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Burkina Faso: Hopes for New Beginnings
January 26, 2015 (150126)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"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
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
http://www.africaneconomicoutlook.org - 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
[AfricaFocus is regularly monitoring and posting links on
Ebola on social media. For
additional links, see http://www.facebook.com/AfricaFocus]
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
http://forums.ssrc.org/african-futures/ - 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.
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
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.
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
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. 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
"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. 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.
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.
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.
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. The protests had no central direction, however, and
opposition parties' attempts to mobilize failed miserably.
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. 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 30â€“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
http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/ - 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.
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."
Such admiration is not without an awareness of some of the
shortcomings of the revolutionary era, including its repressive and
non-democratic aspects. 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.
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
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". His prime minister, Lt.-Col.
Yacouba Isaac Zida, has extolled the "identity of integrity that we
have carried proudly since the August 1983 revolution".
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
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