Ougadougou. Image credit: Göran Höglund Kartläsarn. Burkina's capital, Ouagadougou, saw large protests in October 2014, which led to the resignation of president Blaise Compaoré. Image credit: Göran Höglund Kartläsarn.

During the revolt on 30 and 31 October 2014 against Blaise Compaoré – Burkina Faso’s president of '27 years and 15 days', as people described him – hundreds of protestors were wounded and several were killed in fights with the security forces. The capital, Ouagadougou, was left looking like a war zone, with the National Assembly, a large hotel, and shops, homes and businesses – mainly belonging to leaders of the former ruling class – in ruins.

The following day, when the army had voiced support on behalf of the demonstrators, men and women went out into the capital’s streets, armed with brooms and garbage boxes, to clean up the city. They could just as well have stayed at home, especially given the uncertainty about where events were heading. Yet they chose to engage in whatever practical way they could to get public life back to normal as quickly as possible. For those who participated in cleaning up the streets, it meant a lot, and many people referred to it with pride when I was in Ouagadougou to conduct research in December 2014.

This shift from rebellion to engagement in reclaiming the streets is intriguing. What kind of civic sense motivates people to do something to maintain a sense of cohesion, rather than pursue violence; to opt out of war?

Bandaging Burkina: looking to the health sector to understand conflict resolution

One line of inquiry that I have followed in a collaborative research project with the University of Ouagadougou is how people in rural areas of Burkina Faso imagine statehood and publicness. Could the fact that the uprising in 2014 was less violent than it could have been be due to a sense in the population that ‘Burkina Faso is something we do together’, which cuts across ethnic and religious cleavages? An example of this is an earlier crisis in public health service delivery, which I argue is a good way to undersand the events of last year.

One of my research cases focused on a conflict in 2012-13, in which public health workers staged several rounds of strikes called by the national health workers’ union (SYNTSHA). In petitions to the president, SYNTSHA’s secretary general linked the deteriorating working conditions in public facilities to the health workers’ inability to deliver health care to an acceptable standard.

The influence of unions and professional associations in West Africa is an understudied part of civil society
The dispute escalated from sit-ins, with routine and emergency services suspended until 10 am, to a full strike without minimum services, where all unionised health workers stayed away from dispensaries and hospitals for 96 hours. The conflict only ended after operation "caisses vides" (empty checkouts), when health workers refused to collect payment for consultations or hospital treatment from patients. This level of pressure forced the government to reopen negotiations. The strikes contributed to much suffering in the local communities; the media reported fatal outcomes in maternity wards, with women giving birth alone, and in some cases violent incidents when people tried to access services.

Image credit: Eric Montfort Image credit: Eric Montfort

The absence of one of the few public institutions present even in remote rural areas was followed by a debate at all levels of society, about whether this collective action had been justified.

The influence of unions and professional associations are an important but understudied part of civil society in West Africa. My research tracked the ways in which patients returned to the dispensaries after the strike, wondering to what extent the levels of trust between health workers and patients would be altered. I found few signs of this. Some people said they were disappointed; others, that that they understood that the health workers wanted better working conditions. Some health workers were disappointed that people had not marched to the city hall demanding the government put an end to the conflict. Many faced the dilemma of expressing solidarity with colleagues while feeling compassion for the community.

Although people and health workers viewed the strikes differently, everyone considered the Burkinabé state to be responsible for the delivery of life-saving health services. I found that people in the villages expressed a strong sense of pragmatism, which helped them to live together on non-conflictual terms with the health workers after the strikes.

Practical peace: a pragmatic approach to dispute resolution

For Burkinabés, 'Burkina Faso is something we do together'
One source of this pragmatism could perhaps be explained by the fact that people who already live difficult lives develop a higher level of tolerance toward the uncertainties of life. I saw signs of this when I talked to women in rural areas, who perceived the suspension of the health clinic as ‘just another hardship’ out of many hardships. Another potential source of this pragmatism could be what seems to be a basic level of trust in the Burkinabe state, if not government. There is a clear concept of the notion that ‘Burkina Faso is something we do together’.

The people of Burkina Faso have managed to avoid sliding into violent conflict. But there is no simple answer to why Burkina Faso has avoided war. And there is little insight to be gained from romanticising the country of the upright people. However, it is well worth the effort to seek to understand under what circumstances the people of Burkina have developed this sense of pragmatism, which seems to help them steer through difficult situations and live together in the context of material limitations. To examine whether the ways that civil society in Burkina Faso has acted and to which extent that holds lessons of relevance for other countries could broaden our discussion of conflict prevention beyond the case of Burkina Faso. To access these insights, I argue, we need to practice local listening systematically and we need better research to do so.