For Freedom of Movement & Fair Development!

United against privatisation of railways in West-Africa

By Anne Scheidhauer (2006)

In Senegal and Mali, long planned railway privatisation was executed in October 2003, when the central 1.200 km railway line between the two countries' capitals, from Dakar to Bamako, was sold to the Canadian/French enterprise Transrail.

The major profit guided goal of Transrail is more and faster transport of goods – consequentially a reduced transport of people, faster trains, and a reduced number of stops along the track. Since Transrail took over operation of the track, they have closed down 26 out of 36 train stations, gravely affecting the local communities and economies of people living along the track and depending on the use of the railway for their work and lives.

A second major profit induced goal for any company is of course to reduce costs, in other words: to exert pressure on wages and working conditions, and to get rid of part of the workforce – beginning with union activists and other “troublemakers”. During the process of privatisation, established unions and company in perfect harmony negotiated new contracts, giving up on workers' rights and entitlements that these had achieved by working for the state owned railway for long years. The new contracts contained compensation agreements and explicit decisions on who was going to keep or lose his/her job.

The workers who were fired from their railway jobs in the course of privatisation are called “déflatés” in French, and this is the name under which, in Senegal, these workers organise in protest against their firings and against the process of privatisation as a whole, as Regroupement des Cheminots Déflatés (RCD).

In Mali, fired workers joined forces with community groups along the track of the privatised railway. Tiécoura Traoré for instance, a union activist and railway worker fired by Transrail for his involvement in the movement opposing privatisation in late 2004, who gained some popularity through a worldwide solidarity campaign against his firing, is now the president of Collectif Citoyen pour la Restitution et le Développement Intégré du Rail Malien COCIDIRAIL, a civil society organisation of women and men living along and from the Dakar-Bamako line.

Because the established unions were part of the process of installing the devastating new contracts (though some claimed they had been betrayed by Transrail), new unions emerged: in Senegal, the Fédération des travailleurs du rail (FET-Rail); and in Mali, the Syndicat des travailleurs du rail (SYTRAIL). These are new, progressive unions, who oppose privatisation and work together closely with civil society organisations.

In the international TIE seminar, union activists, (ex-) railway workers and social movement activists from Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Kongo, Morocco, Spain and France came together to exchange and compare experiences with railway privatisation in their respective countries and discuss and develop strategies for opposition.

Activists from unions and community organisations reclaim the railway as a public service, serving the people who depend on it for their daily existence. They demand instant re-nationalisation and democratic control of the railway system. Opposing the merely profit guided goals of the new owners, they resist the destruction of passenger transport structures in favour of the transport of goods alone.

In the discussions of the seminar, it became clear that conflicts around public goods and services, such as water, electricity, education, and transport, will become increasingly pressing in the West African countries – in the same way that European countries have experienced before. The recent meeting of the World Social Forum in Bamako gave an impression of these conflicts and how people are being affected when privatisation cuts them off the resources and services they depend upon for their subsistence.

The emergence of new unions and community organisations, and their determination to work together, though, seems to be a first step towards building common grounds for a strong people's resistance against their expropriation.

(Feb 12, 2006)