A Revolution Or A Revolving Door?

In November 2015, months after the ouster of Blaise Campaoré, the people of Burkina Faso elected Roch Marc Christian Kaboré as President. And whereas mainstream international and local media hailed the success as a result of a ‘people’s uprising’, led by the charismatic and photogenic rappers and musicians of Le Balai Citoyen, the ascendence of Kaboré to the Presidential chair suggested not so much a revolution, but a revolving door. He had been a member of the old-guard, close to the Campaoré regime, and a power broker within it. Had the revolution failed? Or had this always been the aim? I was left unsure about what I had witnessed or how to read this particular moment in modern West African political history. I had arrived here carried on the wings of the news of major political changes unfolding on the continent. In their book Africa Uprising, Mampilly and Branch, summarise the mood on the continent:

A new wave of protest is sweeping across Africa today. The multiparty regimes and neoliberal economies that emerged from the upheavals of the late 1980s and early 1990s have proved unable to meet popular aspirations for fundamental change. Starting in the late 2000s, what we identify as the third wave of African protest has posed dramatic challenges to the established order in over forty countries across the continent [Branch & Mampilly, 2015, 2].

They explicitly refer to the uprising in Bukina Faso uprising, and introduce their book with the scene set on the streets of Ouagadougou on October 30th, 2014. A year later however, what appeared to be a dramatic challenge to the established order has instead ‘elected’ a member of the old establishment. Kaboré had only recently created the Mouvement pour le people et le progrés (Movement for the People and Progress), but as the reporter and academic, Chouli pointed out:

The Mouvement pour le peuple et le progrés (Movement for the People and Progress, MPP) was established following the departure on 4 January 2014 of more than 70 members of the presidential party, including several pillars of the old regime who had been largely marginalised in recent years by Blaise Compaoré. These were Salif Diallo (special advisor to Blaise Compaoré, several times minister and Compaoré’s right arm before his ‘disgrace’ in 2009); Simon Compaoré (former mayor of Ouagadougou); and Roch Christian Kabore ́(former party president and president of the National Assembly). These defections from the ruling party were motivated not by an organic disagreement with the previous regime, but by a certain nepotistic defining moment: the place taken by François Compaoré, brother of the president, in the political game [Chouli, 2015].

The established order was also one wedded to the international neoliberal regime, and its commitment to ‘managing’ Africa through ‘developmentalism’ and ‘international aid’ programs, most of which were cover for a continued regime of resource exploitation, small scale poverty relief, and an entrenchment of trade and policy structures beneficial for European metropolises [Mbembe,  2001, 7]. Chouli further pointed out the deep entrenchment of the Burkina Faso economy and society in global capitalism, and how these structures were never challenged or questioned by the civic movements.

The main challengers in the presidential election are divided between neoliberals and social democrats, even though they were important officials during Blaise Compaoré’s regime. Some of these figures were the architects of his regime, even macroeconomic decision-makers, before manoeuvring themselves away from their position alongside Blaise Compaoré. One such person is Zephirin Diabré, head of the Union pour le progrés et pour le changement (Union for Progress and Change, UPC), a party started in 2010. Diabré, leader of the political opposition until the establishment of the Council of Ministers in November 2014, was a minister several times in the 1990s, first at the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Mines to ‘see through an active policy of privatisation. Which he went on to do.’ He then went on to manage the devaluation of the CFA franc (in January 1994), and the implementation of structural adjustment plans as Minister of the Economy, Finance and Planning. Thereafter, he continued his career outside Burkina Faso, within the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and then, from 2006 to 2011, the AREVA Group, which gave him a substantial network of contacts.9 A convinced neoliberal, he confided to the journalist Anne Frintz, who asked him two weeks before the uprising what his plans were, that ‘The programme is that of the donors’ [Chouli, 2015]. 

So what had been achieved? The difficult questions have been silenced under a mainstream narrative of a people’s uprising against a dictatorship, a popular and well-attended voting campaign, and the election of a ‘new’ leader. And yet, I can sense that little has changed–the need to transform the social, economic and political system, so central to the vision of Thomas Sankara, are nowhere to be heard. The protestors and activists may have carried his posters, worn t-shirts with his face on them, and spoken his words, but they seemed to have avoided his insights about self-reliance and independence from the global capitalist system. As Bruna Jaffré reminds us:

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].

Furthermore, Sankara offered a severe critique of the Western conception and construction of democracy as it was being practiced.

Sankara gave considerable thought to the practical implementation of democracy, emancipating the working classes and women. “Democracy means using the full potential of the people. The ballot box and an electoral system do not prove the existence of democracy. There is no real democracy where those in power call elections from time to time and concern themselves with the people only in the run‐up to an election…There can be no democracy unless power in all its forms – economic, military, political, social and cultural – is in the hands of the people” [Jaffré, 2007].

This radicalism was vividly absent in post-uprising Burkina Faso, and few were even asking any questions about the process unfolding. The narrative, the story that we wall wanted to see and hear, was being constructed rather than being lived.

Image Information: The citizens of Burkina Faso went to the polls for the first time since independence on 29 November 2015. These elections are the result of a people’s movement that toppled the long entrenched dictator Blaise Campaoré. Copyright @ Asim Rafiqui 2015.