: a roundup

Farmer in Burkina Faso. Oxfam photo.

This will be the first of a series of posts, looking at the current state of the food crisis in the Sahel. In this post, I will provide a short history of the current crisis and a general overview of the situation in the region. In future posts, I will analyze the state of various countries and their reaction to the upcoming famine.

Forecasting a food crisis is no rocket science or guessing game anymore. All areas considered to be at risk of facing periodic food shortages are constantly monitored by regional and local early warning systems like the US based Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNet).

These systems have become fairly reliable over the last years. The recent famine in Somalia was forecasted months before the first refugees started arriving in Kenya and southern Ethiopia. And that the Sahel region would face severe food shortages this year was clear around the end of 2011 already.

Currently, NGOs like Oxfam estimate that about 12.000.000 people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger face severe food shortages. Food security is already stressed in some parts of the Sahel and the situation will deteriorate fast from now on, as the first harvests will only come in July, assuming that sufficient rain will fall this year.

The point of early warning systems is of course to give governments and organizations sufficient time to head of a crisis, before it can result in death and suffering. Food aid usually needs months to arrive where it is needed most and the logistical networks needed to distribute are also not springing up overnight. With the famine in Somalia last year, this chance was obviously missed, which can probably be contributed largely to the ongoing civil war in the impacted areas.

In the Sahel region, the situation looks a bit different. As early as February, international donors began committing money for the preparation of relief operations in the region. More than $150 Million were pledged by mid-February, while the financial tracking system of relief-coordinating organization OCHA currently lists about $200 Million pledged for Chad and Niger alone.

This early level of support is certainly positive, but considering that estimates of the total costs of relief operations are as high as $654 Million, donor countries still have to step up their commitment. NGOs are also lamenting that the focus of donors is again mostly on short-term disaster relief, while the underlying reasons of the recurring crisis are not adequately addressed.

At least as important as financing is the support of local governments for relief operations. In the past, famines were often denied by African governments, as they feared outside meddling in internal affairs or were even themselves partly responsible for the outbreak of a food crisis.

Luckily, this seems to have changed in at least some countries. The government of Niger was quick to demand help from the international community and Burkina Faso is currently implementing a dry-season agricultural campaign, for example.

In general, I think that we can be cautiously optimistic that a great catastrophe like last year in the Horn of Africa can be circumvented. But there are still many hazards, like how the ongoing conflict in Mali and insecurity in Nigeria and Libya will impact the situation. This will be analyzed in more detail in upcoming posts, looking at the state of the food crisis in the various countries of the region.

Is genetically modified cotton really the new “white gold”?

Cotton farmer in Burkina Faso. NYTimes photo.

In an interview with Jeune Afrique (French) Jean-Paul Sawadogo, the head of the national textile association of Burkina Faso, “Sofitex”, touts the advantages of genetically modified (GM) cotton.  Burkina Faso has been the first (and so far only) West African country to allow GM cotton onto domestic fields ten years ago.

By now, GM cotton is something of the norm in international cotton production. In 2009, 49% of the worldwide total area planted with cotton used GM cotton. As countries like the USA and Australia grow almost exclusively GM cotton and have a high productivity, one can safely assume that well over 50% of the worldwide crop is genetically modified.

GM cotton comes in two flavors. It is either genetically modified to withstand a certain kind of ultra-effective pesticide (commonly known as Roundup), or it has been enhanced to produce a certain kind of pesticide itself (known as Bt cotton, after the bacteria that provided the DNA for this). Both varieties have been “invented” by the US corporation Monsanto.

In Burkina Faso, the Bt cotton variant is used on 50% of the total planted area. According to Sawadogo, this has enormous benefits, saving the farmers long walks with heavy loads of pesticides on their backs, easing the environmental impact of formerly heavy pesticide use and enhancing productivity of the “white gold” by 30% (if the fertilizing regime is obeyed). Sawadogo wants to increase the share of Bt cotton in Burkina to 60% during the next season and ideally 90% in the future.

I see several problems with this anticipated reliance on GM cotton. Firstly, it subjects the cotton farmers (not to speak of the national economy of Burkina Faso) to the whims of a company. Monsanto is not exactly known for its do-gooding attitude and as the “creator” of Bt cotton with the political power of the USA behind it, relying on them as a “partner” is a risky gamble.

Bt cotton seeds have to be bought each year from a licensed reseller. This is fine for the farmers as long as Monsanto keeps the prices low. But it is a known fact that each and every monopoly gets abused at some point.

Also, the benefits are not as clear as Mr. Sawadogo makes them seem. The evidence on long-time productivity enhancement through the use of GM cotton is inconclusive, with different studies contradicting each other. It is telling that Sawadogo qualifies his productivity claim with the need to use the right fertilizing regime.

The benefits of having to use fewer pesticides are of course real for most farmers: they have to carry fewer loads to their fields and are not exposed to high amounts of the stuff. But I could imagine that the same effects can be attained by providing suitable transport, spraying equipment and training in the use of pesticides.

Farmers in Burkina likely make more money with GM cotton than with normal varieties. But at the same time they have higher expenses for the licensed seeds and subject themselves to the priorities of Monsanto.

The motivation of the government of Burkina to push for a higher use of GM cotton in the country and the region is meanwhile clear: As Sawadogo states, the government is in “discussions” with Monsanto to open a Bt cotton seed factory  in the country, for export into the “countries of the sub-region”.