It is almost midnight and we are in one of the many university campuses in the capital Ouagadougou. Student representative Salia Konaté and his friends are on a war footing. “We’ve decided to sit here and wait. We don’t know what they will do or when they will come. But we are prepared for the worst”, shouts the sleep-deprived Félix Natama.
Student, Justin Zongo, died in Koudougou, the country’s third largest city last week. Official reports stated meningitis as the cause of death. But the students claim it was police brutality. “There was a police blunder in Koudougou. We are in free country so we have the right to demand justice. Impunity is rampant in this country and it is frustrating”, says student Ousmane Traoré.
Students in Ouagadougou were planning to meet on campus to protest last Tuesday. But their plans were stopped by the government which decided to close down all public universities in Burkina Faso. The closure also included university residences and cafeterias, leaving many students homeless and hungry.
Salia Konaté thinks the government measure is inappropriate: “Is closing down the residences an adequate response to our protests? Most students living in the residences come from Ivory Coast. Where are we supposed to go? This decision will only create more problems!”
In the early hours of Tuesday, soldiers and anti-riot policemen blocked all entrances to the University of Ouagadougou, in an attempt to prevent a student rally. Students responded by erecting barricades and burning tyres in nearby streets. Police teams intervened with teargas to disperse the crowds. “They must let us in! The campus is for students, not for the police or the army. Soldiers are trained to fight wars. This isn’t a war. We can understand the presence of policemen but we won’t tolerate soldiers on campus”, denounces Albert Nacoulma, a representative of the Burkina Faso National Students Association (ANEB). The standoff lasted the rest of the day.
But the students are holding their grounds. “Speak out against the killings of students in the west central region”, students are shouting. Salia Konaté receives a phone call and rushes to the residences, where students have just received an ultimatum from the police. “They give us until noon to vacate the premises or face teargas”, Adjaratout Ouedraogo explains. Everyone is scrambling to gather their belongings. “If this is a response to our protests, it is certainly a funny one. It shows that they are incapable of resolving this small issue. It’s really funny”, he adds.
The presidents’ answer
Speaking about the issue publicly, Burkinabe president Blaise Compaoré, first deplored the tragic death of Justin Zongo, before adding that “manifestations in a free country are perfectly legitimate. However, acts of vandalism will not be tolerated”. These remarks were not welcomed by the students. “ The death of Justin Zongo and the others must be investigated. Buildings seem more valuable to him than human lives”.