Potholes, protests and a country wakened to political power

I’m writing this in Burkina Faso, where I’m working with an African colleague evaluating a programme on food security and local economic development. One of the big topics as we run up and down the country looking at cattle markets, check dams, irrigation and water systems, and so on is transport infrastructure, and mainly, potholes.

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country, but a major crossing route across the growing regional single market and customs union (with a single currency already for the Francophone countries, and a bigger one mooted when the Francophone Union (UEMOA) and the wider Anglohone-Francophone Union (ECOWAS) merge in a couple of years) linking Niger, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Mali and Ivory Coast. A large part of the main road is now extremely deteriorated, slowing goods and people traffic, costing lives, broken vehicles and economic growth.

A few years ago, in 2014, people in Burkina Faso (the land of the upright people) grew tired of single man rule, and organised, and ousted long term president Blaise Compaoré (after 27 long years). I followed this closely as a young collaborator of mine became heavily involved as a trades unionist (he is now head of a farming charity here).

This new found political power has led to a blossoming of interest in politics and government, aided by a very free, and varied, press. People feel they have power, and as a result transport companies, unions, and residents near the road organised last week to blockit. The government caved and agreed to start fixing the worst holes. Protests however continue as people want the major road repairs moved forward a year, as they have already been budgeted for.

People up and down the country argue cogently that a bad road slows traffic, costs the economy and reduces the government’s tax take, while hindering the ability of farmers and traders to shift goods from the depressed Nigerian market (a devalued Naira) to the booming Ivory Cast one (a single market is wonderful, and no one here can understand why Britain is leaving one, not even the most isolated farmer, who knows the price his cattle can fetch in different countries).

There is an idea behind the pothole protests, and that is a more organised country, a freer and more flexible market, and development, economic growth, more wealth, more services. Less fertile ground for Boko Haram and other groups active in the region to grow in.

Local elected councillors and mayors are also much more responsive to people than before, and on our small sample, much more able. Politics is no longer just about personal gain.

Many of us, myself included, yawn a little at the use of potholes in local campaigning literature. This trip is a good reminder that potholes do not appear in isolation. That thriving local areas depend on good government, listening government, strong economies, and on people getting excited. We need to tie our campaigns to big ideas and the wider world. Yes. But we also need to fix them.

We need enlightenment potholes, we need liberal potholes, or more accurately, a liberal idea for dealing with potholes. What gets them repaired: devolved local government, properly democratic and accountable. Local taxes, locally accountable. The best way to fix them, not one tied to right (privatised) or left (state owned) repairs.

The other thing I have learned from my trip is that ever closer union is a big idea, and is happening in the world today. In 2009 I was at a meeting in South Korea where China, Japan and South Korea agreed to organise a conference for 2011 involving them and ASEAN members to promote the growth of organic markets in the region. Here in Burkina Faso two regional unions are merging and looking for more opening of markets, and even fewer customs barriers. Pastoralists can take and sell cattle across the region with one piece of paper at the market where they bought or registered the animal. That’s it. A women’s group can make some neem or baobab oil in Burkina Faso and sell it freely in Niger or Ghana.

Britain is withdrawing from this. That is why fighting Brexit is the right thing to do, however much short term pain this causes. Because Unions are the right side of history, and we need to have that vision, and more, all the way to a UN security council that might one day look not to the old powers of the past but one where the EU sits with the African Union, ASEAN, MercosSur and others.

We just need meanwhile to keep using the evidence and the ideas to inspire people. From accountable local government to a more transparent European Union.

* Simon Ferrigno is a writer, freelance researcher and consultant on sustainable development, and a member in Derby.

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2 Comments

  • Simon,

    thank you for this interesting dispatch from the front lines and the reminder of the importance of getting potholes fixed.

  • Sue Sutherland 28th Jun '17 - 11:40am

    Thank you Simon. For pot holes read inflammable cladding used on tower blocks. This is community politics too.

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