Since the revolution that ended 27 years of rule by Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso has become an inspiration to protest movements across Africa. No one is under any illusions that the road ahead for the country will be easy, but the momentum of people power cannot be denied. Joe Penney reports from Ouagadougou.
On Tuesday, 2 December, under a blazing midday Ouagadougou sun, a dozen friends, family members and activists lowered Inoussa Béré’s casket into a tomb in the Gounghin military cemetery. His casket, like that of the five others buried simultaneously that day, was draped in the red and green stripes and gold star of the Burkina Faso flag. The thousands attending the funeral service, including newly appointed prime minister Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida, filled the cemetery grounds and sang the national anthem as a classic Mossi guitar tune played on loop and men solemnly shoveled dirt onto what the crowd called the “martyrs of the revolution”.
Inoussa Béré came to Ouagadougou, the country’s capital, a year and a half ago. The only child of a family of farmers, Béré had been working at an artisanal gold mine in Kouritenga province when his father, who thought gold mining was too risky for his young son’s health and safety, decided to send him to the capital to live with his older cousins. He initially found work on a construction site, but quit shortly thereafter because the money wasn’t good enough. His uncle, Antoine Zougmoré, offered him a job at the restaurant he owned.
Béré was 21 when he was shot by the military during the protests that forced the departure of Burkina Faso’s ruler of 27 years, Blaise Compaoré, on 30 October. His story is similar to many of the young people who poured into the streets in the months before October to voice their anger. “It was the young people in their early 20s who said no to this system,” says Zougmoré, who acted as Béré’s guardian in Ouagadougou. Worried for his safety, Zougmoré had warned Béré not to join the protests, but in vain. “He had the same age and the same convictions as his friends, he had the same way of thinking as the other young men,” he says.
When Compaoré first took power in a coup after the murder of his longtime comrade Thomas Sankara in 1987, Burkina Faso’s population stood at eight million. By the time he fled the country on board a French military aircraft to Côte d’Ivoire on 31 October, 2014, there were 17 million Burkinabé.
Speaking to Burkinabé about the protests, most were taken aback by how quickly events escalated to the president and his clan fleeing the country, but few were surprised by the will of the protesters, or by the army eventually siding with the people. In 2011, soldiers mutinied throughout the country, forcing President Compaoré to consolidate the use of force within his feared presidential guard. Massive protests led by grassroots civil society groups and opposition parties against the revision of Article 37, which limited the president’s terms to two, had been ongoing since January 2014.
The day it happened
The spark that triggered the events that finally led to Compaoré’s departure was the parliamentary vote on Article 37, scheduled for 10am on 30 October. Demonstrators had already packed the streets all week, marching on 28 October in the Place de la Nation, rebaptised Place de la Révolution, in the hundreds of thousands. The morning of the 30th, street battles between riot police and protesters started at 6am. By 9am, the police had exhausted its supply of tear gas and water cannon, and were rapidly overpowered by a crowd that had grown both in numbers and determination over the course of the morning.
As the police and gendarmes fled the scene, the only barrier left to parliament along the wide Independence Avenue was two dozen soldiers of the presidential guard who had been given orders to stop the protesters. As the crowd of 10,000 or so advanced, the soldiers began shooting their AK-47s in the air. But the mostly young men kept advancing with their hands up and taunted the soldiers dramatically with chants of “Kill us! Kill us!”
Within a matter of seconds, the protesters had reached the military lines, at which point the soldiers turned and fled, leaving the parliament building wide open to the protesters, who claimed their victory with glee and disbelief. They charged into the voting hall, throwing rocks at the few remaining MPs, who escaped over a perimeter fence, and the protesters proceeded to take apart the building before burning it shortly thereafter. The mood in the streets was one of pure ecstasy.
After burning parliament and seizing the national television network that activists said served as a mouthpiece for Compaoré, the protesters proceeded to systematically loot and burn houses and buildings belonging to the president, his family, and his closest allies. The looting was highly targeted. For example, while protesters burned the house of Assimi Kouanda, the head of Compaoré’s political party, they left the computer store next door unscathed. Later in the day, presidential guard members shot at protesters attempting to march on the presidential palace and in front of the luxury villa of Compaoré’s younger brother François. It was in front of François’ house that Béré’s young life was taken.
The Burkina effect
Since the burning of parliament, Burkina Faso has become ground zero for democratisation efforts in West Africa. In a rousing speech reminiscent of the country’s former socialist leader and hero Thomas Sankara, Lieutenant-Colonel Zida remarked shortly after taking power that “in the history of our dear country, there will be a before and an after October 30th”.
Such is the momentum of people power in the country that many Burkinabé are starting to believe that the path to development Sankara laid out for them between 1984 and 1987 can once again become a reality, rather than a myth.
The Burkina effect is still forming, but the revolution has already had a large impact.
Students at the main public university in Ouagadougou forced their dean to sit and eat cafeteria food after they had spent months complaining of its poor quality. After Zida appointed Adama Sagnon, a judge who failed to properly investigate the assassination of journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998, to the post of culture minister, protesters hit the streets and forced Sagnon’s resignation after just two days. The transitional president, Michel Kafando, has promised to reopen investigations into corruption and political killings. In Côte d’Ivoire meanwhile, irate soldiers set up roadblocks and took over a state radio station on 18 November, demanding back pay promised by President Alassane Ouattara.
French President François Hollande said during the Francophonie summit in Dakar that events in Burkina Faso should be cause for reflection among “those who wish to stay in power by violating the constitution”. Francophone Africa certainly has its fair share of long-term rulers who could follow in Compaoré’s footsteps: Cameroon’s Paul Biya has been in power for 32 years; Denis Sassou-Nguesso has ruled the Republic of Congo for a total of 30 years over two stretches; Idriss Deby has led Chad for 24 years; while hereditary regimes dominate in Togo, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 1997, the Burkinabé reggae star Black So Man released a song called “I was at the trial”, in which the country’s youth, as represented by an unnamed man, is put on trial by the president, represented by the artist, for causing insecurity. The man is questioned by the prosecutor, and launches into a self-defence, pronouncing: “I am the smoke impairing visibility, but you are the flames.” By the end of the record, the man representing youth has prophetically seized power, and commands the judge: “Sanction the true criminals, because no one is above the law.”
Black So Man died from injuries sustained in a suspicious car crash. Like many Burkinabé activists after Sankara, he never got the chance to see his lyrics realised. Today in Burkina Faso, no one knows the trajectory of the future, and the youth who risked their lives to kick Blaise Compaoré out of power are under no illusions that the road to justice and development will be easy. But one phrase is on everybody’s lips: “Nothing will ever be the same.”