The Birth Of A Network–Guy Kam And The Intellectuals

Me Guy Hervé Kam is a former magistrate and a lawyer, who trained at the University of Ouagadougou and has a specialised degree in human rights from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. A man of sophistication and confident comportment, he carries himself with the air of casual confidence mixed with subtle aloofness. So what was he doing standing alongside rappers and slam poets, on make-shift performance stages, in marketplaces in Ouagadougou, calling for a revolution? Kam was and continues to be a spokesperson for the Le Balai Citoyen movement, and remains an important participant in many civil society and activist circles. As Commelillas points out: 

Kam, 43, is well known in activist circles; as the head of the Centre pour l’Ethique Judiciaire (centre for legal ethics), he launched a petition to solidify article 37 of the constitution, which limits the number of mandates a president may serve to two. His presence beside the musicians gives the organisation credibility and his negotiating skills were invaluable when Compaoré fell last October, and Le Balai Citoyen had to mediate between the army (very influential in power circles), the political opposition and the people [Commelillas, 2015].

“We were shown that collective action, cooperation, and collaboration can make a huge difference.” Guy responds, when I ask him about the continuing influence and meaning of Thomas Sankara’s revolution, in a calm, calculated manner. “That was Sankara’s most important legacy for me.” He is clearly dealt with the media before, and carefully choses his words. “So, from an early days in my career as a magistrate, I sought action through collectives, unions and such.” I have come to his offices in a beautiful residential neighbourhood in the west of Ouagadougou to understand how a trained lawyer become the ‘mature’ face of a movement celebrated for its Rastafarians, slam poets and rappers? I want to understand how this coalition of artists, activists, filmmakers, lawyers, academics and intellectuals–what we now call Le Balai Citoyen, came about? “Soon after I resigned as a magistrate, I founded the Citizen’s Resistance Group.” He laughs as he says this. “It was basically a group of arm-chair intellectuals with ideas for a revolution.” His laugh turns into a self-effacing snicker. But I know that Guy Kam is being shy about the powerful role that he, and his intellectual colleagues, played in the background.

The movement is almost always seen through its musician, and through the voices of rappers like Smockey and Sams’K Le Jah. It captured the world’s imagination precisely because it was seen as an artistic, cultural and creatively led movement. Practically every media report on the 2015 uprising against Blaise Campaoré’s regime speaks about Le Balai Citoyen as if it was one, cohesive, coherent and complete organisation. The rappers and musicians, the youth activists and social media stars, are celebrated in simplistic media narratives. But men like Me Guy Hervé Kam, and his organisation of intellectuals, were among the principal forces behind it–the ones who give it the intellectual and strategic foundation and credibility. To parliamentarians, politicians, military representations and other power brokers, it is the face of Me Guy Hervé Kam that is best known. It is he who confronts them in the board rooms, the court rooms and the political offices, and speaks a language that judicial and political power is prepared to listen to.

“Our goals were always simple: respect for human rights, respect for free speech, justice under the law, end to a culture of impunity, and political unaccountability.” We settle down in his small, but comfortable, office. Me Guy Hervé Kam is dressed immaculately; ironed plain shirt, straight tie, a well fitting two-piece suit. In every photograph that I have seen of him, he is always dressed this way. He seems at ease in his clothes. “But as intellectuals, we had no reach in the community. And that is where Le Balai Citoyen came in.” His secretary brings us some tea, moving about the room noiselessly, as if walking on air. Through the large window that opens out towards the front lawn, I can see a gardener watering the bougainvilleas that are now in full bloom. The spring weather has been a godsend, allowing me to work through the day. But, with summer fast approaching, I fear that the intense heat that will soon be upon us. “When Cine Droit Libre festival–Diallo’s people, raised their voice for justice for Norbert Zongo, we found ourselves together at the festival because we too were fighting against government impunity.” Despite the early hours, it is getting warmer in the office, and the power is out. Guy takes off his jacket. “We were many groups, and shared interests and concerns bought us together to the same events–and so, we started to talk together at the these events!” Ernest Harsch, a Swedish academic from Uppsala University who has long followed political developments in Burkina Faso, writes that: 

In early 2014, as the authorities began talking more seriously about a constitutional referendum, a new activist network emerged, the Collectif Anti-Référendum (CAR, Anti-Referendum Collective). Initially formed by 365 associations in Ouagadougou, it soon spread across the country and prompted the opposition parties to form their own local anti-referendum action committees. Later in the year yet another grouping arose, the Front de Résistance Citoyenne (FRC, Citizens’ Resistance Front), comprising two dozen civil society associations and headed by prominent prodemocracy intellectuals. The trade unions, meanwhile, built their own alliances with consumer associations and others; they demonstrated and went on  strike to voice worker grievances and protest high prices, with defence of the constitution prominent among their demands. [Harsch, 2014b]

What bought them together, and compelled them to act together? How did trade unions, rap musicians, social accountability organisations, student groups, lawyer collectives, arts collectives and others find common ground? How did Le Balai Citoyen become the face of the uprising, with many of these organisations taking quieter, behind-the-scene roles as the rappers and artists led the movement and grabbed all the media attention? How was it that the groups that groups like YEM in Senegal that had inspired Le Balai Citoyen had not managed to achieve similar results? What was it specifically about the situation in Burkina Faso that had allowed a network of actors to come together, collaborate in unison, and act with coordination to oust a sovereign state leader?

The members of Le Balai Citoyen, and the media that has reported on the uprising, tell a story that teleologically paints a picture of strategy, planning and vision. But they cannot explain why if it was just a matter of putting together a broad coalition, and bringing them out onto the streets, other oppressed nations are unable to do the same? They are unable to explain the specificity of the Burkina Faso uprising. It is this question that continues to interest me. But at the moment, in Guy Kams’ throw away comment, I sense that I may have an answer that others have not seen–that the movement emerged when a number of disparate groups, fighting for their interests with disparate methods, found that their interests overlapped at just the right moment. That members of Guy Kam’s organisation found themselves attending the same festival and watching the same documentary films about the assassination of Norbert Zongo that members of Cine Droit Libre and musicians from Le Balai Citoyen were attending. And that it was here, at these circumstantial meetings, these fortuitous coming together of individuals, that not only the first set of discussions took place, but the first realisation that there was one objective that they all shared, though each had many other objectives that they were working on too. And that because of circumstances, this one shared objective was the objective of a whole host of organisations that previously had found nothing in common–trade unions to civic groups, from lawyer’s unions to intellectual collectives, and others, had arrived at the same one conclusion: to achieve their individual organisational aspirations, they all faced the same singular obstacle.

Le Balai Citoyen gave us mass appeal.” Guy answers when I ask why he wanted to work with rappers and street musicians. “We were writers, and academics and lawyers. We have no links to the communities.” He is very matter-of-fact about it. “The Burkinabé is illiterate, but she is intelligent. We could not speak to her. But Smockey could. And he was speaking about the same things that we were. ”