Somehow Nothing Ever Gets Finished A LETTER FROM OUGADOUGOU

September 19, 1993|By BEN BARBER

OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO. — Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.--People who heard I was going to Ouagadougou, invariably responded: "That's in Africa, isn't it?" Indeed it is. "Ouaga," as established locals call it, is the flat, dusty capital of Burkina Faso, called Upper Volta until a pro-Libyan strongman seized power in 1983.

A five-day visit there is a reminder that despite the fall of communism and the wave of support for democracy, there are still places where heavy machine guns and street barricades protect nervous leaders. Having shed khaki for svelte suits, they remain uneasy, perched a notch or two above farmers spread thin and lean over the soil, clutching transistor radios to their ears in search of news as they scratch the earth with hoes or plows.

One such farmer, Pierre Ouiya, 35, whose pants hang in torn strips from his bony frame, paused by his donkey-pulled plow to tell me his one wish would be water for his peanut crop. "Two years ago we hauled stones to line a reservoir about a mile from here. Since then we wait for the government to send a machine to dig out the hole. Every time we try to do it by hand, the sides crumble back in when it rains."

There appears to be little risk to the French-speaking elite that runs Ouaga's government and what business there is -- propped up by foreign aid. Mr. Ouiya and the other farmers are too meek even to know which table to pound on in the regional centers to demand help. A Dutch hydrologist with UNICEF said, "The problem is the people cannot somehow finish the things they start. I cannot explain it."

Capt. Thomas Sankara's mistake was to seize power in a country totally without resources and human skills. Burkina Faso has the highest illiteracy rate for women in the world, 91 percent, according to the 1993 World Bank Development Report. Average life span is 48 years. Hundreds of blind men wander the streets, led by small boys holding red cans for coins, the result of river blindness spread by black flies. As a result, admitted a Western diplomat here, the world pretty much told Libya's Kadafi he was welcome to his prize after Captain Sankara's 1983 coup.

The captain was a charismatic leader who organized Chinese-style barefoot doctors to treat the poor. But he also made war on Mali and expelled the U.S. Peace Corps. He was murdered in 1987 by his second-in-command, Blaise Compare, who remains at the helm of this sub-Saharan nation of 9 million wedged between Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin and Niger.

Lately, Libya's profile has waned as the Burkinabe follow the lead of nearly all the former French colonies in Africa, turning back to Paris for help. France's 200 "co-operants" here are teachers and advisers who help run the country's finances and other structures in a quasi-colonial system. A World Bank source said he estimated France paid about $8 billion each year to prop up the Central African Franc, the currency used in Burkina Faso, Senegal and a half-dozen other former colonies. That is more than the U.S. foreign aid budget this year.

By keeping the franc artificially high -- about 250 per U.S. dollar -- imports, mainly from France, are made cheap. But African exports and labor are priced too high to compete in world markets. So people exist on what they produce, which is enough to keep them quiet. "It's not desperate here," said the Dutch expert. And it's fairly crime-free and very friendly.

Burkina Faso has become involved in the civil war in Liberia, which has killed more than 150,000 since 1990. Last November the United States recalled its ambassador to protest Burkinabe support for Charles Taylor, the Liberian rebel whose troops are accused of massacring civilians. A Western diplomat here said that "the diplomatic quarter is near the airfield and at night we heard, several times each week, Libyan planes landing with arms for Taylor."

The recent signing of a peace accord by Liberian factions, including Mr. Taylor's, could lead to improved U.S.-Burkinabe relations. But given the lack of support for foreign aid in most Western countries these days, and the heavy stone of the overvalued currency sabotaging its export prospects, Ouaga is likely to remain as isolated and impoverished as ever.

Ben Barber is a free-lance journalist.

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