An incredible political transformation has been taking shape in the “Land of the Upright or Incorruptible People”, Burkina Faso.
Twenty-seven years after the assassination of revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara, Burkinabes turned out in their hundreds of thousands, for several days of protest. Chanting “enough is enough”, it echoed a long history of trade union activism against political repression in the country, as well as protests staged through the Balai Citoyen collective.
After four days of the popular anger, president Blaise Compaore vacated his post.
The protesters had gathered to oppose an impending parliamentary vote, scheduled for October 30, which sought to alter the constitution to extend electoral limits by an extra three terms.
The amendment would have allowed Compaore to run in the coming presidential elections ― at the time set for next year. People turned out en masse against the vote on October 29.
An estimated 1 million people marched, mostly peacefully, on Sankara’s Place de la Revolution, so-named for the important role of the square during Sankara’s presidency. It was later given the more placid name Place de la Nation by Compaore, a bid at symbolic erasure of Sankara amid the imposed silence regarding his role in Burkina’s history.
Sankara had led the country in a grand social project of environmental, gender and political-economic empowerment from 1983 to 1987. His leadership ended after his assassination in a French-backed coup d’etat, culminating in Compaore, his former second-in-command, seizing power.
On October 30, riot police fired bullets and tear gas into the assembled crowds. The major opposition party, the Movement of People for Progress, reported that 30 people were killed and more than 100 wounded.
The Burkinabe military ― which is supported and partially funded by military-to-military and anti-terrorist monies from the United States ― was deployed to occupy the streets and subdue the people of Ouagadougou on October 30. Protests were also held outside the embassy in Paris.
In this context, protests turned increasingly aggressive, reflecting people’s determination to effect change at great personal and physical cost.
Angered by both the militarised response to their demands and Compaore’s seemingly blase reaction to the protests ― insisting he would cancel the parliamentary vote but remain in power until the elections could be arranged ― people remained on the streets for four days.
Protesters took the state television and broadcast centre headquarters and burned debris outside the homes of political leaders, including that of Francois Compaore, the president’s brother. The airport was closed down and protests culminated in the burning of the parliamentary building.
On October 31, at around 8pm, protesters marched to the Armed Forces Headquarters in Ouaga’s centre, demanding that military leaders ― in particular the retired general Kouame Lougue ― stand with them, or against them. At the same time, another group of protesters demanded that the Presidential Guard's Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida join protesters as a possible leader.
Rumours abounded on October 30 that Compaore, after 27 years as president, had fled the country. These calls were premature; but on October 31, he announced that he was, indeed, vacating his post.
The banners, language and symbols employed indicated a solemn determination. Women marched with long wooden pilons (pestle-spoons used for pounding and turning food). One slogan, “Shoot [me]! Liberty or Death!”, evoked recent demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere in the US.
What has since become the #BlackLifeMatters movement drew upon the final words ― “Hands up, don’t shoot!” ― of an unarmed Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer while surrendering, as a means of speaking against racialised police violence in the US.
Drawing on the historical legacy of Sankara, protesters wore shirts bearing his image and held plaques etched with his words. Signs read, “Down with Blaise” and “Get out, Blaise”.
US and French ally
Compaore’s persistence in power was a testament to the injustice of a global system that values “security” for capitalism over democracy for the people. Indeed, speculation on the potential jeopardising of US anti-terrorism efforts through Compaore’s withdrawal emerged on the very day of his announcement to step aside.
Compaore has been a long-time military partner of both France and the US. The US military operates drones and spy planes from their air detachment stationed in Ouagadougou.
Burkina Faso is a historic member in the US Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative, which involves military expansion and training in the region in the name of anti-terrorism, namely the threat posed by al Qaeda.
In this context, Compaore’s departure is a hugely empowering moment, no matter what happens in the next months. Indeed, a plethora of speculative analyses on the “uncertain” future have been quick to emerge from pundits and journalists.
Several articles published in business and economy journals have, unsurprisingly, been quick to assure and calm investors that a change in leadership does not pose a challenge to the hegemony of neoliberal economics. This means privatisation, market dominance and the prioritisation of market success over the welfare of people.
This neoliberal hegemony was demonstrated by the externally imposed austerity policies of the last 30 years ― structural adjustment programs and debt restructurings that have heralded the decline of welfare services in many African countries, Burkina Faso included.
One article, for example, predicts: “Domestic and international stakeholders are likely to fudge a solution that sees an eventual transition within a year back to fully elected rule.
“However [this movement] will not usher in radical policy changes or fundamental changes in the way that the Burkinabe political system works. Risks will remain manageable for those prepared and equipped to play the long game and wait for the dust to settle on what has been a landmark moment in Burkinabe and indeed West African politics.”
For the country’s economic and political elites, the political transformation brought about by Compaore’s departure is “manageable” as long as the political and economic structures of Burkina Faso remain unchanged.
Meanwhile, international commentaries on the Burkinabe protests immediately drew upon a discourse of “uncertainty” in post-revolutionary moments. In the shadow of post-Arab Spring disappointments in Egypt, people have rushed to consider, “Will this revolution be just like Egypt?” or to posit that “unfortunately, this will probably be business as usual”.
This fatalistic discourse fails to appreciate the enormous energy required by people to rise up against 27 years of presidential power ― indeed, the energy required by people to rise up. Period.
Radio Omega FM Ouaga reported that a meeting between military officers, opposition party representatives and civil society leaders was held on November 2. It discussed managing the power vacuum and ensuring that the moment of political transformation is managed with the interests of the people in mind.
This meeting came after protesters took to the streets again on November 2, demanding that the military not co-opt the movement.
Of course, we should learn from the political situation in post-Arab Spring Egypt. However, to immediately and reflexively raise doubts over whether this revolutionary moment will bring about serious political, economic or social empowerment for the people of Burkina pays a disservice ― even if inadvertently so ― to the protest movement as well as to the transformative potential it represents.
Such a response from the “international” media echoes the discouraging calls frequently coming from the dominant media of autocratic regimes that make the case for why people should not rise up against their leaders.
In this framework, “Look what happened to Egypt” could become a refrain deployed to suppress future movements across the continent.
In fact, the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt continue to inspire and motivate resistance movements precisely because they show that we can say no. For example, 1 million people took to the streets in Cotonou, Benin, on November 3 demanding municipal elections.
Let us celebrate this moment and look with both an optimistic anticipation fed by this recent victory, as well as a critical eye for the ways in which political mobilisations in the past have been sabotaged. Not because sabotage is inevitable in Burkina, but precisely because it is preventable.
[Reprinted from Ceasefire. Amber Murrey is a PhD student in geography at the University of Oxford with interests in decoloniality, Pan-Africanism, militarism and structural violence, resistance and filmmaking in francophone Africa.]