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AFRICA: Coalition Against the High Cost of Living

NAIROBI, May 3 2011 (IPS) - In Burkina Faso, Niger, Kenya, Uganda: governments are worried by soaring prices – and by newly confident and enraged civil society. Governments are being challenged to take decisive action, despite lacking the tools to address rising global oil prices. Their responses could have important consequences for their legitimacy and survival.

Walk to work - an everyday protest

A good number of people in Kampala already walk long distances to work each day, trekking from the Ugandan capital's mushrooming slums to often informal employment in the city centre. There they may sell a snack or a shoe shine to the weary contingent of unemployed graduates who are "in the street", spending every morning walking from one office to another in search of a job.

Both classes of walkers are feeling the pinch of high inflation, and the genius of the walk to work campaign is to recast their daily movements as a charged symbol of hardship, with opposition figures joining those who have no choice but to pound the streets.

People in towns across the country have taken part, from Mbale in the east, to Runkungiri in the west, to Gulu in the north, where the army killed three people.

Uganda’s Walk to Work Campaign was launched on Apr. 11 by a group drawn from various opposition parties and calling itself Activists for Change. The protest against the rising price of fuel and food was brilliantly conceived – it was a simple call to walk to work.

Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso, members of the presidential guard caused chaos in Ouagadougou on Apr. 14, demonstrating for an increase in their housing allowances and a daily food subsidy. They set fire to a building in the presidential compound, freed several comrades being held on rape charges, and targeted shop-owners in a rampage through the city, carrying off goods and destroying kiosks.

One soldier who took part in the mutiny – he declined to give his name – told IPS, “Maybe it wasn’t the right way to do it, with guns, but many of us have social problems and don’t know where to turn.”

Merchants responded by attacking the headquarters of the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress party, sacking and burning it, and doing further damage to the Commerce Ministry and vehicles around parliament.

The protesters demanded relief in the form of the withdrawal of a community development tax, tax exemptions for loans, and the rolling back of new fees for public health care.

The name the ad hoc Burkinabé pressure group chose as it marched to the CDP headquarters is an awkward formula for the challenge many African leaders should fear – the Coalition Against the High Cost of Living and Impunity.

In Kenya, another country under pressure, the outspoken opposition MP for Gichugu, Martha Karua, said corruption and inefficiency by regulators were key parts of the crisis in her country. She called on government “to clean up the National Oil Corporation, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company and the Energy Regulatory Commission to protect the common man from these surging prices”.

The April/May fuel price review by the country’s regulators saw fuel reach 113 Kenyan shillings per litre ($1.35) for regular petrol – up more than 20 percent from February/March. The owners of the matatu buses that dominate public transport immediately adjusted their fares upwards, in some cases as much as doubling the fares.

Unexpected reversal of fortunes

President Yoweri Museveni seemed to have skilfully outmanoeuvred Besigye when he won presidential elections to begin his YEAR in power with a minimum of fuss in February. His rival alleged electoral malpractice, but appeared to have meekly accepted defeat.

Six weeks later, Besigye has regained centre stage. He has been arrested four times, and when on Apr. 28, security operatives smashed their way into his car with hammers and gun butts before pepper spraying him at close quarters and throwing him into a pick-up truck, his status as a champion of the people was restored. The incident forced Besigye to travel to Nairobi for medical attention and saw Ugandans across the country take to the streets to protest the assault.

Justifications for the crackdown sound increasingly stretched. "There is no problem for Besigye to walk. Either to walk to work or to walk as an exercise, whatever he wants there is no problem," Museveni said, "but we are asking him 'Please, inform the police, so that you agree with them where you want to walk'."

Inflation rose for the fifth straight month in March, says Anthony Thiga, a broker at the Nairobi Stock Exchange. He says the problem is not just about fuel, “but the ripple effect it has caused in the economy where practically every commodity that Kenyans need on a daily basis has gone up.”

But what policy options do governments have? Oil is presently at 112 dollars per barrel – up from $82 per barrel in January. All over Africa the price of fuel is tightly linked to the general cost of living – a petrol price increase quickly affects the cost of commuting to work and the retail prices of goods transported by road.

The official unemployment rate is 40 percent, but Thiga says those with jobs are hardly better off, as inflation chews holes in wages that – especially for civil servants – have not been reviewed for a long time.

On Apr. 19, people marched from Uhuru Park through Nairobi’s central business district to protest the rising cost of living. Inflation has pushed larger and larger sections of the population to the ‘kadogo economy’ – consumers forced to buy basic goods like soap, sugar and oil in tiny quantities, because it is all they can afford.

The government has rushed in to put out the fire with pacifying promises for an increasingly agitated citizenry. Import duties on maize, wheat and fuel have all been cut, and free lanterns have been promised to the poor in addition to a 30 percent reduction in the price of kerosene.

Labour Minister John Munyes announced a 12.5 percent increase in the minimum wage at a May Day rally, raising the recommended minimum salary in Kenya’s major urban centres to roughly 90 dollars a month: workers did not even wait to hear the end of his brief address.

The Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) had demanded a wage increase of 60 percent – a negotiating posture, to be sure, but tapping into a dissatisfaction that extends far beyond the minority of unionised workers and deep into the population. COTU may now make good on its threat of a general work stoppage.

“All we hear from the government are rhetorics. It’s as if the lessons from the Middle East flew past African countries, because even in neighboring Uganda, the government is yet to make tangible steps towards facing the crisis,” Thiga said.

April was hot, May could be hotter

Uganda’s government has taken the opposite tack. The capital, Kampala, has now been paralysed for three weeks by the government’s violent reaction to the Walk to Work campaign. Opposition leaders Kizza Besigye and Nobert Mao were prevented from walking to their offices on the first day by police and soldiers. The violence that ensued has led to eight deaths, including a two-year-old child, and at least 250 injured as security forces have used teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to turn protesters back on each day of action.

But the protest in Uganda has survived the crackdown, and is now set to grow. Activists 4 Change has now been joined by the country’s lawyers – who will launch a three-day protest on May 4 – and the clergy, who issued a statement condemning government’s reaction and urging the president to instead tackle corruption which they blame for the failure to address social and economic issues.

Besigye is in hospital after being violently arrested four times, but other leaders such as the Democratic Party’s Mao – he refused to apply for bail, and was released from jail on May 2 after charges were dropped – are prepared to continue spearheading the protest.

A latter-day Mao on a long march? Beware.

* Ousseini Issa in Niamey, Rosebell Kagumire in Kampala and Brahima Ouédraogo in Ouagadougou contributed to this report.

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