Burkina Faso: teacher trade unionists work for democracy despite numerous political crises

published 20 July 2022 updated 26 July 2022

Following a series of coups d'état in Burkina Faso, the most recent of which took place on 24 January 2022, the Syndicat national des enseignants du secondaire et du supérieur (SNESS - National Union of Secondary and Higher Education Teachers), with financial support from the Canadian Teachers' Federation, organised a seminar for its members to discuss the causes and consequences of states of emergency such as coups d'état.

On 22 and 23 March 2022 in Koudougou, SNESS teachers also drew up a roadmap for their National Trade Union Bureau for the next three years of transition to a new constitutional normal in the country.

Major causes of coups in Burkina Faso

The main causes of coups d’état in Burkina Faso identified during the workshops are:

  • Poor political governance.
  • Imperialism, which always wants to impose leaders in its pay.
  • Poor economic governance.
  • Personal ambitions.

Consequences of coups d'état in Burkina Faso

The participants also stressed the political, economic and social consequences.

At the trade union level, they recognised that the curtailment of freedoms linked to the coups d'état also affected the means of action of the trade unions, in particular marches and meetings and even the right to strike, resulting in a delay in demands, sometimes a questioning of the gains made and a degree of lethargy in certain trade unions.

Nevertheless, they established that coups d'état can remind us, as in September 2015, of the importance of the fundamental principles of unity and solidarity between unions.

The importance of trade unionism in times of crisis

The participants also concluded that during states of emergency, trade unions must continue to promote the interests of workers, and the SNESS in particular must continue to promote the interests of secondary and higher education teachers.

Particular emphasis was placed on the trade union role of monitoring and acting as a counterbalance, countering abuses of power, including the defence of gains made, the pursuit of pending demands and, where necessary, the formulation of new demands.

To this end, the following activities could be organised:

  • Raising awareness, training and informing activists and public opinion; and
  • Conducting a reflection on and strategising for a return to the rule of law.

After this initial workshop in Koudougou, SNESS General Secretary Anatole Zongo stated that it is necessary to extend it to the 13 regions of Burkina Faso in order to inform primary school teachers. Some new teachers have little information on current events and political, economic and trade union issues.

He went on to explain that “we can no longer hold training sessions everywhere because of the insecurity. Only three places remain possible: Ouagadougou, Koudougou and Bobodioulasso. We will only be able to hold the workshop in other regions once the country’s security situation has been stabilised. We hope to be able to do this in the years to come.”

When asked about the strategies to be implemented in order to ensure a return to the rule of law, Mr. Zongo noted that if trade union leaders are obliged to restrict their expression, particularly because they are being bugged, they must “challenge the government, continue to criticise, through the press, through general assemblies, so that everyone knows that democracy cannot be trampled on. Unfortunately, we see that writing to the press is not a strategy that pays off enough. We come up against the fact that marches and meetings are currently prohibited. However, it is walking the streets, in the capital and in the cities, that is the key.”

Furthermore, he emphasized, budgetary restrictions at the level of the Ministry of Education have taken away some of the union's possibilities for action. In addition, he noted that “a number of people have lost interest in trade unionism because of the situation. People are afraid of sanctions against themselves and their families.”

Strengthening relations between unions

He also stressed the positive fact that the coup had strengthened relations between the six national central trade union organisations and the autonomous unions.

Thus, the Coordination nationale des syndicats de l’Éducation (CNSE - National Coordination of Education Unions) now speaks with one voice, he noted, adding that the unions celebrated May Day together, with a CNSE press conference.

For him, the roadmap should not be limited to the SNESS, because otherwise it will not be effective enough. “We must also involve other sectors, such as health. We need to raise awareness among comrades about the coup. We are going to focus our awareness-raising activities on that. Each union has a platform of demands submitted to the ministry in charge.”

He went on to emphasise that it is necessary to "avoid sinking into lethargy, and maintain activities. Otherwise, it will take time to wake people up. How do you keep people awake? We need a union of unions.”

The importance of democracy in the union

In terms of the persistence and renewal of democracy in Burkina Faso, Mr. Zongo highlighted the fact that the union's democratic functioning sets an example: “We cannot take decisions without convening the national bureau. We always consult the general secretaries of the 13 regions beforehand. Then we provide everyone with the information in the form of a summary via WhatsApp. We go for what the majority wants.”

The other aspect is the holding of union councils, he also argued. “Beyond the 13 general secretaries of the regions, there are the general secretaries of the provinces. The Congress - which will be held in September - will also be a space for open discussion, and candidates for the various positions in the union can put themselves forward. Delegations are made according to the union's Articles of Association.”

He concluded by assuring that “operating in a democratic way can contribute to establishing democracy in society”.