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The legacy of revolution and resistance in Burkina Faso

Woman in Burkina Faso, 2012
Woman in Burkina Faso, 2012

Burkina Faso has featured in breaking international news in recent years, mainly for the revolutionary struggle and the popular resistance against authoritarian rule and abuse of power. But also making the news have been stories of a possible backlash against these positive political developments, notably the coup d’état in September 2015 and the terrorist attacks in January 2016.

Some observers concluded that such negative events mark ‘the end of the Burkinabe exception’. To my mind, such a conclusion is premature and is, in any case, not grounded in an understanding of Burkina Faso’s socio-political history. This essay argues that revolution and resistance represent a specific strand of the country’s socio-political legacy.


18 months of crisis, resistance and terror

Since 1966, Burkina Faso’s postcolonial history has been marked by a strong presence of the army in power. Even though President Blaise Compaoré—who came to power in bloody coup that killed his predecessor Thomas Sankara in October 1987—transformed into a civilian president, his 27-year rule was intimately linked to the army. Despite regular presidential, legislative and municipal elections, the Burkinabe democracy displayed a double façade where democracy coexisted with authoritarian rule. One could even hold that democracy was promoted as long as the naam (power in Mooré, one of the biggest national languages) of the president was preserved.

However, despite Compaoré’s long-standing rule, in October 2014, he was ousted from power in a popular insurgency after he tried to add another term and, in practice, a life presidency through a change of the constitution. The insurgency turned into a revolution, followed by a one-year political transition regime mandated to prepare new elections and democratic renewal.

In September 2015, soldiers of the infamous Régiment de Sécurité Présidentielle (RSP, Presidential Security Regiment)—the armed wing of ex-president Compaoré’s regime—interrupted a government council and took the transition president, the prime minister, and other ministers hostage. On national television a RSP-spokesman declared a coup d’état, dissolved the government and the parliament, and removed the president. The Burkinabe public reacted with anger and resistance and mobilized broadly, and a general strike paralysed the country. Soon the regular army sided with the Burkinabe people. After a week of sorrow and death, resistance and pain, the coup failed and the transition regime was re-installed.

In November 2015, presidential and legislative elections took place in which Roch March Christian Kaboré became president. Kaboré, a former speaker of parliament and prime minister, had founded the opposition party Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrès (MPP, the People’s Movement for Progress) in January 2014.

In January 2016, the country was hit by a terrorist attack at Restaurant Cappuccino and Hotel Splendid in the captial, Ouagadougou. Three heavily armed terrorists killed 30 and wounded another 70 persons before Burkinabe security forces, supported by French and American troops, neutralized them. The al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb took responsibility for the attacks. The Burkinabe people reacted with anger and despair but also mobilized to show that the terrorists would not succeed in their attack on Burkinabe democracy.

So, over the last 18 months Burkina Faso has gone through a series of dramatic events: political crisis, coup d’état, popular resistance, return to civil rule and terrorist attacks. In the popular imaginary and political discourse in Burkina Faso, revolution and resistance are part of belonging to ‘The Land of the Upright People’, as the country’s name translates, and resonates with a particular strand in Burkinabe political culture. It includes organized protest, civil disobedience and a morally loaded sense of decent political practice in contrast to immoral ways of ‘making politics’, such as embezzlement, nepotism and corruption.


A strong legacy of socio-political mobilization

I argue that the news coverage of the Burkinabe revolutionary struggle and popular resistance has not sufficiently highlighted the country’s legacy of socio-political mobilization. There are three critical features that are central for understanding how revolution and resistance resonate with Burkinabe political culture.

First is the contradictory relationship between socio-political movements and the armed forces in Burkina Faso. The army has been involved in politics for the past five decades, but this involvement coexists with a long tradition of protest and resistance. Let me mention a few examples: on 3 January 1966, after massive protests and strikes the country’s first president, Maurice Yaméogo, resigned and General Sangoulé Lamizana took power; on 17 May 1983, people took to the street when Prime Minister Sankara was arrested by President Ouédraogo; and on 13 December 1998, the whole country took to the streets to claim justice when the journalist Norbert Zongo was assassinated with the suspected involvement of Compaoré’s younger brother. During the recent political events, the contradictory relationship between socio-political movements and the armed forces was again articulated. People took to the street to press claims, while, at least at some point, asking the army ‘to take its responsibilities’. Since the coup d’état the Burkinabe people has, at least according to many, ‘renewed trust with its army’.

A second feature of Burkinabe political culture is that, in recent years, civil society movements, trade unions and political parties have united against Compaoré’s attempt to modify the country’s constitution to stay in power. The importance of ‘street power’ (la ruecratie) has been critical during the political transition. And, even though some movements and organizations were critical of the transition government (including the trade unions and students movements), when the coup d’état was confirmed all these social and political forces united against the RSP-takeover. The resistance was not the result of one movement, one party, one unit, or one city for that matter, but it was the result of Burkinabe people’s defence of democracy and political liberties. In addition, after the terrorist attacks, the Burkinabe courageously reacted with determination against ‘the evil forces’ (les forces du mal) by returning to bars and restaurants and by publishing photos with slogans like ‘Je bois un cappuccino dans un Burkina splendide’ (I drink a cappuccino in a splendid Burkina), alluding to the names of the restaurant and hotel targeted by the attacks.

A third feature of Burkinabe political culture is the role played by traditional and religious authorities. In recent years, the Mogho Naaba (Mossi king) has returned to the political limelight. Despite being a largely traditional and symbolic role, the Mogho Naaba has come to play an instrumental part in reconciliation. It was in his palace that the RSP and the regular army signed the ceasefire agreement in September 2015. Despite the fact that the Mossi ethnicity only counts for half of the Burkinabe population, the Mogho Naaba is a respected authority. Religious leaders have also come to play a pivotal role; for example, the Catholic Archbishop of Bobo-Dioulasso, Paul Ouédraogo, led the country’s National Commission for Reforms and National Reconciliation, which handed over its final report to the government in September 2015. When the country is in crisis, all actors including the RSP-coupists seem inclined to defer to these traditional and religious authorities. In other words, to be banished by these authorities would be the ultimate sanction as a person, as a Burkinabe.


Conclusion: viva la resistance by the Upright People!

While the Burkinabe revolution in October 2014 was a protest against the president’s attempt to change the constitution and create a ‘presidency for life’, the September 2015 coup d’état was a backlash that could have paved the way for a return to authoritarianism. Yet popular resistance and civil disobedience eventually defeated the coup. After the November 2015 elections which brought Kaboré to power, the country deserved peaceful, constructive and long-term efforts to relaunch economic development. Yet the terrorist attacks in January 2016 challenged these prospects and made some ask if this marked ‘the end of the Burkinabe exception’. I have tried to show that the answer is ‘no’.

Indeed, the very question reveals the lack of understanding of how issues of revolution and resistance are part of a long socio-political history of Burkina Faso. Trade unions, pupils and students associations, political parties, human rights movements and civil society organizations, have—in combination with the strong sense of belonging to a moral and political community—the confidence and capacity to mobilize to defend ‘The Land of the Upright People’. So, rather than applying straightforward explanatory models of interpreting a country’s political developments, we need to ground our analysis in understanding the multiple layers of political culture and historical legacy. In the case of Burkina Faso, this pertains to organized socio-political protests, street power, the reconciliation of traditional and religious authorities, and the capacity to mobilize nationally against authoritarianism. 


Professor Sten Hagberg is an Associate Senior Fellow at SIPRI.