Revolution and Counterrevolution in Burkina Faso

By Baba Aye

 The October 31, 2014 uprising in Burkina Faso heralded a year of intense struggle between contending forces that seek to bring to birth a new country and those intent on maintaining the status quo in one form or the other. The attempted coup of September 17, 2015 marked a watershed in this confrontation between revolutionary pressures and reaction.

The triumph of the revolutionary moment last year was however not just a Burkinabé moment. It represented the contradictory currents of struggle on the continent. These as a whole cannot be separated from the global era of crises and revolts, where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”. There are lessons to draw from the “great variety of morbid symptoms” that have appeared in the interregnum in Burkina Faso as well as the inspiring fight back that have halted the manifestation of the worst of these symptoms.

This blog summarily puts in perspective developments in Burkina Faso between the October 31, 2014 and September 17, 2015 and discusses challenges and possibilities for the unfolding moment and lessons for the working class and the broader social movements for change across Africa.

Towards an uprising

Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to run for a fifth term as President ignited what was already a tinder box of mass anger and resistance that had broiled for half a decade. The Citizen’s Broom (Balai Citoyen), a youth organisation involved in last year’s protests, conveyed this spirit that had shaken the workplace and several communities in the country who have all taken to the streets in the upheavals.

Backed by France, Compaoré overthrew Thomas Sankara in 1987, in the twilight of the Cold War era. He immediately went about rolling back the popular structures of the radical interventionist state which Sankara had utilised to carry about the most pro-poor people reformist agenda in modern Africa. He was also quick to transit into a civilian garb four years later, establishing a semi-presidential system while building the Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP) as the an autonomous elite arrowhead of repression, to maintain his hold on power.

At the same time, he commenced a Structural Adjustment Programme, which helped consolidate the material base of the weak indigenous property owners, at the behest of International Financial Institutions. The apparent successes of the SAP was hailed by Western imperialism as GDP growth rates increased from -0.603% in 1990 to 5.76% by 1995 and averaging a 10% growth in the 1990s.

More importantly, behind these seemingly impressive figures lurked rising inequality and sharpening discontent. By 1998 the first wave of mass protests commenced, sparked by the RSP’s murder of Norbert Zongo, a journalist investigating the murder of a chauffeur of Blaise Compaoré’s brother, in the presidential palace. This protest movement was contained.

By 2011, the dress rehearsal of what would be the 2014 revolution played itself out. A massive wave of strikes in the mining sector engulfed the country, poor farmers joined the fray, demonstrating against poor prices for their produce and mutinies rocked the army including within the ranks of the elite RSP over unpaid wages.

Compaoré fled to his hometown, Zinaire, during the thick of those moments in February 2011. Opposition parties tried to give leadership to this mass movement that had arisen independent of them. The regime caved in to most demands of workers at the peak of the movement in May. But as soon as it could, it beat back the tide with repressive tactics (for the fullest account of these events see Lila Chouli’s book available online).

In the wake of the 2011 revolts, a network of youths who had been active in the street struggles across several cities and towns constituted a Mouvement des Sans Voix (‘The Voiceless’). They were to a  certain extent influenced by the los indignados movement at the time in Spain. The Le Balai Citoyen which was formed on August 25, 2013 as a grassroots movement, brought together members of Mouvement des Sans Voix and other youths, for popular struggle. It gave leadership on the streets to the mass uprising that toppled the Compaoré regime last year.

Progress, contestation and reaction

Most political revolutions end up defeated or with power transferred to a section of the same regime. This, more often than not, is due to ideological, political and organisational weaknesses of the popular sector’s leadership while some sections of the regime distance themselves from the sinking ship. But, the mole of the revolution continues to burrow below the state and its appurtenances. Similarly, the ousted elite hardly rest, planning to strike back. These broad strokes of the general nature of the contestation between progress and reaction at conjunctural moments unfolded in Burkina Faso over the last year.

Both Compaoré and General Honoré Traoré, whom Compaoré picked as his successor, were swept into the dustbin of history within a day in October 2014. While La Balai Citoyen rallied the popular struggle against Compaoré’s inordinate ambition, yet it neither aimed for, nor was organised to win power. The army, fractured as it was, became the organised force that stepped in to rescue the state from the ferment of society, with Colonel Isaac Zida of the RSP. Like the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt when it forced its fallen angel, Hosni Mubarak to step aside, Zida at that heady moment issued pseudo-revolutionary slogans that passed the army off as being part of the people in revolt.

Confident of heading off the tide of insurrection, he immediately suspended the constitution. This only deepened the rebellion, which curtailed his powers. Within two weeks, Michel Kafando, a diplomat and former top official of the regime, was appointed as interim president by the popular movement – encompassing civil society organisations, trade unions, opposition political parties and religious leaders. The constitution was reinstated, with presidential elections fixed for October 11, 2015. Considering the balance of power, Zida was retained as prime minister and minister of defence.

The victory of last year’s uprising has emboldened the working people and youth. Burkina Faso witnessed an avalanche of strikes and demonstrations. Every sector of the economy and society, including agriculture in the rural areas has been rocked by mass action with demands that are both economic and political. In December last year, the Avocet Ignat gold mine was occupied by workers who shut out the bosses. Workers and other members of the community also shut down the Tambao manganese mines owned by a subsidiary of the London-based Timis Mining Corporation. They accused the transnational corporation of illegally acquiring its mining license. The government was forced to halt production there in March, and institute an investigation into how its license was secured.

Earlier in January, workers in Brakina Sodibo, the country’s largest brewery, downed tools for 48 hours. Their demands included salary increases, improved working conditions and the reinstatement of workers wrongfully sacked in 1994 and 2004. They followed up the strike with weeks of demonstrations and won a resounding victory. UCRB, the transport workers’ union, also organised a 48-hour national strike in March. Their demands included the implementation of the 2011 collective agreement which was never fully implemented, the reduction of driver’s license charges and ending the harassment of workers by the police. All their demands were acceded to.

In April, the streets of Ouagadougou erupted with the march of over 50,000 persons against corruption, which forced primary, secondary and tertiary schools to be shutdown. The demonstration on April 8 was convened by a national coalition against corruption which included trade unions, students’ unions and civic organisations. Twenty two days later, residents of Sabce just 90 kilometres from the capital Ouagadougou blockaded the city, forcing the Mayor to abdicate. On May Day a sea of protesters marched through Ouagadougou calling on the interim government to take drastic measures to curtail the increasing cost of living.

Within the context of this massive social movement from below, a frenetic movement from above aimed at curtailing the deepening of revolutionary pressures arose. Central to this strategy within the circles of the elite now in charge of the state was ensuring a foreclosure of the regime represented by Compaoré. This entailed purging the government initially scheduled to emerge in October of persons from the Compaoré-headed regime.

In April, the interim government thus amended the electoral law, barring all those who had supported Compaoré’s third term bid from contesting. Based on this move the Constitutional Court cleared 16 presidential aspirants to run and declared 52 (which included the leader of Compaoré’s Congress for Democracy and Progress) as being ineligible for the elections. The transitional government also took up the gauntlet of the challenge from below to fight corruption. This, hardly surprisingly, appeared to have pro-Compaoré politicians as the main targets. Two of such (Jean Bertin Ouédraogo, a former infrastructure minister and Jérôme Bougouma, a former security minister) were jailed in August on charges of graft.

The transitional government itself was fraught with tension, which reflected deeper struggles within the ruling class, in its efforts at pacifying the restless mass. Then Kafando stripped Zida of his office as Minister of Defence (and also took over the ministry of security portfolio from Auguste Denise Barry, an ally of Zida), in July. And on September 14, the National Reconciliation and Reforms Commission recommended the disbanding of the 1,300 soldiers-strong RSP, describing it as “an army within the army.” Two days later, the RSP detained both Kafando and Zida, launching its ill-fated coup d’état.

Problems and prospects in the unfolding moment: striking a blow

The regular army acted against the RSP and the Africa Union/ECOWAS played up the carrot and stick to the coupists. But, the decisive force in bringing the putsch to kneel, was the mass upheaval against it on the streets and in the workplaces. The defeat of counter-revolution was at the hands of the revolutionary movement from below.

RSP troops initially took over the streets of the capital, making it difficult for large numbers to gather, as in 2014. But the trade unions immediately called a nationwide general strike. In other cities and towns like Bobo Dioulasso, Fada N’Gourma, Banfora, Dori, Ouahigouya and Koudougou protesters, which included striking workers and activists from the different grassroots organisations, took over the streets. This mass power did not only foil the coup, it rejected the deal brokered by the AU/ECOWAS team between the transitional council and the coupists which would have given amnesty to the later. The general strike and mass protests continued for ten days, until total victory in smashing the attempted putsch.

The extent to which the social movement from below coalesces itself into an organisation for power that embodies systemic change is thus a central element of the prospects for revolution. The heterogeneous character of this movement is however both a strength and a weakness.

We have to be clear that the popular forces within it draw ideological inspiration from years of confrontation with the state before 1982 and particularly so from the experience of the Sankara-era. Unfortunately though, partisan formations of the left are splintered along a dozen lines of weak parties that have not seen much growth despite the glorious past they claim and the rising tide of mass protests, insurrections and revolt of recent years. A possible silver lining in this dark cloud of disunity is the formation of a united front by ten of these parties, in the wake of the October revolution last year.

However the major opposition parties, which were set to contest the elections in late November 2015, are mainly outgrowths of the Compaoré regime. The Mouvement pour le Peuple et le Progrès which is now one of the two major parties was formed in January 2014 by 75 leading CDP members. Their grouse was simply against Compaoré’s intent then to run for a third term. Its presidential candidate Marc Christian Kaboré, a banker, served at different times as Prime Minister (1994-1996) and President of the National Assembly (2000-2012).

Most of the other leading parties equally share the ideology of the Compaoré-era regime. The UCP, the other party with apparent electoral clout, is headed by Zephirin Diabré, a former boss of the French nuclear firm AREVA, who gave implicit support to the September coup. In defense of his ideological stance generally, he once retorted that: “I’m not afraid or ashamed to say I’m a neoliberal. We will need to go outside to get aid.”[1]

Bénéwendé Sankara’s UNIR-PS (Union for Rebirth -Sankarist Party) is arguably the third in the pecking line of possibilities electorally. But during the fightback against the coup, he was a leading voice in the call for “active resistance.”[2] The challenge of translating popular support for Sankarism and the leading roles of Sankarists on the barricades into votes will most likely be hamstrung by resources and the limitations of structures of Sankarist parties largely limited to the urban areas.

As important as the elections are, there remains questions of thoroughgoing transformation. Irrespective of the party that emerges (or possible alliances in the eventuality of hung votes), it is very unlikely that the genie of mass revolt will go back into the bottle. As Smokey said of Balai Citoyen, even before the October uprising, we “will continue to exist. Today, we are working with the opposition parties, tomorrow, we might fight against those same people who will have come to power. We need a true change in power.” The trade unions are also likely to continue to struggle against economic deprivation in the midst of an economic crisis.

Significance for sub-Saharan Africa

It is equally important to situate the significance of the unfolding situation in Burkina Faso for sub-Saharan Africa. What is the significance of this “Black Spring” as part of a broader relatively inchoate challenge of the existing order globally in general and within the region? Building the popular forces in Burkina was partly inspired by similar efforts of the Y’en a marre in Senegal[3]. The successful demonstrations of working people’s power continues to inspire a radicalisation of politics from below around the continent.

This new wave of protest on the continent has come with gales of protests and has also expressed itself through the tinderbox of electoral politics. Unfortunately, the absence of radical partisan organisations with deep roots in the working people has delimited the possible harnessing of the street and the ballot box as was the case in the Latin American pink tide. Building such parties would require a partisan direction with the trade union movement and the (old and) emergent radical civic movements like the Balai Citoyen moving beyond pressure group politics to challenge with mass actions without eschewing the polls.

But the moment we are in presently, which the events in Burkina Faso demonstrate, is one where not only governments are being defeated but working class-people are demanding new regimens of politics. Through revolutionary pressures from below, democratic spaces within which popular forces could further grow. These are of course severe challenges. Where traditions of trade union and civic organisation activism have been stunted by wars for instance as in Burundi, repression is likely to be sharp and for a while at least, not unsuccessful in damming the tide of protests and resistance. There is also the possibility of incorporation, as a tactic of containment by ruling elites.

For now the main beneficiaries of the challenge to the state from the hammer-blows of mass struggles are former allies and key players of the previous state who seek further economic liberalisation. However, this could also be their undoing in the coming period. Lessons learnt in the interregnum might well bring to birth a readiness of the people to not only kick out Compaoré and his likes across the continent, but to make a bid for power based on their own agency and organisations.

Baba Aye is editor of Socialist Worker (Nigeria) and a trade union educator, he is also a Contributing Editor of ROAPE.


[1] See: Tolé Sagnon, 2013, Zéphirin Diabré : Je n’ai ni peur ni honte de dire que je suis neoliberal,

[2] See: Brian Peterson, 2015, “After the coup in Burkina Faso: unity, justice, and dismantling the Compaoré system”, African Arguments, September 25,

[3] Even though it was not successful in stopping Abdoulaye Wade’s constitutional amendment.


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