Where Activism And Neoliberalism Collude

I don’t notice the international NGOs offices. I see them, but I do not notice them. In fact, there are dozens of international NGOs that operate in Burkina Faso, and have done so for decades. I also do not question their role and influence in determining the discourse of the uprising, and the ideas that have been voiced by so many of the activist groups connected to the uprising. Sitting in Boulairba’s sparsely decorated living room, where I have come to meet one of the founders of Movement des Sans Voix (Movement of the Voiceless), I am struck by this realisation because of Boulairba’s answer to my question about the goal of the movement sound very much like those I would hear from ‘good governance’ NGOs; end of corruption, transparency and accountability. That this occurs to me in the midst of an interview is distracting. 

“I was involved in various activities with ANEP at the unversity.” He answers calmly after we have settled down in armchairs in the living room. Boulairba’s home is near an industrial area, and we drive past a few factories and warehouses as we make our way to it.  The air is thick with pollution, and the smell of diesel. He greets me at the front door, immaculately dressed and obviously waiting for me to arrive. ANEP is the Association Nationale des étudiants du Burkina, or National Association of Burkina Students. ANEB was founded about forty years ago The association, whose leaders come from all university departments, and have considerable authority over the Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso campuses. ANEB also has close relationships with the of the largest labour union in the country, the Confédération Générale des Travaille Burkinabe (General Confederation of Labor du Burkina, CGTB). “Later, I was also working with ‘Attac’–the Association pour la Taxation des Transactions Financières et pour l’Action Citoyenne (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and for Citizen’s Action).” Attac was founded in France in 1998 and which now has branches all over the world.

“It was with Attac that I attended the first Social Forum, in 1997” He adds. “I met a lot of people there, including many from Burkina Faso.” Participating in the social forum required people to be members of an organisations, and so MSV was born as a platform for those Burkinabé who wanted to attend but lacked organisational affiliation. “Our focus is on corruption, on issues of social justice, the problems created by rising cost of living, and access to land.” Boulairba’s answers are very carefully put together, and he uses carefully chosen, but neutral words, to describe the activities of the organisation. “We are fighting for change, and this is what bought into collaborating with Le Balai Citoyen.”  In fact, Le Balai Citoyen long acted as an umbrella group that bought together a number of other groups fighting for change.

It [Le Balai Citoyen] was created last year, on August 25th. We held a first press conference, and then we held an official one with other structures such as the Génération Cheikh Anta Diop or the Mouvement des Sans Voix (‘The Voiceless’). We tried to get together with other movements because our slogan is “Our Number is Our Strength’. We want to represent about two million ‘Sweeper Citizens’, as we like to call ourselves. With this goal in mind, we try to unite our base, because there are a lot of different social movements scattered around Burkina Faso. [Harsch. 2015]

Change. Lila Chouli, in a piece written in 2011, had interrogated this call for ‘Change’, pointing out:

In many recent experiences, the sufficiency/insufficiency of the simple slogan ‘change’–whatever the ideological, theoretical or social orientation – seems to be a political panacea for organised parties. It is as if it has become superfluous to specify the basis for change, which is most o en limited to changing the head of state (Sarkozy, Compaoré, Wade). In Burkina Faso, this slogan sacrifices concrete struggle in the present to events (marches) focusing on a demand (not amending Article 37) that is still for the moment no more than a hypothetical scenario, albeit an increasingly likely one. Not that it would not be useful to oppose it before it becomes a reality. But that is not enough if the protest does not extend to the struggle against social distress [Chouli. 2014].

The striking thing is that Le Balai Citoyen too has never called for a fundamental restructuring of the state. I realise this only in retrospect. The focus on fighting corruption, on demanding accountability for politicians are important issues, but they are hardly Sankarist. It is near impossible to avoid this conclusion, especially when one keeps in mind the collaboration of the Burkina Faso military with the activists, and the quick and easy way it received the support of the civic groups particularly when Colonel Isaac Zida took charge of the interim government, and today sits as the Prime Minister of the country. As I listen to Boulairba talk about the goals of MSV, I am reminded that Sankara was a severe critic of the international order, the very system within which Burkina Faso today remained embedded, and its leaders determined to keep it there.

As a spokesman for the third world, Sankara criticised the international order. His themes – the injustice inflicted by globalisation and the international financial system, the omnipresence of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the vicious circle of third world debt – were similar to the modern alternative world movement. Sankara argued that third world debt was caused by the “alluring proposals of technical assassins” from financial institutions. Debt was the means for “the deliberately organised reconquest of Africa, a way of ensuring that its growth and development conform to stages and standards entirely alien to us.” Burkina Faso decided not to seek any loans from the IMF, which wanted to impose its own conditions [Jaffré, 2007].

The new leadership has promised to leave Burkina Faso embedded in the neoliberal programs imposed on it by the IMF and the World Bank. That is, there will be no shifts in the very nature of the state that created a culture of impunity, unaccountability and elitism. Sankara, on the other hand, fundamentally redrew the map of the state, and worked to disconnect and amputate it from the international order.

Projects abounded, and the president often imposed impossible deadlines for feasibility studies. For Sankara, the revolution meant practical improvement of living conditions. It was a break with the past in all areas: transformation of the administration; redistribution of wealth; women’s liberation; abolition of the powers of the tribal chiefs, who were held responsible for rural backwardness; the attempt to turn the peasantry into a revolutionary social class; transformation of the army, which was placed at the service of the people and assigned production tasks; decentralisation and the introduction of direct democracy via local Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR). They all combined with the fight against corruption. On 4 August 1984 Upper Volta was renamed Burkina Faso, “land of the righteous”. [Jaffré. 2007]

Was this a similar moment? It did not seem so. The youth were not even asking for a Sankarist transformation. They had, instead, transformed Sankara himself. My interview with Boulairba feels incomplete. I did not find what I had come for, and as I step out of his home and walk towards my car, the sounds of metal and machinery filling the air around me, the acrid smell of diesel and coal piercing my lungs, I fear that I may have been asking the wrong questions. I realise that I have not understood the structure of civil society, and political society, in Burkina Faso sufficiently. That like the very journalists I often critique, I may have fallen into my own idealised traps.