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Burkina Faso: Hopes for New Beginnings

AfricaFocus Bulletin
January 26, 2015 (150126)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Over the next year, the transition away from the Compaoré era [in Burkina Faso] will be full of uncertainties. The opposition leaders are focused on new elections, which they clearly hope to win. Others, closer to the activist networks, are also pushing for more fundamental changes: to improve people's economic and social conditions, root out corruption, reform state institutions, and bring to justice the worst criminals of the ancien régime." - Ernest Harsch

With elections set for October this year, and a report by Amnesty International calling for investigation of use of excessive force against demonstrators in the protests leading up to the ouster of President Campaoré at the end of October last year, the uncertainties are far from resolved. But there are signs of hope, such as the mid-January decision by the National Transitional Council to cut their own pay in half, from the previous rate of 1.7 million CFA francs (approximately $3,000) a month. The 90-member Council, formed after the October events, is composed of politicians, soldiers, and civil society.

Among those in the new government to whom civil society looks for leadership and continuity with the legacy of the Sankara era is Joséphine Ouédraogo, who served as Minister of Family Development and Solidarity in Sankara's administration, leading major efforts to advance women's rights. In the transitional administration she holds the post of Minister of Justice.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from two recent articles by Ernest Harsh on the October events in Burkina Faso ("Citizens' Revolt in Burkina Faso")and the links to the legacy of Thomas Sankara ("Echoes of a Revolution Past"). Harsch's new book, Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary, published in November 2014, is available in paperback and in a Kindle edition at

Additional recent articles and resources include:

Joe Penney, "Burkina Faso: After the revolution," 9 Jan 2015

African Economic Outlook for Burkina Faso, 2014 - direct URL:

Amnesty International, "Burkina Faso: Military shooting of protesters must be investigated," Jan 15, 2015

Land Rights and Development in Burkina Faso

Dan Moshenberg, "Joséphine Ouéadraogo's long slow burn to democracy," Dec 19, 2014

"Burkina Faso lawmakers take 50 pct pay cut," Reuters, Jan. 14, 2015

Ebola Perspectives

[AfricaFocus is regularly monitoring and posting links on Ebola on social media. For
additional links, see]

New and of particular interest:

Unanimous agreement by World Health Organization board that fundamental reforms are needed in preparations for response to health emergencies. Leaders recognize organization was unprepared and "overwhelmed" by Ebola.

New York Times, Jan 26, 2015

Reuters, Jan. 25, 2015

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Citizens' Revolt in Burkina Faso

By Ernest Harsch

December 9, 2014

African Futures, Social Science Research Council

[Original text, including footnotes, available at - direct URL:]

[Ernest Harsch is an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University in New York, whose most recent book is Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014.]

Even the long months of demonstrations and strikes that came before did not fully prepare the people of Burkina Faso for what they would accomplish during the last week of October 2014. In Ouagadougou, the capital, hundreds of thousands -- organizers claimed a million -- packed the central square on Tuesday, 28 October, to protest President Blaise Compaoré's "constitutional coup," as they called his plan to force through an amendment enabling him to run for reelection yet again, after more than a quarter century in power. Similar outpourings hit Koudougou, Ouahigouya, Kaya, Koupéla, Dori, and other towns across the country. Most were disciplined and peaceful, in line with opposition instructions. In the eastern town of Fada N'Gourma, however, several thousand burned the headquarters of Compaoré's ruling party. In Bobo-Dioulasso, a commercial center in the west, young protesters symbolically pulled down a statue of Compaoré -- while leaving untouched one of the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi right next to it.[1]

Despite those massive turnouts, and despite women's demonstrations the day before and trade union demonstrations the day after, Compaoré and his allies persisted. They announced that on 30 October their deputies in the National Assembly would vote to change the constitution. If adopted, their amendment would have permitted Compaoré to run not just for one more term but for three more. Some party leaders were already looking beyond the next election in 2015 and only half-jokingly suggested that their slogan should be Blaise Compaoré 2020.

Disgusted by the arrogance, people again occupied the streets and squares of major cities the morning of the planned vote. Their mood was now angrier, as protesters insisted more forcefully that Compaoré resign, and their tactics turned confrontational. Thousands sacked the National Assembly, preventing the vote. They attacked the government's television network, forcing it off the air. The mayor's office, ruling party headquarters, and homes of high officials were burned. Some protesters were killed as security forces tried to disperse them. Thousands marched to the presidential palace, but were blocked by troops. Similar scenes of rage swept the country. Only days later did reports trickle in confirming the extent of the destruction, much of it carefully targeted against government symbols and supporters.

Although the embattled president now agreed to leave the constitution intact, he still insisted on staying in office until the end of his term, provoking huge crowds to again fill the streets on 31 October. Already, some soldiers from Camp Guillaume in central Ouagadougou had joined the anti-Compaoré demonstrators, while other troops simply let protesters pass unhindered. Facing a split within their own ranks, military officers quickly decided to declare the government's dissolution, before the situation in the streets escaped anyone's control. Compaoré, finally bowing to reality, resigned that same day, and with French assistance fled to neighboring Côte d'Ivoire. Army officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida took charge temporarily, and opened talks with opposition parties and civil society groups on a speedy handover to a caretaker civilian-led transitional government. Michel Kafando, a retired diplomat, was selected by consensus as the new interim president and sworn in on 18 November, with the prime task of preparing elections within a year.

Revolutionary inspiration

These events recalled the popular revolutions in North Africa three years earlier, in both scope and the aim of bringing down longentrenched authoritarian rulers. In fact, one of the more popular slogans in Burkina Faso, shouted by protesters and painted on walls, was "Blaise dégage" (Blaise, clear out), adapted from the Tunisian uprising.

In the immediate wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, activists throughout sub-Saharan Africa took inspiration and tried to initiate comparable movements, gaining some traction here and there, though not to the extent they had hoped.[2] The popular insurrection in Burkina Faso is now also drawing attention across the region, where mobilizations on such a scale have been rare -- and rarer still in actually toppling a president. "A veritable democratic harmattan [desert wind] is sweeping Africa," commented Francis Kpatindé, a well-known political scientist from Benin. "People who have been stifled can now legitimately think that what was possible in Ouagadougou could also be in Brazzaville, Kinshasa, Banjul, and elsewhere." Across these capitals, as well as in other corners of the African continent (Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Angola), the events of Burkina have invigorated on-going debates about term limits, their constitutional provisions, and the future of longstanding rulers.

Where and to what extent the sparks from Burkina Faso may ignite fires elsewhere will depend largely on the combustibility of local conditions: Are social and political elites united behind the regime, or have cracks emerged at the top? Are people sufficiently aggrieved and their rulers so impervious to change that activists see no alternative but to risk open, mass defiance? And are they organized enough, especially at the grassroots level? As Mathias Dzon, an opposition leader in Brazzaville, the Republic of Congo, noted, "we can't say that Burkinabè went out into the streets to change their president in a spontaneous fashion. Some work went into it."

"27 years is enough!"

The conditions for revolt in Burkina Faso certainly did not emerge overnight. They built up over a quarter of a century, encapsulated in the demonstrators' slogan "27 years is enough!" By pointing to how long Compaoré had been in office, critics often recalled how the former army captain originally took power: through a military coup and the assassination of President Thomas Sankara, a popular and charismatic revolutionary leader.[3] Compaoré's junta not only jailed, tortured, killed, or drove into exile those loyal to Sankara but also undid many of the innovations of Sankara's revolutionary era, such as self-help mobilizations to build schools and health clinics and a greater reliance on domestic resources to develop the economy. The Compaoré regime chose instead to ally itself with conservative social elites and externally leaned more heavily on foreign aid and close ties with major Western capitals, especially Paris, the country's former colonial ruler.[4]

The early 1990s brought a wave of prodemocracy movements across Africa, including in Burkina Faso. Facing domestic discontent and some pressure from France, Compaoré carefully orchestrated a shift to constitutional rule and multiparty elections. He erected a dominant party machine that relied partly on electoral fraud but mainly on the use of state resources and patronage favors to undermine opposition and secure high vote tallies in election after election. Though Burkina Faso now had the trappings of democracy, it was by most definitions a "semi-authoritarian" state.[5]

The regime's repressive underbelly was dramatically highlighted by the 1998 assassination of independent journalist Norbert Zongo. Evidence pointed to Compaoré's elite presidential guard, acting to keep Zongo from exposing a scandal implicating the president's brother. The murder sparked a prolonged countrywide revolt.[6] Compaoré -- a master of deflection, delay, and cooptation -- survived only by promising reform. That included reinstating the constitution's two-term presidential limit, which he had scrapped in 1997. But the subservient Constitutional Court ruled that the new limit did not apply retroactively, enabling Compaoré to run again in 2005 and 2010.

In early 2011, just a few months after Compaoré latest reelection, the country again plunged into crisis. This time the provocation was the death of a student from a severe police beating. Starting with angry youth demonstrations, the unrest persisted for months with a cascading series of labor marches, merchants' protests, judges' strikes, army and police mutinies, farmers' boycotts, and attacks on mining sites.[7] The protests had no central direction, however, and opposition parties' attempts to mobilize failed miserably.

On-the-ground organization

With the government now weakened by the mass unrest, the main opposition parties secured some advances in the December 2012 legislative election, increasing their representation from a dozen deputies to twenty-eight, more than a fifth of the total. The opposition's new parliamentary leadership, headed by Zéphirin Diabré, forged a broad alliance of more than forty parties (the country has many others as well), with better organization and coordination than ever before.[8] When the ruling party pushed through a constitutional amendment to create a new senate, an upper house that would have been dominated by Compaoré loyalists, the opposition saw it as a maneuver to pave the way for lifting the presidential term limit. Through the latter half of 2013, the opposition parties, supported by labor unions and civil society groups, mounted large anti-senate demonstrations, effectively blocking its establishment.

Meanwhile, grassroots activists launched several new initiatives. Two popular musicians, the rapper Smockey and reggae artist Sams'k Le Jah, launched Balai Citoyen (Citizens' Broom) in mid-2013. It was inspired in part by Y'en a Marre, a rapper-initiated citizens' group in Senegal that had sparked a broad -- and successful -- popular movement against constitutional manipulation. Although not aligned with any party, Balai Citoyen had explicit political goals: to "sweep out" poor governance and preserve the presidential term limit. Within two months it had affiliated "clubs" in all of Ouagadougou's neighborhoods and in most major cities. Its ability to speak the language of disaffected youth drew many more into active participation in antigovernment protests.

In early 2014, as the authorities began talking more seriously about a constitutional referendum, a new activist network emerged, the Collectif Anti-Référendum (CAR, Anti-Referendum Collective). Initially formed by 365 associations in Ouagadougou, it soon spread across the country and prompted the opposition parties to form their own local antireferendum action committees. Later in the year yet another grouping arose, the Front de Résistance Citoyenne (FRC, Citizens' Resistance Front), comprising two dozen civil society associations and headed by prominent prodemocracy intellectuals. The trade unions, meanwhile, built their own alliances with consumer associations and others; they demonstrated and went on strike to voice worker grievances and protest high prices, with defense of the constitution prominent among their demands.

The work of such activists did much to boost the demonstrations called by the opposition party leaders. They also contributed to an increasingly notable feature in many antigovernment actions: references to the late revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara. More than a quarter century after his death, Sankara remained a hero and inspiration to many young Burkinabè, his portrait carried by marchers, voice recordings played over demonstration sound systems, and sayings quoted in slogans and speeches. In the huge antigovernment outpourings of late October, Al Jazeera reported that many young protesters were inspired by the spirit of "Africa's Che Guevara," while the Paris daily Le Monde saw Compaoré's overthrow as "the revenge of Thomas Sankara's children." Acknowledging such popular sentiments, Lt.-Col. Zida, the interim military leader, said that the Burkinabè people's decision to rise up reflected an "identity of integrity that we have carried proudly since the August 1983 revolution" led by Sankara.

Whether motivated by revolutionary visions or just determined to see Compaoré gone, it was the young activists who spurred the final push to insurrection. Diabré and other senior opposition leaders had called the demonstrations and even urged their followers to engage in civil disobedience against the amendment vote. But it was members of Balai Citoyen, the CAR, and others on the frontlines who decided to breach the security lines around the National Assembly. According to Hervé Ouattara, president of the CAR and an initiator of the huge marches on the presidential palace on 30–ndash;31 October, leaders of his network understood that if Compaoré had to be forced out, "peaceful demonstrations would not be enough." They prepared for confrontation, but also opened lines of communication with army officers. Those officers, convinced of the protesters' determination, chose to avoid more bloodshed by deposing Compaoré.

Over the next year, the transition away from the Compaoré era will be full of uncertainties. The opposition leaders are focused on new elections, which they clearly hope to win. Others, closer to the activist networks, are also pushing for more fundamental changes: to improve people's economic and social conditions, root out corruption, reform state institutions, and bring to justice the worst criminals of the ancien régime. Drawing analogies with the French revolution, one local journalist pointed to the rise of Burkina Faso's own "sans-culottes," "these revolutionaries from the popular strata, distinct from the dominant social categories." Now awakened to their ability to alter the course of events, they will surely demand a voice in shaping the changes ahead.

Burkina Faso: Echoes of a Revolution Past

by Ernest Harsch

Africa at LSE, Dec 22, 2014

[Original text, including footnotes, available at - direct URL:]

There is probably no time when people are more aware of history than when they are in the midst of making it. In Burkina Faso, President Blaise Compaoré had scarcely fled from huge crowds of angry demonstrators when protesters and commentators alike began drawing parallels with other momentous uprisings.

Some recalled the Arab Spring revolts three years earlier, and wondered if this was the start of a sub-Saharan "Black Spring". For others, the sacking and burning of the National Assembly on 30 October 2014 was reminiscent of the storming of the Bastille -- an event featured in the former French colony's school textbooks. Yet others saw similarities with January 3, 1966, when a popular outpouring ousted the first president of Upper Volta, as Burkina Faso was then known.

The most common reference, however, has been to the revolutionary period led by Thomas Sankara, who was president from August 1983 until his assassination in Compaoré's October 1987 military coup.[1] Some of today's older protest figures had been colleagues of Sankara. Yet the big majority of insurgent youths who mobilised to bring down Compaoré are far too young to have had any direct experience with that charismatic leader.

Despite the passage of time, the ideas promoted by Sankara remain attractive to disgruntled youth. Ibrahim Sanogo, a university student, commented that young people "look back more at that period because something is wrong in the country today. Sankara was not just fighting imperialism for the sake of politics but he wanted the Burkinabè people to develop themselves and their land and rely essentially on themselves instead of the West."[2]

Such admiration is not without an awareness of some of the shortcomings of the revolutionary era, including its repressive and non-democratic aspects.[3] Followers of "Sankarist" ideas nevertheless draw on them for inspiration and to frame their notions of social justice.

Sankarists were far from the only leaders and activists who spurred the demonstrations that forced Compaoré off his perch on 31 October. Their political outlooks and ideologies spanned a broad spectrum. Nevertheless, Sankara's portrait was often carried by demonstrators. His recorded voice rang out over demonstration sound systems. Quotations from his speeches featured in popular chants and in the addresses of protest speakers. Even politically moderate opposition leaders concluded their speeches with "La patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons!" (Homeland or death, we will win), the emblematic slogan of Sankara's government.

The leaders of the main opposition parties -- a few of them Sankarist but most with other perspectives -- played important roles in calling the months of large public demonstrations that built up to the final showdown. But it was loosely coordinated activist circles and youth networks that made the fateful decision to massively confront the regime's security forces, with several dozen sacrificing their lives in the process. These groups included Balai Citoyen (Citizens' Broom) and other currents that openly count Sankara among their heroes.[4]

Since Compaoré's departure, a transitional government has been installed, responsible for organising new elections by November 2015. It is comprised mainly of technocrats, intellectuals, civil society figures and army officers, but also includes several prominent Sankarists. The new minister of justice is Joséphine Ouédraogo, who served as a cabinet minister under Sankara. The head of the transitional parliament is Chérif Sy, an independent newspaper editor well known for his radical views and his role in organising commemorations of Sankara's assassination. The political dynamics unleashed by the popular mobilisations and the Sankarists' moral authority as longtime, tenacious opponents of Compaoré now give them a strong voice in pressing for fundamental reforms and for justice in the worst human rights and corruption cases of recent decades.

Top government officials have bowed to this popular mood by making strikingly favourable references to the Sankara era. Michel Kafando, the transitional president, has praised the revolution's "egalitarian development model".[5] His prime minister, Lt.-Col. Yacouba Isaac Zida, has extolled the "identity of integrity that we have carried proudly since the August 1983 revolution".[6]

Clearly, for many in Burkina Faso today, the Sankara revolution is not just a chapter in the country's past. Its echoes continue to reverberate, as the Burkinabè people consider ways to reshape their society.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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