Revolutions As Incomplete Acts Or The Work Is Just Beginning

Zinaba, Rasmane, member of the National Coordination Committee of LBC

“People say that have we have won,” He says pensively. “I fear that there may yet be defeat in our victory.” I am sitting in Zinaba’s one room apartment. Papers, file folders, books, pamphlets, computer print-outs, newspapers, magazines and what appear to be photocopied versions of books lie strewn over every flat surface. The bed, the small dining table, the two arm-chairs and even the kitchen counter-top is piled with various documents and print-outs. The light streams in from the only window, and I can make out posters of Thomas Sankara, Che Guevara and Amilcar Cabral on the wall. They seem to take pride of place, but on a mantel facing the window I can also see small picture frames with what must be photos of friends and family. “The news media, especially the international media, have made Le Balai Citoyen into celebrities.” He clears books and folders away from a chair and invites me to sit. “They like a simple story–a group of young revolutionaries who sang their way to freedom.” He laughs sheepishly as he says this. I realise that he is also laughing at me because that is precisely the narrative that had first attracted me to the story. I had read about the rappers and musicians who comprised Le Balai Citoyen, and about their charismatic leaders Sams’K Le Jah and Smockey had indeed become near celebrities, their narrative and photographs appearing in most every newspaper story about the uprising that toppled the regime of Blaisé Campaoré. “It wasn’t that simple. And It isn’t over yet.”

As the day fades, and later afternoon light with its vivid orange hues slowing turning into the cold, mesmerising blue of dusk blue, Zinaba brews us some tea. We had met nearly two weeks earlier when I had accompanied a group of Le Balai Citoyen activists on a road trip to the south of the country. With the approaching elections–the first genuinely multi-party elections in decades, the movement was determined to connect with its various clubs in important cities like BoboDioulasso and Koudougou. It was obvious from the moment I was introduced to him that Zinaba was one of the key organisers, and a thinker among men. We did not speak during the trip, and it took many requests before he agreed to sit with me. I suspected that his reticence it was a combination of shyness towards strangers, and an indifference towards ‘international’ journalists.

Image Information: At Norbet Zongo’s anniversary of death ceremonies, members of various labour unions gather at Revolution Square. The participation of the labour unions was the final act in the downfall and removal of Blaise Campoaré. Labour unions have played a strong role in the country’s history in confronting the state structures of the dictatorship, and remained a key part of the recent agitation and people’s movement for democracy. Copyright @ Asim Rafiqui 2016

Le Balai Citiyen isn’t just one movement, and nor did it just appear out of nowhere.” He hands me a cup of tea. “People outside the country do not realise that it was years in the making, and only possible because of the many other organisations that had come before.” I can see hardbound copies of the works of Marx, Sankara, Cabral, and others on his bookshelf. Most of the books look like local pirated editions. In fact, Zinaba had earlier told me about how when he was at college he would make illegal copies of the works of Sankara and Marx and other socialist thinkers and distribute among the students. He seemed a little more relaxed in the growing darkness of the room, settling back into his chair. His days as an activist had begun at university. He became a member of the student union, The Association Nationale des étudiants du Burkina (ANEB), but left them soon after because of ideological differences. He later started his own group, to encourage debates and discussions between students about the ideas and issues they found in the books they were reading. It was here that some other people got to know him and reached out to him – he later joined the Association pour la Taxation des Transactions Financière et l’Aide aux Citoyens (ATAC) – a French antio-globalisation group. “It was a heady time,” He smiles as he says this. “I wanted to be a critical spirit – a thinking man, a questioning individual. This for me was what university was for.” He looks towards his books. “I consumed it all–Lumumba, N’kruma, Seko Toure and Sankara of course.” He reaches out and runs his fingers over the dust covered bindings and laughs to himself. “I have been so busy, I have not read them since.”

I jot down notes, even though I am recording our conversation. Zinaba periodically looks over at the recorder, and sometimes even appears to be speaking directly to it. He speaks in a measured way, as if trying to make sure that I understand everything. “But, reading books isn’t enough.” He says, looking straight at me. “Words and ideas don’t make you into a revolutionary, or even give you revolutionary will.” His university education was carried out in the context of great national turmoil–uprising and protests against the impunity and corruption of the Campaoré regime had broken out in each of the years he was studying. “These were important years of planning and organising.” Perhaps the most powerful protest movement broke out when a young student from Koudougou, Justin Zongo, was killed by the forces of the regime. It bought tens of thousands of people into the streets in spontaneous protests which were then brutally put down. “But we were learning. And we were beginning to see that the regime had weaknesses.” He looks down at his hands. “It was getting scared.” Then, in 2011, the military itself, perhaps sensing Campaoré weakening position, rebelled and he had to flee into hiding. “In 2011, we knew for sure that Campaoré’s regime could be broken.”

Zinaba rents a room from a family that occupies the other 3 rooms in a small house close to the university. The sound of children playing–a near constant background music to any place in Ouagadougo, now wafts through the half-open door and windows. There is something pleasing about the sound of their laughter–a reminder of that all is well. “It was, and it remains, a struggle.” As I prepare to leave, and step out into the verandah, we continue to talk. “To persuade people and to make them believe that we could change the situation in the country–This was hardest thing to do.” How did you manage it then? “We walked what seems like every inch of this country,” He answers. “You say it, You were there with us. We went to them, and we sat with them.” He was referring to the few days I spent with his team meeting with local Le Balai Citoyen clubs in the south of the country. It had been an exhausting trip because of the heat, the bad food, the questionable bed and the near 14 hour days moving from town to town. It had been a mere glimpse of the kind of effort Zinaba and his team had been engaged in over the last decade. “People could not believe that it could be done. It took a lot of effort, a lot of arguments, to convince as many as we were able to, that this was necessary.” As I shake his hand to leave, he adds. “But always remember, we also got lucky.” He smiles as he turns away.