April 9, 2008 / 8:24 AM / in 11 years

Burkina general strike starts over cost of living

By Mathieu Bonkoungou

OUAGADOUGOU, April 8 (Reuters) - Shops and businesses were shuttered in Burkina Faso's capital on Tuesday in a general strike called by unions over soaring costs of food and fuel that triggered riots in the West African state in February.

Rising food prices due to a combination of high oil and fuel prices, increased demand for food in Asia, the growing use of farmland and crops for biofuels and speculation on futures markets have prompted violent protests around the world.

After the February riots, Burkina's government agreed to a three-month suspension of import duties on staple foods, and last week it announced a raft of supplementary measures to help the land-locked country's poor cope with high prices.

They included extending the import duties suspension to six months and increasing the cheaper tranches of electricity and water bills designed to help poor households.

But unions are demanding further price cuts for food and a 25 percent increase in public sector salaries and pensions, and pressed ahead with the two-day general strike that began on Tuesday.

"This government doesn't understand any other language than force. All the concessions it has made so far have followed forceful actions. We must stand firm," Alain Bande, a teller at a bank in Burkina's capital Ouagadougou, told Reuters.

Banks, shops, schools and government offices all stayed shut and even traders who normally scrape a living running informal stalls on street corners in the city centre stayed at home.

"There has to be a relation between buying power and the cost of living. The government will also have to contain prices and monitor the quality and quantity of products (on the market)," union spokesman Laurent Ouedraogo said.

There was no sign of violence and unions did not announce any plans for any march or mass demonstration.

That reduced chances of a repeat of the February violence in which more than 300 people were arrested after widespread looting and clashes with police in Ouagadougou and the second city Bobo-Dioulasso, the centre of the country's vital agricultural trade.

"We haven't closed for fear of vandalism. The high cost of living is hitting everybody. Businesses have not been making money recently. We should all help out the public servants in the strike," said Sidiki Kabore, a clothes seller.

However, the government said there was little chance of the unions' demands for public salary increases being met.

"The current economic climate prevents us from raising salaries straight away. The state has already made an effort in abandoning customs duties and VAT (value added tax) on certain staple foods," Finance Minister Jean-Baptiste Compaore said.

"Therefore there are no more resources to increase salaries in the immediate future. And we must not forget that raising salaries in itself would fuel inflation," he said. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com) (Writing by Alistair Thomson)

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