The Day the Burkinabé People Recovered Their Voice
As Burkinabé protestors burned a statue of President Blaise Compaoré—which stood alongside that of the late Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second largest city—shouting “criminal” and “murderer,” they were arguably performing the first step in what will surely be a long process of collective healing, relearning the basics of free speech, and the recovering of self-esteem, all of which are things they had been denied for too long.
For over a quarter-century, Compaoré was at the forefront of West African politics. During his time in power he took on many fluctuating roles, between patriarch (or “big man”) and stooge for Western interests, between game-spoiler and monsieur bons-offices, and between bully and mediator-in-chief. His impressive political career was marked by conservative politics—the kind that has been associated with the infamous Françafrique.1
Under Compaoré, the Burkinabé people had lost any conscious desire to be citizens outside of that which was permitted under a government ruled by fear. Few had been willing to put their life on the line. The atrocious murder of investigative journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998 and the disappearance of many unknown others, for example, acted as deterrence to those who wanted to stand up against the Compaoré government.
Compaoré's downfall is therefore symbolically and psychologically significant to the people of Burkina Faso and the rest of West Africa, for it just might presage the fate that awaits other West African leaders like Denis Sassou Nguesso, Paul Biya, or Yayi Boni—that is, an exit without glory and a chaotic transition. Like Compaoré, these men have in common an unshakable faith in the disciplining power of their repressive regimes and the support of Western allies.
The dilemmas of the post-Compaoré transition are already apparent; the initial jostling between Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida and military chief General Honore Traore is a reflection of the cracks than run through the country’s political and military circles. General Traore’s promise “to hold, without delay, consultations with all the vital forces and those who make up the nation, with the goal of leading a return to normal constitutional life”2 will be the real test of transition and post-transition in Burkina Faso.
On the one hand, a very predictable drama is unraveling before us: a national army quickly fills a power vacuum, takes charge of restoring order, suspends the Constitution, promises a quick democratic transition “supervised by the army,” and so on. On the other hand, the revolutionary moment is trumped by the utter unpreparedness of the Burkinabé opposition and civil society organizations. The former is made up in large part by former ministers and protégés of Compaoré known for their armchair opposition style and their unwillingness to take risks, while the latter is caught in institutional usurpation.
As political leaders scramble to capture every bit of power possible, it needs to be remembered that the impetus for change was collective anger. Compaoré’s resignation was not the result of a military coup d’état, but rather that of popular uprising. October 31, 2014, is as significant as October 15, 1983, when the Burkinabé people were deprived of the potential for emancipation contained in the revolutionary politics put to a halt by the murder of Thomas Sankara. The ongoing consultation between les forces vives and les forces armées is both a predictable and potentially productive avenue of crisis resolution. For the Burkinabé people, this is a unique chance to experiment with inclusive politics that makes room for meaningful civil society input and, more importantly, an opportunity to dismantle a system of rule that enabled Compaoré to keep the country under tight control for twenty-seven years.
- A term coined to describe francophone African countries’ relationships with former colonial power France. See http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/specialseries/2013/08/201387113131914906.html. ↩
- Short video of statement made available via New York Times. See “Burkina Faso’s President Resigns, and General Takes Reins,” New York Times, October 31, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/01/world/africa/burkina-faso-unrest-blaise-compaore.html, accessed November 6, 2014. ↩