They Called Them ‘Riots’, And The People ‘Rioters’

There have been outbreaks of violence against Mr. Compaoré at least six other times since 1999, most recently in 2011, with government buildings defaced and protesters taking to the streets. Mr. Compaoré has always managed to stay in office through a combination of negotiation, conciliation and restrained use of firepower.

The New York Times, October 30, 2014

Burkina Faso riots: State of emergency declared: Protesters angry at plans to allow Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré to extend his 27-year-rule have set fire to parliament.

BBC News, October 30, 2014

Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, has been the scene of violent protests today, as demonstrators vent their anger over a proposal to extend President Blaise Compaore’s 27-year rule. The storming of the parliament building today marked the culmination of several days of demonstrations. A reported 1,500 protesters ransacked offices and set buildings, documents, equipment, and vehicles ablaze. Security forces attempted to control the crowds using tear gas and live rounds.

 The Atlantic, October 30, 2014

Protesters stormed the parliament building on Thursday and set part of it ablaze in a day of violence around the country triggered by a planned parliamentary vote to change the constitution and allow Compaoré to rule longer. It was scrapped as the scale of the anger became clear. At least three protesters were shot dead and scores were wounded by security forces, emergency services said. A state of emergency was imposed for several hours but lifted late on Thursday.

The Guardian, October 21, 2014

…the plain reportorial style coerces history, process, knowledge itself into mere events being observed. Out of this style has grown the eye-witness, seemingly opinion-less politics – along with its strength and weakness – of contemporary Western journalism. When they are on the rampage, you show Asiatic and African mobs rampaging; an obviously disturbing scene presented by an obviously concerned reporter who is beyond Left piety or right-wing cant. But …must we inevitably forget the complex reality that produced the event just so that we can experience concern at mob violence?

Edward Said (2002)

The foreign journalists came and saw ‘riots’, ‘violence’ and ’vandals’. Across digital, broadcast and print media, international and local journalists and photojournalists quickly, and instinctively, reached for conventional and stereotypical explanations and representations of African political actors – gangsters, goons, criminals, chaotic, violent, irrational, destructive, prone to uncivilised behaviour, unable to cope with reasoned discourse and more. This same media had remained silent about the barbarism, repression and violence of decades long Campaoré regime – a close ally of the French, a nd in fact had white-washed the barbarism, repression and violence by euphemistically referring to as ‘stability’, ‘investor friendly environment’ and ‘calm’. What they saw as mere ‘riots’ however, was the perhaps surprising and unexpected outcome of decades of popular resistance, scheming, organising, and secret dissent against a brutal regime. It was the result of what has been the lived history of the Burkinabé people, one that escaped the interests and attention of international journalists.

Though Blaise Campaoré’s government collapsed within days of start the popular uprising began, it had taken nearly twenty-seven years of sustained struggle, grassroots political activism, civil disobedience, trade union movements, student activism, and citizen engagement to make it happen.

There is a strong tradition of trade union activism and student politics in the country. Its leadership experienced this as early as 1966 when the people came onto the streets to confront the increasingly autocratic, nepotistic rule of the country’s first president, Maurice Yaméogo. Workers launched a general strike, and large crowds of students, workers, traders and others came out onto the streets of Ouagadougo. It was the army’s eventual refusal to ‘disperse’ the crowds that signalled the end of Yaméogo’s rule and bought General Sangoulé Lamizana to power. In 1983 yet again, the people came into the streets to protest the arrest of then Prime Minister Thomas Sankara by President Ouédraogo. Sankara was temporarily reinstated, and the people had made their point.

But perhaps one of the most significant moment in Burkina Faso’s political history came after the assassination of investigative journalist Norbert Zongo. Many young Burkinabé remember this as a moment that finally made them into activists, and compelled towards direct action and engagement. Hundreds of thousands came out onto the streets on 17 May 1983 after Zongo’s body was found in the burnt remains of his car. Members of Blaise Campaoré family were suspected to have arranged the killing. A hugely popular man, respected for his integrity and courage, Zongo’s assassination galvanised an entire generation in its aftermath.

But there are other characteristics that are perhaps even lesser known. There has been a return to political life of the Mogho Naaba (Mossi king). Though it is largely a ceremonial role, it was not without significance to note that it was in his palace that the Régiment de Sécurité Présidentielle (RSP, Presidential Security Regiment which carried out the counter-revolutionary coup d’etat) and the regular army signed the ceasefire agreement in September 2015. Religious and traditional leaders continue to play an important mediating role in Burkina Faso’s political society. The Catholic Archbishop of Bobo-Dioulasso, Paul Ouédraogo, led the country’s National Commission for Reforms and National Reconciliation, which handed over its final report to the government in September 2015.

And then there is the relationship of the army itself with the wider civic polity. The army has a long history of involvement in the country’s political history, however, as Sten Hagberg has argued, “the army has been involved in politics for the past five decades, but this involvement co-exists with a long tradition of protest and resistance.” For example, in 1976 when Thomas Sankara was appointed to take charge of a national commando training center at Pô, he worked hard to create a deeper civic engagement and awareness among his soldiers. His goal, as Ernst Harsh has argued, was to “produce citizen-soldiers who viewed themselves as serving the wider society.” Many of the projects that Sankara initiated at the training center required his men to work directly with local communities. The army played a pivotal role in putting down the counter-revolutionary coup led by the Presidential Guard after the fall of Campaoré, as it sided with the people, and oversaw the return of Kaboré’s transitional government.

There are many layers of social and political history embedded in even the most obvious and seemingly banal act of ‘rioting’ and street protest. Burkina Faso’s people’s revolution of October 2014, was just one more act in a play that had been written decades ago and that continues to unfold.

Image Information: Photographs of the day of the revolution on the walls of the vandalised house of François Campaoré, brother of ousted President Blaise Campaoré. The house has become a makeshift museum of sorts where visitors come to hear fantastic and imaginative tales of the cruelties and decadence of Blaise Campaoré brother and his family.

Said, Edward. (2000). “Tourism Among The Dogs”. In Reflections On Exile. Page 97 Granta Press. 2000