As the dramatic scenes of public protests have given way to political negotiations of the terms of a transition towards new elections in Burkina Faso, the initial reports on events unfolding hour by hour are gradually being replaced by reflections on the overall implications of the overthrow of Blaise Compaoré. Questions are now being asked about the possible spill-over effects of the popular uprising – the possibility of an “African spring”, mirroring the wave of uprisings in Northern Africa in 2011. We might also begin to ask more anthropological questions of the potential for more enduring social and political change in Burkina Faso. Which changes in terms of political participation can the uprising be expected to have? Which actors were the driving forces for the public protests that brought Compaoré’s reign to an end, and are they included in the current negotiations? What has the monopolisation of power by the CDP at the national level meant for ordinary citizens? This brief text suggests some possible answers.
One of the first reflections on the implications of the Burkinabe uprising for the national political landscape came from an unexpected source. On the website of Ouagadougou’s international airport, a notification for travellers appeared on the morning of 2 November, two days after the resignation of Blaise Compaoré. Under the title “Airport Scheduling and Political Trouble”, it is stated – dryly – after a brief summary of the popular uprising and Compaoré’s departure:
As it usually happens, directors and chairmen of different public or para-public institutions are then replaced: the friends and parents [patrons] of Blaise Compaoré, these posts will be entrusted to the friends of the new power. This will be the case for Ouagadougou Airport.
This surprising political analysis, in the guise of travel information for passengers consulting the website for updates on the initial cancellation of all flights during the most intensive days of the uprising, suggests that Compaoré’s grip on power extended to all manner of public institutions, and that a change in political leadership will lead to a changing of the cast, but not the script, of state-sanctioned nepotism. This is not exactly the political pragmatism one wants to hear in the midst of an unprecedented popular uprising in a country where the president has been in power for 27 years, and won the most recent election – in 2010 – with 80% of the votes. As external observers, we want to take part in the joy and optimism of the Burkinabe people, and wish for a genuine people-lead revolution. In the measured commentary of the anonymous analyst at Ouagadougou International Airport, however, travellers are better served with cynical realism than wishful thinking. The statement continues:
There may be elections in the coming months if the “transitional” power does not gain too much of a taste for the joys of power. In case of a so-called “transitional” election, Burkina Faso will witness the election of a former minister, since the so-called “opposition” parties are mostly lead by former ministers of Blaise Compaoré who have already proved their abilities in deception and negligence. Travellers and investors to and from Ouagadougou should not be concerned about any sort of change, since these former ministers who have organised and initiated the current troubles are those who today are at the table of the so-called “negotiations” … The troubles should therefore end quickly.
So much for a social revolution and the promise for a groundswell of genuine democratisation. As it turns out, the statement – and in fact the entire website – turned out to be a hoax; Ouagadougou International Airport does not even have its own website! But the critical commentaries on the prospects for enduring change retain their relevance. It is true that many of the opposition leaders that we now see at the negotiating table, claiming to speak on behalf of the people, were prominent players in Blaise Compaoré’s political elite. Zéphirin Diabré, for example, who has acted as the spokesperson for the opposition in the past weeks, is a former member of Compaorés Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) and has been minister of trade, industry, finance, and mining as well as a financial advisor to the president before he founded his own political party, the Union for Progress and Change (UPC), in 2010. Roch Marc Christian Kaboré is a former Prime Minister under Compaoré and belonged to the inner circle of the CDP before he co-founded what seems to be the strongest opposition party at the current juncture, the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP), in January 2014, along with a number of other last-minute CDP defectors. In this sense, the Ouagadougou Airport commentary’s call for a more measured enthusiasm with regard to the prospects for a radical transformation of Burkina Faso’s political landscape post-Compaoré makes a lot of sense.
At the same time, though, the popular uprising did not materialise overnight, as previous posts on this blog have already noted. Not only have we seen popular protests over rising food and fuel prices in recent years but also concerted reactions to Compaoré’s attempt to establish a Senate which would have provided an institutional stepping stone for his ambitions to amend the constitution. Burkina Faso has also undergone a political decentralisation since the mid-2000s which has bolstered the opposition and encouraged voter participation. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, the voter turn-out rose from 56% in the previous elections (in 2007) to an impressive 76%. In other words, although many of the main actors are familiar faces from the Compaoré era, the script has been undergoing a gradual transformation towards democratisation. The question is not, therefore, whether the popular uprising will bring changes to the political landscape. Changes have already happened and the popular protests are probably a result of these changes.
This does not mean that the fake Ouagadougou Airport analyst is unjustified in the expectation of a business-as-usual outcome of the uprising that shook the country, resulted in the destruction of public buildings and private homes in the capital and in Bobo-Dioulasso (and probably elsewhere) and which cost the lives of at least thirty protestors. But it does not do justice to the changes already taking place; the sacrifices of those who took to the streets; or to the atmosphere of possibility and optimism that the uprising has inspired both at home and abroad. In the ongoing negotiations as in the upcoming elections, the seemingly unanimous voice of the people, demanding the president’s departure during the protests, inevitably gives way to the more fragmented positions of the seasoned actors of the political opposition as well as other well-established representatives of civil society. In this way, the impression of a youthful revolution betrays the durability of those leading the way in the transitional negotiations. Is this a bad thing? On the one hand, the expectations of a revolution are always of rejuvenation; of fresh faces and a renewed faith in the political process. It should be noted here that although many politicians in the post-Compaoré landscape are familiar faces, there has been a gradual rejuvenation of civil society organisations taking place, as Sten Hagberg argued (in Swedish) at our joint information meeting on 7 November.
Many of the people who risked their lives on the streets of Ouagadougou or elsewhere in the country may still be anxious that their revolution will turn into nothing more than a change of the guard; the possibility for a different set of elite politicians to monopolise power and exploit their mandate for personal gain. Compaoré’s attempt to amend the constitution in order to prolong his grip on power reflects a strategy of manipulating the limits of national legislation for personal gains, which retains some measure of international acceptance while rigging the game of national politics.
Such suspicions have even been directed towards one of the most youthful and vocal actors in the uprising, the citizen’s movement Le Balai Citoyen (the citizen broom), which has already been introduced in previous posts on this blog. The movement’s stated intentions are to inspire a societal sweeping: “Burkina Faso is in need of a clean-up. For almost thirty years, we endure. We endure and we do not react”. In addition to their active role in mobilising protestors, the movement has also been using their citizen’s brooms more literally; participating in cleaning up the streets of Ouagadougou after the riots and providing financial and moral support to those wounded in the confrontations with security forces. But their initial acceptance of a military figure as transitional leader provoked remarks that the movement, popular among university students who were well-represented in the protests, had “sold out”. Le Balai Citoyen, however insists that, “Contrary to what people say, that it is a complicity with politics, we do not have political ambitions. Our interest is in showing people that they must react. And we try to set an example”.
The movement’s role is important because it has been the most visible representative of the voice of young people outside the sphere of politics and the more established civil society organisations. After all, in a country where more than two out of three have never had another president, the opinions of young people should be taken seriously beyond their visible role in taking to the streets. And the anxiety regarding the movement’s true intentions reflects a general disbelief in the motives of anyone too close to the political elite. It reflects the immense gap between formal politics and the everyday lives of the majority of the population. While the protests that shook the country in the last days of October 2014 brought people of all walks of life together, under the banner “Blaise dégage!” – Blaise, take off – it is worth remembering that public protests in 2011 were motivated by frustrations over “la vie chère” – the expensive life – a concern that, along with staggering unemployment rates and dire living conditions, will not evaporate overnight. Put differently, although protestors, young and old, who risked their lives during the public protests undoubtedly saw Blaise Compaoré as an obstacle to their own wellbeing, their outcry did not begin, and does not end, with the replacement of one political leader with another. People’s frustrations run much deeper and reflect a society with very few ways ahead for a generation of young people unable to work, unable to study, and to whom formal politics has so far been mainly based on membership in an exclusive club of those who have already made it. As it is stated in an open letter in the newspaper Lefaso.net on 12 November,
The transition should not simply concentrate on institutional issues which are certainly important but not enough. The issue of youth employment is at the heart of this profound crisis
It will be an almost insurmountable challenge to the new political leadership to accommodate but a fraction of the hopes of all those who took to the streets. Most likely it will be business-as-usual for the many young people who, in fact, scrape by on small-scale informal business, waiting for a chance to get ahead somehow, against the odds. And people’s anxieties about the actual agendas of the people who are now included at the negotiating table are well-founded.
Jesper Bjarnesen is Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute. He has worked primarily on labour migration and forced displacement, informal urban settlement, and youth and intergenerational dynamics. He has done fieldwork mainly in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso.