By Leo Zeilig
In October 2014 the ‘insurrection populaire’ – as it is known in Burkina Faso –unseated the twenty-seven year old regime of Blaise Compaoré, the President involved in the assassination of the radical leader of the Burkinabé revolution, Thomas Sankara in 1987. A transitional government was put in place to oversee the transfer of power to a new government in 2015. But by September, Burkina Faso was once again shaken by profound forces: the coup attempt on 16 September 2015 by security forces and the subsequent popular resistance to it by the population. Based on interviews conducted in March and April 2016, in the capital, Ouagadougou, his blog will look at the events that took place in Burkina Faso during and immediately after the coup attempt last year.
In 2015 Burkina Faso was moving towards elections that had been scheduled for 11 October when a coup was launched by members of the Régiment de sécurité présidentiel (RSP) – the Presidential Security Regiment. The RSP was a ‘private’ army of approximately 1200 heavily armed and trained men created by the former president Compaoré and charged with looking after the security of the ruling political elite. The coup leader was General Gilbert Diendéré, head of the RSP and a loyalist to the former regime. Partly an expression of the exclusion of the Compaoré elite by the transitional government in elections scheduled for October, officially the coup leaders sought to correct what they saw as problematic political imbalance inside the transition.
On the evening of 16 September it was clear that the Conseil national de transition (National Council of the Transition), charged with preparing the country for elections in October, was under attack. Leading members of the transition were arrested, including President Michel Kafando, and the Prime Minister, Yacouba Isaac Zida. Coup leader Diendéré declared that the coup was suspending elections and ‘restoring order’. Very quickly the streets of Ouagadougou were occupied by the RSP in armoured vehicles.
The coup represented more than a quibble about the conduct of the next elections. The message was clear: the popular insurrection that had overturned the old government and sent its president of 27 years into exile would not be tolerated by the remnants of the old guard. The young must stay away from the streets, the poor must once again learn their place, i.e. the powerful must be resume their control of the state.
Already by 25 September the coup has been defeated by and the RSP dissolved by the government of the transition, that had taken its place again at the head of the state. Soldiers of the former Praetorian Guard were forced to return to barracks or face the consequences. The coup leaders had either been arrested, were in ‘hiding’ in foreign compounds – Diendéré sought temporary refuge in the Vatican embassy (the Vatican Apostolic Nunciature in Ouagadougou) – or had faded into the undergrowth of Burkina society.
Organising the resistance
The trade unions were a vital element in the success of the resistance to the coup. Major unions organised in the Unite d’action syndicale (United Union Action) called for an unlimited general strike as soon as the coup took place on 16 September. By the end of the month, despite maintaining the strike in order to secure other workplace and social demands, the UAS declared victory, ‘The strong mobilization of workers in all sectors, the strong popular resistance led mainly by young people through the barriers erected in the provinces and barricades throughout the city of Ouagadougou against the putsch, surprised the coup and quickly defeated their project.’
The resistance was also marked by the militancy of the young, many unemployed, who had built the barricades and defended neighbourhoods in the capital from the RSP and supporters of the old regime. The picture was the same across the country.
Graffiti from the protests in 2014. Ouagadougou, March 2016. Photograph: Leo Zeilig
In western city of Bobo Dioulasso, as elsewhere in the provinces, protests against the coup had the tacit sympathy of the army and police, who made no attempt to prevent the demonstrations. Even in the historical bastion of the RSP, the town of Pô in the South, the watchword was the general strike. ‘In the streets of Pô,’ reported the city’s mayor Henry Koubizara, ‘the population has risen as one to the union’s call for a general strike. Shops are closed, the market is closed, there is no economic activity. People are mobilized, they are doing sit-ins.’
Though the mobilisation was led, in part, by trade unions, action in September was called by the many organisations that had a stake in and supported the transition. These groups – including Le Balai Citoyen (The Citizen’s Broom) – had helped to coalesce opposition to the Compaoré regime and played an important role in the protests and transition actions the previous year. Furthermore there was a general call to resist from leaders of the transition, now in hiding. Prominent among these was Cherif Sy, president of the Conseil national de transition, who soon became the ‘underground’ voice of the resistance. Finally, though many radio stations where forced off the air during the days of the coup, others managed to continue broadcasting’ fresh reports. Radio 108 – known as ‘Radio Resistance’ – which was run, principally, as a loudhailer for Sy.
The struggle on the streets
Neighbourhoods across the capital built barricades, following instructions from the transition government but also acting on their own initiative. Tires, rubble, rubbish were dragged across dusty roads, alleyways and major thoroughfares to prevent the RSP from moving freely around the city. One effective technique, widely used during the resistance, was described to me by Bamouni Bertrand Leonce, a forty-five year old militant of the 2014 uprising, who lives in Ouagadougou: ‘to stop the tanks and armoured vehicles of the RSP we attached large cables from one side of the street to another, fastening the ends to lampposts or walls. When the RSP tried to get through, voila, they would be slice in two. We prepared bottles of petrol, with small, torn pieces of cloth which we would light and then throw at the RSP – or those young enough to throw them would.’ Other methods of resistance – such as using scooters to block streets, or encourage neighbourhoods to come out in protest – were adapted and used to good effect. Barricades built in the capital were mobile, so often young militants could control who was allowed to pass, this helped keep to maintain support for the protests ensuring some degree of movement and activity across the city.
The result of this second massive display of popular mobilisation in less than a year meant the coup quickly fell away. Arguably, the strike was at the centre of mobilisation, even if the uprising cannot be reduced to the strike. Notably, after the coup had been broken and as the RSP was being dismantled, the general strike continued. Yet in the streets, controlling the barricades, launching audacious assaults (such as petrol bomb attacks on armoured troop carriers) on the RSP for days, were the young who had mobilised for the insurrection the previous year. So the defeat of the coup was not a result of a diplomatic triumph linked to the mediating activities carried out by the UN, the African Union and ECOWAS.
The aftermath of the coup: the elections
In the aftermath of the coup, with the liberation of the leaders of the transition, elections were rescheduled for 29 November. The party, Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progres (Movement of the People for Progress) and their candidate Roch Marc Kaboré won the election that took place without major incident, securing victory in the first round. Kaboré himself was a prominent figure of the Compaoré days and emerged as the revolution’s ultimate paradox. However, he had spent years estranged from the regime and was now regarded as an opponent of the old power.
Campaign poster for Roch Marc Kaboré from the November 2015 election. Photograph: Leo Zeilig
Still why did a movement of such popular power which had managed to overturn one of continents most deeply entrenched regimes – a dictatorship despite the veneer of democracy – allow prominent members of the old regime, a recycled elite, to step back into power? What is it about the political economy of Burkina Faso that shapes political action and enables such a political outcome?
We can list some of the relevant issues here: There are fundamental weaknesses of the Burkina Faso’s economy – extractive, export based, low industrialisation – that have remained largely unchanged since independence. The country’s poverty, the extreme suffering of its people, remains staggering: in the United Nations lists Burkina Faso at 183rd of 187 countries in terms of human development. There are enormous income differentiation; while 46 percent live below the poverty line, one in ten of the population own half of the country’s riches.
Almost 92 percent of the labour force in 2014 was employed in agricultural labour, in subsistence farming, and cotton cultivation; statistics largely unchanged since Sankara’s radical experiments at pro-poor development in the early 1980s. Agricultural work contributed 30 percent to GDP in 2012. In other words, there is very weak industrialisation – thus low levels of proletarianisation – combined with a large agricultural workforce. The recent boom in mining has not altered this set up. However, arguably these figures disguise significant changes in Burkinabé society, so urbanisation has grown as rural poverty drives more people into towns and cities and the political impact of the country’s small working class – employed in mining, the civil service and teaching – is entirely disproportionate to its size.
The successive waves of protest and uprisings in Burkina Faso have been against both the brutality of the former regime and the immediate manifestations of the continually exploitative relationships, both between the country and the capitalist system, and between the country’s highly unequal economic and political classes. Reductions of basic living standards and encroachments on the lives and liberties of the Burkinabé people have been continually resisted, and in 2014/5 – and for particular reasons – acts of great resistance have coalesced into more coherent movements for change that linked the struggle for economic and social transformation to the need for effective political accountability and representation. This has been broadly successful (i.e, there were democratic elections at the end of 2015 that led to the election of a new government), even if there have not been alternate voices and forces – of sufficient strength – to challenge the continued presence of a compromised political class.
Thomas Sankara’s influence
The events described here were inspired by the example of Thomas Sankara, the incorruptible leader of the radical government between 1983 and 1987, even if many of those involved had been born after his murder in 1987. His name tumbled from the lips of activists, or self-defined revolutionaries. For a generation born after his assassination and who were the agents of the recent uprisings who knew only the rule of Compaoré regime, he remained a figure of vital inspiration.
Sankara’s brief period at the helm of the state saw a poor, marginal country attempt autonomous development, endeavour to delink itself from exploitative international capitalism and undertake radical pro-poor reforms. Yet the autocratic tendencies in Sankara’s reforms were also the ‘revolutions’ weakest areas, the vulnerable and dangerous underbelly – in this respect the Sankara years worked against more broad-based popular involvement and initiative. His relationship with autonomous trade unions and independent strike action was authoritarian.
Burkina Faso’s recent, astonishing rebellions, strikes and revolution, complete the real and popular content that was absent, or at best stifled and sometimes repressed during Sankara’s years as a radical reformer. This raises questions: How can we marry the centrally organised project of Sankara’s reforms, its focus on national self-sufficiency – the attempt to break with the structure and logic of global capitalism – with the popular mobilisations we have seen in the strikes, resistance and insurrection in Burkina Faso from 2011-2015?
Would Sankara even have approved of such popular initiative and involvement outside the control of his ‘revolution’ (i.e top down politics)? The Burkinabé insurrection and uprising, present a challenge to the continent: how to marry the popular uprisings, insurrections and resistance with popular and radical political organisation.
Leo Zeilig is a ROAPE editor and the coordinator of www.roape.net
ROAPE has covered events in Burkina Faso for years, including the Burkinabé revolution in the 1980s. See Victoria Brittain’s article from 1985 from our archive and Lila Chouli’s Briefings on the transitional government is available to readers of roape.net who register and log-in to our members area on the website.