/ 9 August 2008

Food prices: The people say ‘enough!’

Cheikh Diouf, from the rural community of Diakhao, walked out of a courtroom in Dakar, Senegal, in mid-April a free man.

He was found not guilty of charges that he had ”disturbed order” in Parliament after he slipped past security guards at the National Assembly. As parliamentary deputies walked to a restaurant in the building, Diouf brandished an empty rice sack on which he had written: ”The people are hungry.”

Elsewhere in Dakar — and in nearly a dozen other African countries — protesters have not been quite as restrained. Angered by sharply rising prices of basic foodstuffs, transport, electricity and other essentials, they have poured into the streets to express their frustrations and demand that their governments act quickly to halt the spiralling cost of living. Street barricades, burning tyres, arson and sometimes deadly confrontations with riot police have been common.

But in some countries with equally severe food situations, governments have avoided public demonstrations by responding early to public concerns. Niger, an arid Sahelian country, was swept by mass protests during an earlier food crisis in 2005. The government then set up a Cabinet-level ministry to coordinate action on prices.

”So when prices went up this year,” Moustapha Kadi, an activist in the earlier demonstrations, told the New York Times, ”the government acted quickly to remove tariffs on rice, which everyone eats. That quick action has kept people from taking to the streets.”

‘Enough is enough!’
The most immediate issue for many ordinary Africans has been the sudden increase in recent months in the prices of basic consumer goods. Higher fuel costs have been felt widely, stoking inflation in general. The rise in food prices has hit the poor particularly hard. They must spend a bigger share of their small incomes on food than the better-off.

Government officials have frequently pointed to problems that are not in their immediate control: rising world grain and oil prices, poor weather and an unfair international trading system that undermines agriculture in developing countries.

These explanations might be true but the protests also reflect widespread dissatisfaction with the way many African political systems function. Some countries that have been swept by riots are run by autocratic leaders who have been in power for many years and provide little room for opposition. Critics charge that the governments of these countries are inefficient, riddled with corruption and indifferent to the plight of ordinary people. If problems such as the high cost of living are to be addressed, they argue, there must be political change and greater democracy.

Even in countries like Senegal that generally hold free elections and have had changes in government, many people still feel they have little voice in influencing policy — unless they go out into the streets.

”Enough is enough! Prices are rising daily,” Adama Ouédraogo, a small-scale merchant, explained during violent protests in the town of Ouahigouya in Burkina Faso. ”And since we have no other way of talking to the authorities, we have chosen the streets to show our discontent.”

For freedom and bread
In most demonstrations, protesters have expressed anger not only over high food and fuel prices but also towards the governments they hold responsible. The linking of political and economic grievances has been most evident where the same presidents and ruling parties have been in power for many years.

In Cameroon, for example, food price demonstrators also decried human rights abuses and plans by the ruling party to amend the 1996 Constitution to make it possible for President Paul Biya, who has been in office since 1982, to run yet again when his current term expires in 2011.

In other countries too, demonstrators often saw the lack of political change as one reason for the widening economic gap between those with access to power and the majority of the poor. As one protester in Guinea told a reporter, this country is ”super-rich”, with extensive mineral and forest reserves, but is ”held hostage by predators”.

The extent of the protests suggests that ordinary citizens are starting to sense their potential political power and are no longer willing to remain silent. Since 2007, there has been an ”awakening of the people’s conscience” in Guinea, says Rabiatou Serah Diallo, secretary general of the National Confederation of Workers.

Oppositionists seem to have been encouraged by the hasty concessions of some governments. They also have taken heart from television and radio reports of demonstrations in neighbouring countries and they have used new technologies like cellphones to mobilise protests.

Between repression and dialogue
In the face of such challenges, most governments responded with police or military force. Hundreds of protesters were arrested in Burkina Faso, and scores were quickly tried and sentenced. In addition to those killed in Cameroon, at least 1 500 people were arrested by the government’s own tally, and many more according to the opposition.

In Egypt, about 100 protesters were injured and about 250 arrested. Senegal’s demonstrations were not as large as those held elsewhere, but two consumers’ leaders who were arrested accused the police of severe brutality, including the use of electric prods.

Once the demonstrations appeared to have been contained, governments in Cameroon, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mauritania and elsewhere adopted various measures aimed at bringing down consumer prices. They also began to consult trade unions, merchants’ associations and consumers’ organisations.

Such efforts at dialogue appeared to elicit public understanding of what was being done to reduce prices — and what the governments are not able to do. They also showed that government officials are not oblivious to citizens’ concerns. This indicates that taking popular grievances seriously can be an important step in meeting the challenge of high prices.

Ernest Harsch is the managing editor of United Nations Africa Renewal magazine

Reprinted from UN Africa Renewal