Is It About Revolution Or Reform?

“Our organisational structure is very simple.” Kambou pulls out a piece of paper and a pencil from his bag and begins to draw. “We have a national committee here in Ouagadougou,” he looks up at me. “This is the offices, where we are sitting in now.” We are in Le Balai Citoyen’s main Ouagadougou centre. It is a residential building converted into a meeting space, social centre, archive and library. It acts as a hub for the members, and a central location where they can find each other any time of the day. “We have a regional coordination committees in what we call ‘focal point’ cities like Bobo-Dioulasso, which are then in turn responsible for smaller Le Balai Citoyen clubs in the surrounding towns and villages.”

The centre is noisy, with people moving about, discussing, carrying things out to vehicles, moving furniture, holding small group discussions, working with the chalk boards and packing publications into boxes. I have managed to find time with Kambou just a day before the team here begins its tour of a few southern cities to meet with local Le Balai Citoyen clubs, and prepare them to organise the communities to participate in the upcoming Presidential elections. It is proving difficult to keep Kambou–one of the key administrators at the facility, from staying with me and not rushing out to join the preparatory work. “In 362 communes, we have at least one club.” He continues. “And then there are clubs that target the diaspora community abroad – what we call ‘embassies’.” It is a simple arrangement––local (minimum 10 people) clubs at the village level, then a regional coordination committee at the second city level, and a national coordination committee in the capital of Ouagadougou and then a few offices in countries abroad. “This week, when we leave for the road, we are meeting with the local clubs and informing them on how best to bring people out to the ballots.”

But where did they get this idea? How come, in 2013, there was a decision to create a nationwide youth organisation, and guide them towards a specifically political project? “We met with people from the Y’en a Marre (YEM) (French for “Enough is Enough” or “We’re Fed Up”) movement in Senegal.” He answers in a rather matter-of-fact manner, expecting me to know about the YEM in Senegal. I do not. Later, I would look into them and learn more.

Central to the defeat of President Wade (in 2012) was the audacious mobilisation of youth in Dakar, critically incited by rappers and moving to the rhythm of hip hop through Senegal’s urban landscape. Through activating their networks in virtual, audio, and urban space, rappers catapulted themselves to the centre of the political stage in not only the wave of protest leading up to the elections, but through inspiring a deeper public reflection on citizenship and democratic practice. The youth group, Y’en a Marre (YEM) (French for “Enough is Enough” or “We’re Fed Up”), in particular, emerged at the forefront of youth contestation and mobilisation, crystallising the grievances of young people in the form of an action-oriented, decentralized network rooted in Dakar but operating across the country. [Fredricks, 2013]

It turns out that Y’en a Marre’s didn’t just limit themselves to the struggle within Senegal. They saw themselves as the start of a region-wide movement and actively reached out to groups across West Africa. Members of YEM travelled in the region, bringing with them their insights and ideas of their social, cultural and political strategies for activism and resistance to political power. In a piece about the Senegalese rappers, Jacques Denis concludes:

YEM has made an impact on political life not just in Senegal but in the wider region: Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, where the Etiamé movement — Y’en a Marre in the Fon language — has taken root, the Sofas de la République in Mali, Y’en a Marre Comme Ça in Gabon, Touche Pas Ma Nationalité (hands off my nationality) in Mauritania. In Burkina Faso, Le Balai Citoyen (the citizens’ broom) swept away President Blaise Compaoré in October 2014. [Denis, 2015]

But there are limits. Though none of the Le Balai Citoyen activists will acknowledge it, there are limits to the movement, and the questions it raises. Denis’ article above points these out, but evades the consequences of them.

In spite of the weight of expectation, and the limitations, everyone is sympathetic to YEAM. “To put it simply, revolution is a luxury product,” said Fall Ba, “and I’m not sure we can afford it. It demands an effort to spread information, a certain level of education. And it’s not our job to run this country. Our job is to sting the politicians when they forget what they should be doing. But we mustn’t deceive ourselves: most rappers have never read Frantz Fanon or Machiavelli. There are people better equipped than us to tackle that sort of question.” [Denis, 2015]

Does Le Balai Citoyen see itself as this–a watch-dog organisation, but uninterested in the responsibilities of power? Is their revolutionary discourse matched by a revolutionary aim? Kambou is restless and I can see that the demands of the preparations for the upcoming tour, the animated discussions in the corridors outside our little room, are too much of a distraction for him. When I push him to speak about Le Balai Citoyen’s political aims, he reverts to standard responses. “We are fighting for separation of powers, separation of judicial structures from political structures,” he hurriedly answers. “For more transparency in government, greater clarity for tax payment uses and more.” To me this sounds like classical ‘good governance’ talk. Despite the claims to a continuation of Thomas Sankara’s legacy and message, ‘good governance’ seems a bit of a let down as an aspiration. And a goal that will not extricate Burkina Faso, as Lila Choli pointed out:

Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world – despite mostly positive macroeconomic indicators from a neoliberal perspective – this is primarily due to its status as neo-colonial state, and is accentuated by the neoliberal, macroeconomic reforms taken by the regime from the early 1990s. The ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (Harvey 2010) (especially the ‘mining boom’ and development of agribusiness etc.) has been undertaken by transnational and local companies with an unquenchable thirst, which has exasperated social vulnerability. [Choli, 2015]

Can ‘good governance’ be enough? Kambou merely smiles as I express my concerns. “We have to work in small steps.” He stands up, ready to leave the meeting. “You outsiders want your romantic image of revolutionaries, but you fail to see that building something takes small steps.” His reprimand stings.