Up to 200 protesters in Burkina Faso gathered on the outskirts of the capital, Ouagadougou, Sunday, aiming to block a French military convoy that has been trying to reach neighboring Niger from the nearby city of Kaya. French forces are in the region as part of a fight against Islamist militants. Many Burkinabe, however, are upset with France’s role and have directed their anger at French forces.
From Thursday through Saturday of last week, protesters in Kaya, 97 kilometers north of the capital, staged a blockade of the convoy.
An official from the French Defense Ministry told VOA on Sunday that the convoy was routine and the 32nd of its kind heading to Niamey, Niger, with supplies for troops.
Demonstrators said they believed the convoy was carrying weapons to arm terrorist groups which have spread throughout Burkina Faso, killing thousands of civilians and security forces over the last six years. Security has deteriorated rapidly in recent months, but there is no evidence to support the protesters’ claim.
Saturday night, it was reported the convoy had left Kaya after protesters there forced it out, but it was not clear if it was headed to Ouagadougou.
Cell phone internet access has also been shut down since 10 p.m. local time Saturday, according to NetBlocks.org, a watchdog group that monitors internet shutdowns. This may indicate a government attempt to suppress further street protests.
Nonetheless, protesters had arranged wooden pallets and tires on the road leading from Kaya to the capital and were flying a Burkinabe flag. The atmosphere was tense with protesters demanding to know if journalists were working for French media outlets.
One protester, who refused to give his name, spoke to VOA.
He said, “We are ready to burn any French material passing by. We do not need France in this country anymore. That’s our will.”
Another wanted to know where the jihadists’ weapons come from.
“From where do the jihadists get their weapons? It’s from the French. That’s why we have blocked the convoy in Kaya. They shot at us yesterday and three people were injured. We were there yesterday, and today we are back again to block the convoy.”
Meanwhile, the Reuters news agency reports France has asked Burkinabe President Roch Kabore to intervene to resolve the situation involving the convoy. According to Reuters, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French television “manipulators” were behind the anti-French sentiment, but that he hoped for a solution.
On Saturday, Burkinabe security forces in Kaya used tear gas to disperse crowds gathered near a fenced compound where the convoy had been parked. French defense officials say French troops fired warning shots into the air when protesters tried to cut the fence. The French defense official says there is no way that French troops shot and injured three people and that the incident will not be investigated.Joe Penney, a co-founder of Sahelian.com, a news website focused on the Sahel region, says that it is not exactly uncommon for soldiers to shoot in the air to disperse a crowd, but added that very rarely does that end up with so many people injured.
“The fact that people were shot in the leg also raises questions for me and for me there should be a formal investigation,” Penney said.
There were no security forces at the protest earlier Sunday morning, but a Burkinabe government official told VOA that efforts were underway to reopen the roads. The spokesperson, however, did not address the issues surrounding internet access.
“Regarding the internet, I do not know if it is a question of technical problems or not,” the spokesperson said.
By Sunday evening, police had dispersed protesters with tear gas and traffic was beginning to move freely on the road again.