People’s protests and elections: the case of Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso: Real spring or little breeze?

It seems that modern kits come from France for the elections in December 2012 in Burkina Faso: is this not a symbol of a ready-to-run democracy? In light of the crisis or post recent pre-election, in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Senegal, it is clear that, fifty years after the accession of a number of African States to international sovereignty, electoral democracy is still a mirage maintained at great expense by international institutions and by Northern States.

In this paper I would describe the characteristics of political action in Burkina, beyond party democracy, not to reject it, but to express the ultimate goal: the search of a program, capable to allow the fulfillment of political, economic and social rights of all citizens.

This is because this country of 17 million inhabitants, situated in the heart of West Africa, has a rather tumultuous political history linked to the demand for equality. As such, it is marked by the vitality of civil society and the experience of the National Revolutionary Council of Thomas Sankara (1983-1987).

Recently, the national situation in Burkina Faso has been characterized in the second half of 2011, with a cycle of protests related to the "Arab Spring", but that seems to end with the resumption of government initiatives and preparation of general and local elections planned on December 2, 2012. After the severe storm, the lull and respite that has been attained while the people of Burkina Faso remains burdened by the ills that youth, trade unions and the Progressive opposition had the courage to denounce, including the cost of living and the struggle against impunity.

Given the magnitude of the crisis, and in loyalty to the legacy of Joseph Ki-Zerbo, a Pan-Africanist and socialist activist Burkina , the International Committee Joseph Ki-Zerbo (ICJK) decided to take up the question of democracy in this country and intends to participate in the national efforts to find appropriate solutions, corresponding to the aspirations expressed throughout this historic first term of 2011, which can be regarded as the best tribute to the legitimate struggle for a genuine democracy in Burkina Faso started twenty years ago, and more precisely in 1990/1991 during the mobilization for the return to the rule of law. Actually, this struggle began in 1958 during the mobilization that linked independence and Revolution in Africa.

In line with this commitment to Pan-Africanism and the Afro-Asian solidarity, the ICJK therefore invite all activists, from Burkina Faso or not, to contribute to the long struggle for a truly democratic and endogenous development of Burkina Faso, a name which means  “the land of upright people ".

Surge of youth against impunity

Demonstrations broke out spontaneously after the death of the student Justin Zongo on February 20, 2011 in Koudougou, after being arrested by the police in his college. We then experienced, from February 2011, a resurgence of struggle against impunity which has become multifaceted and chronic under the Fourth Republic (1991), but already under the National Revolutionary Council (NRC ) led by Thomas Sankara (1983) and the Popular Front (1987), first on behalf of "the revolution" and then "turnaround" of this revolution .

Pupils and students have protested violently against this suspicious death, resulting from a flagrant violation of academic freedom. School youth showed its legitimate revolt, but also took it out on state institutions, including police arms dump. Furthermore, they attacked the symbols of power in place (police, town halls, courts ...) and properties of significant persons considered as the pillars of the regime. It is true that during demonstrations security forces fired live ammunition .

School and university youth stands up against impunity to say "NO" to the abuses in police stations in Burkina Faso. Indeed, the death of the schoolboy from Koudougou follows another police extortion in the country that sparked off the protest. Official statements tending to attribute the death to meningitis have stirred things up.

After Koudougou, the third largest city located 200 km from the capital Ouagadougou, other cities such as Ouahigouya, Yako, Koupéla, Leo, Dori, Gower, etc. will also be affected by the same scenario: the demonstrators torched police stations, a courthouse (Fada N'gourma), but also the residences of some barons of the regime, and the local CDP (Congress for Democracy and Progress, symbol of the ruling party since thirty years ) that 'it was actually thought to be acclaimed to over 80% of the votes at the latest presidential elections in November 2010!

The contrast between the flattering results and people’s protests reflected another contrast between the official political scene and the political society in Burkina Faso, towards which various persons of the left have worked. To understand this polarity which is constantly changing, perhaps we should speak of meta-politics in the sense of the French philosopher Alain Badiou: a policy of equality, in which citizens have assembled as much legitimacy as political organizations. Non-party activists may, in some situations, participate in politics of truth and politics of justice .

We understand from this perspective the mobilization of school and university youth demanding justice. We believe that in the political culture of Burkina Faso, the meta-political factor is important.

Meta-political factor has generally been reduced to the action of illegal organizations, for example from the Movement of National Liberation (MLN) or the African Party of Independence (PAI) in the first great citizen’s and people’s movement in January 1966 that led to the fall of the First Republic and the arrival of the army in power. It took place just after the first presidential elections in the country, organized in October 1965: the rise of people’s protest immediately two months after the election marked the birth of the polarity elections / assembled multitude that gathered mostly young people, labor activists and activists of the left opposition occupying the public space, which have nothing illegal. On one side the alignment to vote, on the other, the gathering to protest.

Mutinies in the barracks

On the night of 22 to 23 March 2011, following the prison sentence of five of their comrades for a sex scandal, the army went out of their barracks to provoke panic, burning a house and molesting a baron of the regime, in the person of Mayor of the capital city Simon Compaoré. This is a new and first soldiers’ mutiny at Camp Sangoulé Lamizana, The question is now on everyone's lips: "What's going on there in the land of upright people"? Why these outbursts of violence while all the sons of the nation, despite their differences and divergences have just experienced the fiftieth anniversary of independence? Initially, soldiers’ pretext was that they rejected the award rendered by the High Court, from 12 to 15 months in prison sentence without parole, ruled against the sergeant and four soldiers who attacked a citizen. The reaction seems disproportionate, to say the least, considering the deluge of fire that rocked the cities mentioned above. The fact remains, however, that they won this case, with the release of prisoners and their transfer to the military camp! Yet the decline of political authority to the authority of res judicata (very serious in democracy), was not enough to appease the soldiers, hence the presentiment that the malaise is deeper, especially since the military leadership has been a victim of the fury of the soldiery. And the worst is that the rebellion part of the Camp Sangoulé Lamizana inaugurated those of Fada N'Gourma Gaoua Po Gaoua, Ouagadougou. As a compensation for unpaid premiums, clients of big hotels in the capital were extorted money, stores and shops were looted, women were raped, wealthy houses of army and regime dignitaries were looted ... Stray bullets have injured innocent and killed several people.

These series of riots broke out in several garrisons from March to June recall the movement of soldiers in May 1999 for the same reasons. After an initial protest movement sparked by a court decision which concerned five soldiers, financial demands of the security forces, have seriously affected the mental, physical and material security of citizens, in turn sparking violent protests from some retailers and the exasperation of traumatized people. The removal of militias by some officials of the presidential majority has confirmed the fundamentally anti-democratic habits regularly denounced by the national organizations of human rights. Note also that a mutiny broke out at the house arrest of Bobo Dioulasso, during which a prisoner was shot by a prison guard. And during the suppression of the mutiny of soldiers June 2 and 3 in 2011, six soldiers were officially been killed.

Fearing lootings, businesses and governments will remain closed for several days with little people in the streets every time, despite news "reassuring" from the defense minister. Three Presidents of the Bar have condemned the release of soldiers and all ancient magistrates were on strike.

On July 12, 2011, 527 soldiers were removed from the Army.

These facts show that the discipline is no longer the main force of the army, probably for reasons related to training, but also to changing political mores, since the military oligarchy is a component of the ruling class. Incidentally, OPD / LM as we mentioned earlier was born with the participation of the Military and Revolutionary Organization (MRO) ...

The hold of cost of living

Basically, all these movements are an expression of discontent of the lower and poor strata of people in Burkina Faso, sufferings that the party in power considers as finally impassable variable of national life. To some extent the opposition, by its fragmentation and its absence in the field of social transformation, is also cut off from people’s real life.

The blind application by successive governments during the Fourth Republic of the various austerity plans imposed by Washington (World Bank / IMF) and the global financial and economic crisis in 2008 have resulted at an increasingly fast rate deterioration of living conditions with the following consequences:

• Rising prices of food and medicines

• Increase of unemployment 

• Housing crisis

• General decline of living standards

• Rising cost of care

• Lack of opportunities for workers and students at the end of training

• Generalized poverty and impoverishment

In short, it's time for dear life, despite macroeconomic favourable indicators in terms of the "fight against poverty" and the injurious luxury that we find in some areas of Burkina Faso.

Resort to the constituent power for a necessary alternative

The huge demonstration of the National Coalition against high prices, on April 8, 2011 at Ouagadougou , symbolized the culmination of a profound social unrest and high expectations of change for a real economic social justice. We, members of the International Committee Joseph Ki-Zerbo (ICJK), faithful to the spirit of resistance of the illustrious man and his humanism, have taken this occasion to express solidarity through this document.

We support this cause and emphasize the need to focus public policy of the country on the endogenous development and on the protection of economic, social and cultural rights. The ICJK support all citizens who have stood up last April 8, 2011 with the Coalition against high prices, and those that will stand up in other similar occasions, against impunity and rejecting the excuses of formal democracy, embodied by elected or state officials, who betray their oaths. In this regard, we expressed our solidarity with the movement of cotton producers in Bobo Dioulasso and Dédougou as part of a mobilization for a more favorable purchase price of cotton .

Sham democracy and stability: development of the democratic culture in Burkina Faso and Senegal

Basically, this crisis is only the expression of a profound rejection of the Fourth Republic regime by the lower classes of the country and progressive opponents. The monopolistic oligarchy plans and economic policies is the heir of the dark hours of the "turnaround" of which Thomas Sankara was victim - and dozens others - during the Popular Front (1987-2001). It was then that a senseless approach based on the physical, media, economic or political neutralization of any serious opposition, leading to the hypertrophy of the current ruling party was formed: CDP is a true mega-party, using the words of people in Burkina Faso.

So even if the President Blaise Compaoré was elected with 80% of the votes cast in November 2010 year, prolonging his position at the head of state since October 1987, that means soon 25 years, the lines have changed considerably. The democratic alternation is not a utopia anymore: it seems possible and within our reach if 1000 women and men stand up and forge a brazen front to put an end to the endless domination. This is the logic of a somewhat minor politics, which is although recurring and effective, and different from high or low politics.

A few weeks after the election of November 2010, the fiftieth anniversary of national independence was celebrated with pomp, as in many French-speaking African states. However, 50 years after the ‘fake’, just in name liberation from colonialism, during the first half of 2011 in Burkina Faso people expressed the desire for a genuine freedom from colonialism: real independence, in which the majority would participate in an organized manner, other than as recipients of external aid and commiseration from the International Solidarity Organizations (ISOs) and other twinning committees, laudable but insufficient ...

People’s sovereignty, the constituent power as a source of democratic and revolutionary innovations that mark political life, are expressed after we have celebrated national sovereignty in 1960. Sudden upheaval, civil insurrection, the constituent power is the "imperative act of the nation that emerges from nothingness and that organizes the hierarchy of power" according to E. Boutmy, the founder of the Institute of Political sciences and perhaps even of political science.

Also elsewhere in Africa, after the wave of popular protests that occurred in the 1990s, a second Democratic movement affects African political systems, for example in Senegal.

Celestin Monga, a Cameroonian political analyst, is right when he links the "Arab spring" to the first period of democratic overhaul, which was characterized in Burkina Faso by the debate on holding a national conference and led to the Constitution of the Fourth Republic.

Although there are obvious differences of political cultures in Senegal and in Burkina Faso  because of the different role of the army and the French hegemony that is closely related in the case of Senegal, in both countries, we should note the essential role of social movements and civil society demanding a new democratic compact.

Thus, the national conference in Senegal offer a thorough reforming of the governance system, with the principles enshrined in a Charter of Democratic governance, in all cases to the terms of which must be imposed during the 2012 presidential election to the candidate who embodied the aspiration for the change crystallized in the Benno Siggil Senegal (BSS) movement, reinforced by the Movement of June 23.

In Burkina Faso, it is the state that proposes to hold national conference on the findings of the Advisory Council on policy reforms (ACPR). The will of the state apparatus to capture Burkinabe civil society and political society in Burkina Faso and convert them to its own order is a constant in this country.

In July 2011 when the president Compaoré received the report of the Advisory Council on policy reforms, he evoked the "attachment to order and wisdom" of the people of Burkina Faso.

Social and people’s  resistance against the logic of state is the distant echo of that tension that we must understand in the long term, from a theoretical perspective, making good use of Alain Badiou thought as well as of Pierre Clastres (The Society against the State) ....

In practice the different generations of pupils and student activists served actually as a crucible to the African left organisations and enriched African civil and political societies of the continent with their Pan-Africanist and emancipatory thoughts. As resilience is something very rare in Africa, hence, and perhaps, we should deal openly with the building of organisations such as the African Independence Party (AIP), or the Voltaic Revolutionary Communist Party (VRCP), last metamorphosis, in 1978, of the progressive left construction in Burkina Faso.

Historical trajectory of progressive parties

In Burkina Faso, the mobilization of civil society is in fact a constant since January 1966, when illegal unions and political opposition (NLM - National Liberation Movement), which shared the same leaders, put an end to political and economic impunity of the First Republic. It was the beginning of a long complicity between political and trade union protest actors and the Army, in a pre-and post-sixty-eight generation context of progressive radicalization.

In ICJK we know better the Democratic Party for Progress / Socialist Party (DPP / SP). This party was born on July 9, 1993, distant heir of the NLM, and was historically the representative of the non-communist left in Burkina Faso.

The NLM was created on August 25, 1958 in Dakar, (Senegal) by a group of anticolonial cadres and students - often adhering to socialist and pan-Africanist ideas and principles, on the eve of the referendum on the Gaullist Constitution of the Fifth Republic.

The NLM has shaped students' and workers’ unions, including teachers, before being ousted during the 70s from these organizations to the civil society .

Somehow the NLM was, despite of it, one of the crucibles of the left in Burkina Faso, to the extent that the different, what is called, extreme-left organizations fought against it in the national political scene, in particular the African Party for independence (API), the Union of Communist Struggles (UCS), the Revolutionary Communist Voltaic Party (RCVP), they settled in opposition - and progressively imposed to the movement through student and workers’ unions and by infiltrating the army, until the revolutionary experience of Thomas Sankara (1983-1987), who gave birth to different parties taking inspiration from this very popular leader among the African youth. Among them the Union for the Renaissance – Sankarist Movement  (UNIR-SM) of the Master Bénéwendé Sankara, Compaoré challenger in the 2005 elections (4.88%) and 2010 (8%) and is currently the head of Opposition .

Too dependent, intellectually and financially from its founder the historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo  and its networks, the current NLM - DPP / SP, after its successive transformations, is affected by a deep crisis due mainly to the aging of its speech and its members, without credible strategy for renewal of his project, without ties to the society.

In 1997, 15 years ago it was still the largest opposition party with six deputies, despite the bleeding related to the absorption of the CNPP / PSD in the CDP in 1996. Today it is a mere shadow of itself, particularly weakened by the loss of its charismatic leader Joseph Ki-Zerbo in December 2006.

DPP / SP advocates still the endogenous development of Africa and African Unity, themes which are popular for the progressive youth of the country but inaudible from a structure laminated by the National Council of the revolution, then by the equally aggressive and harmful strategy of the People’s Front (1987) and after by the Fourth Republic (1991), with for example the destruction of the CNPP / PSD.

When we are aware that during the 1978 general elections the party of Joseph Ki-Zerbo, then under the name Voltaic Progressive Union (VPU) was the 3rd biggest party of the country after Presidential elections, the results of the last elections are edifying:

- 1.74%, during the presidential election (November 2005) and even less in December 2010

- 320 councilors out of more than 15,000 during municipal elections (March 2006)

- Two deputies out of 111 in 2007 (about 60,000 votes out of 2,500,000).

However, these disappointing results, like those of the opposition in general, do not mean that the DPP / SP has no role to play anymore or that, in general, a victory of the opposition or a progressive candidate should not be considered in the near future, and that it should be the least of supporters’ worries of the minor politics (trade unions, intellectuals ...).

Indeed, a DPP / SP regaining its popular basis (Pan-Africanist and progressive youth, workers, cadres and peasants), renovated, and attractive, could certainly gather more votes. As a matter of fact, disinterest and abstention are massive, since less than half the electorate is registered and that voters have not exceeded 25% during the presidential elections of December 2010. This means that a margin for improvement is subject to deep political work from the supporters of Pan-Africanism, of the endogenous development and of socialist self-management defended by Joseph Ki-Zerbo all his life.

In any case, the tradition launched by the NLM has continued throughout the national history, thanks to all the efforts of generations of patriotic democrats and activists of civil society, including trade unions that managed to surpass themselves. This tradition was particularly revived when the dictatorship's syndrome, characterized by the stifling of political and civil liberties, mismanagement, nepotism and chronic economic injustice resurfaced.

Although, the Voltaic, Revolutionary and Communist Party (VRCP), fiercely opposed to the current NLM, which it considers reformist and bourgeois, is described as "illegal hypocenter"  involved in the political life of Burkina Faso without showing itself out, has not inherited less from NLM and from the entire socialist tradition, the strategy of taking people’s lead within civil society, a Manichean rhetoric,   purely feanfist (from FEANF which stands for ‘La Fédération des étudiants d'Afrique noire en France’ for the Black African student federation in France), especially in the newsletter Bug-Parga (The Spark) or when addressed - the fiery scold towards the people of Burkina Faso, to analyze the national and international situation according the Marxist methodology of  FEANF of the 70s.

A civic humanism and a quest for integrity typically "voltaic", for social justice, animate the thinking of these two forces, one of which is declining. But the political projects that arise from these shared values are so different that a historic compromise, which could create an earthquake to amend the political center of gravity of the country, seems difficult in the short term.

Meanwhile the ideological state apparatuses are trying to make more and more impossible the subjective perspective of a political break through the imposition of capitalism as the ultimate alternative of humanity.

Regarding the API, it has made significant progress and its leader, the mayor of Dori Harba Diallo, a former NRC, came in second position during the presidential elections of November 2010, with 8% of voters. Within the movement of Sankarist influence the UNIR / MS, with Master Bénéwendé Sankara came in third position with 6%.

For some parts of the forces which we call metapolitical, the brutality of the repression suffered during the Revolution (1983-1987) which invokes the sankarist movement  left some traces and for them sankarism is not synonymous with liberation, which may seem paradoxical to foreign observers.

Although many foreign analysts have dreamed of an alliance between supporters of J. Ki-Zerbo and Sankara, the current balance of power is not in favor of the former. When Joseph Ki-Zerbo was asked about the principle of such a rapprochement in A quand l'Afrique?, he replied, "Sankara was a sincere and disinterested patriot, an idealist and voluntarist. He never realized that the objective conditions for revolution were not met. Furthermore the context opposed the implementation of its program. " Now what? Tomorrow, in December?

ICJK, a civic organization that includes among its members, political activists, supports the process of alliance and the coalition forces of progress in order to capitalize the movement of the first half of 2011 and provide the means to satisfy the political aspirations of people of Burkina Faso.

ICJK agrees, just like other organizations, to help, as in Senegal, Tunisia or Egypt, opposition parties to be better prepared for the upcoming elections and invites other organisations and structures to participate in thinking in this direction.

The gap between the scale of the protest movement and ecstatic election results of November 2010, marked by a high abstention but also an organic weakness of the political opposition - as evidenced by the small number in the National Assembly and the failure of the demonstration on April 30, 2011 and the rallying cry "Blaise clear off! "- highlight a twofold challenge to the regime of Blaise Compaoré and the opposition: for the first to accept the alternation, and for the second to build it and prepare it.

As such, the Burkinabe Movement for Human Rights and Peoples (BMHRP) stresses the anchoring of the democratic movement throughout the country and the long-standing claims that have been expressed violently in recent months, without having been heard.

According MBDHP, the current political system reached its limits and the people of Burkina Faso aspires to real change that could lead to the satisfaction of its aspirations for freedom and well-being. A small minority free from want enjoys total impunity using and abusing the resources of the entire country.

Other observers insist that we should not adopt a vindictiveness stance, like during the revolution of 1983, which would lead to bloodshed. Instead, we should take responsibility in terms of a perspective based on the establishment of the rule of law in Burkina Faso, and to 

adopt an ethical behaviour and to think about guard rails that will prevent any power to derogate from certain basic rules, including the respect of citizens and workers, Pan-Africanist, Afro-Asian and Afro-Latin American solidarities.

Youths’, workers’ problems and problems that the entire democratic movement come across should be part of sustainable solutions, as well as the recognition of the role of the Labour Council of Ouagadougou with smashed barriers, the laboratory of postcolonial democracy of Burkina Faso, from this point of view a perfect illustration for a Continent looking for a rebirth.

Madou Coulibaly

Bibliography / Additional Reading 

BALAKRISHNAN R., International Law From Below: Development, Social Movements and Third World Resistance, Cambridge University Press, 2003

CEFAI D. (Dir), Cultures politiques, Ed. PUF, 2001 

Forum civil, Bonne gouvernance et refondation de l’Etat, Dakar, 2006 

International IDEA, La Démocratie au Burkina Faso 

GUISSOU B., Mouvements et luttes estudiantins au Burkina : mouvements_et_luttes_estudiantins_au_burkina.html 

KABORE R.B., Histoire politique du Burkina Faso 1919-2000, Ed. L’Harmattan, Paris, 2002 

KI-ZERBO J., “Le développement clés en tête“, introduction à La Natte des autres, Ed. 

CRDE/Karthala/CODESRIA, Dakar, 1992 

 MAEP (Mécanisme africain d’évaluation par les pairs), Rapport d’évaluation du Burkina Faso, Mai 2008 ( 

OUEDRAOGO E., Voyage de la Haute-Volta au Burkina Faso, Ed. Paalga, 1995 

 YE Arsène B., Burkina Faso: les fondements politiques de la IV è république, Presses universitaires de Ouagadougou, 1995 

 ZONGO N., Le sens d’un combat. Recueil d’éditoriaux, Centre Norbert Zongo, mai 2000 

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