Article written

  • on 07.03.2018
  • at 09:07 AM
  • by Staff

Burkina Faso and the realization that it is possible to win 0

Activists most often focus on the grievances and challenges immediately in front of them. But in Burkina Faso many do so with one eye cast back, towards the historical precedents of popular action. In their speeches and writings Burkinabè debate the lessons of those prior struggles. In part, they do so in hopes of avoiding earlier blunders and shortcomings, to stand on the shoulders of the past. Yet frequently they also consciously draw inspiration from previous triumphs. Victories beget victory.

In Burkina Faso’s case, such popular successes have been significant, especially on a continent marked by so many movements that have been repressed or co-opted by entrenched elites. The most recent was a massive citizens’ insurrection that toppled the authoritarian regime of Blaise Compaoré in October 2014, a development analyzed in detail in my new book, Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution (London: Zed Books, 2017).

Authoritarian rulers elsewhere in Africa have also faced widespread opposition in the streets. Sometimes such mobilizations led indirectly to a ruler’s downfall. For example, popular agitation in Niger culminated in a 2010 military coup that pushed aside an autocratic president, Mamadou Tandja, and opened the way to subsequent elections. And in 2011, street mobilizations in Senegal blocked Abdoulaye Wade’s attempts to subvert the constitution, contributing to his electoral defeat the following year.

Yet, apart from the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this decade, the 2014 uprising in Burkina Faso was a rare instance in Africa of a popular movement that managed to directly topple a sitting government.

Like many of his contemporaries on the continent, Compaoré tried to follow the common playbook of adhering to the formal tenets of multi-party democracy but in reality managing a closed political system based on a mixture of electoral fraud, the patronage of a dominant party-state and repeated constitutional manipulations. By 2013 that system began to fray, as Compaoré, in office since a 1987 military coup, pushed too far by seeking to once again extend the presidential term limit. Already incensed by widespread poverty, rights abuses, and rampant corruption, people across the country reacted were outraged. Their indignation fueled months of massive protests in the streets and pushed the divided opposition parties, activist groups and labour unions to come together in a coordinated struggle that culminated in the October 2014 events.

Memories of struggle

Opposition leaders and rank-and-file activists alike cited a litany of earlier movements and uprisings. Those experiences led them to believe that “insurrection is rooted in the DNA of the Burkinabè people,” as Guy Hervé Kam, the spokesperson of the prominent activist group Balai citoyen, put it. Those struggles included a January 1966 labour-led insurrection that toppled the country’s first president and a general strike in 1975 that blocked a general’s attempt to impose a single state party.

Numerous other instances of popular opposition erupted during Compaoré’s rule. Two prolonged and intense protest waves were particularly notable. The December 1998 assassination of Norbert Zongo, an independent newspaper editor, set off such sustained protests and strikes that the Compaoré regime seemed to totter on the edge of collapse. Only significant concessions and promises of reform ensured its survival. Then throughout the first half of 2011 came a succession of student and youth demonstrations, labour marches, merchants’ protests, judges’ strikes, farmers’ boycotts, attacks on the homes of leading political figures, and widespread army and police mutinies.

Many of today’s activists drew lessons from those struggles: that popular mobilization on a significantly wide scale could weaken and de-legitimize the authorities; that segments of the political elites and security forces were themselves somewhat divided; and that joint protest campaigns are more effective than dispersed and uncoordinated actions.

Continue reading on Africa is a country

By Ernest Harsch

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Direttore Responsabile Giuseppe Frangi