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Will Burkina Faso's protests catch fire like Egypt, Tunisia?

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As observers watch to see how strongly the protest movements in North Africa will affect politics in sub-Saharan Africa, Burkina Faso has proven to be a test case for the relationship between local grievances and regional politics. A nascent protest movement there seems to stem largely from the country’s own internal conflicts, but as events progress I will be watching to see whether Burkinabe protesters are taking cues from their peers in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

So far, Burkina Faso’s protesters – largely students – seem simply to want accountability from the country’s security forces. On Feb. 20, a student named Justin Zongo died in police custody. Protests broke out, and four people died during clashes with police. Largely student-led protests spread throughout the country:

Demonstrations took places in Koudougou, Fada N’Gourma, Tougan and Sabou, said Chrizogone Zougmore, president of the Burkinabe Movement for Human Rights, by phone [on March 9].

In Ouahigouya, in the north of the country, students and residents destroyed police and other government offices, according to Emile Bayala, a resident who spoke by phone. Viviane Compaore, governor of the North region, said in a phone interview she was under military protection after the offices were destroyed.

As in other sub-Saharan African countries like Ethiopia and Uganda, Burkina Faso’s government appears nervous about the possibility of a protest movement gaining steam. The response has been serious. This Monday, Burkina Faso’s government “ordered all universities to be closed… and also cut social services provided to students.” Perhaps the country’s rulers hope to snuff out the movement before it articulates a larger set of political complaints, especially ones directed at long-time President Blaise Compaore. If the protests continue and if they escalate into demands for the fall of Compaore’s regime, then I think it will be legitimate to talk about an Egypt-style movement in Burkina Faso.

Yahoo has numbers on life and politics in Burkina Faso.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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