Burkina Faso: Nothing will be as it was before

October 30 marks the 5th anniversary of the start of Burkina Faso's October 2014 insurrection. We revisit and assess those events.

Place Nations Unies, Ouagadougou. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A few years after the Jasmine Revolutions had shaken up North African countries, events came to a boil south of the Sahara in Burkina Faso. On October 31, 2014, massive street protests toppled President Blaise Compaoré who was in power for 27 years. Revolutions, uprisings or insurrections, whatever label you give them, tend to be presented as clear-cut turning points in history books, but the truth is that the first few years after such upheavals are often confused, complex, and sometimes downright demoralizing. It is still not clear how the outcome of the 2014 Burkina Faso insurrection will go down in history books—indeed, there is not yet even consensus on how the events should be referred to, though with time, the term “insurrection” has come to displace the term “revolution.” Awaiting the clarity of hindsight, here is a look back through the eyes of an ordinary bystander to the extraordinary events that occurred at the end of October five years ago.

Those October days

October 21, 2014: In anticipation of the November 2015 elections, Compaoré, who has governed Burkina Faso since ousting Thomas Sankara in a coup d’état in 1987, announces that parliament will vote on changing Article 37 of the constitution to remove the current limit on presidential terms. This would enable him to run for elections as incumbent for a fifth time, so it elicits very strong responses from opposition political parties and civil society groups. Going through parliament is a new tactic for the president, who up until this point had talked of holding a general referendum on the amendment—a two-thirds majority in parliament would allow him to avoid the referendum altogether. This is a bit of a surprise blow and provocation to those who had been mobilizing against a referendum for several months already. It smells of a ruse.

October 21-27, 2014: Civil society and youth groups organize spontaneous small-scale demonstrations to warn the government of the unacceptability of what it is trying to do. At rush hour, several main arteries in Ouagadougou, and other towns, are blocked by youth burning tires, inciting people to join the mass demonstration called for by opposition parties on October 28. In the meantime, some members of the ruling party, CDP, are making incendiary comments such as: “Blaise will run in the 2015 elections, in the 2020 elections, and as for 2025, we will see.” (Compaoré being a common last name in Burkina, locally the president is almost always referred to by his first name).

On Saturday October 25, our whole family, toddler included, goes to one of the most vibrant theater festivals in West Africa, Recreatrales, which is being held in this tumultuous, yet still peaceful time. The main event that night is a dance show called “Nuit blanche à Ouaga” (Sleepless Night in Ouaga). It’s a jerky frenetic choreography by Serge Aimé Coulibaly about a revolution in a city somewhere in Africa. It features the rapper Smockey, who is the key figure behind the civil society group Le Balai Citoyen (The Citizen Broom) that would play an instrumental role in the uprising. Our toddler is a bit frightened by the violent dancing, while his elder brother is enraptured and spends the next week trying to recreate the moves. My husband and I debate on how prophetic the piece is: “No, surely Blaise will read the clear signs, and annul the constitutional amendment.”

October 27, 2014: In anticipation of Tuesday’s mass demonstration called for by opposition leaders, the women of Ouagadougou take to the streets in a colorful, peaceful demonstration. They brandish huge traditional wooden spoons used to prepare the national dish, tô. When women leave the household with their spoons, it means there is trouble. Furthermore, a lot of the women in the march are elderly, yet another signifier to the level of frustration being expressed—you have gotten grandmothers out of their chairs and yards!

October 28, 2014: Ouagadougou and towns across Burkina Faso come to a standstill as there is historic participation in mass demonstrations against the constitutional amendment. Starting in the early morning hours, from our neighborhood we can hear the demonstrators marching to city center about 5 km away. They are blowing on whistles. Whistling, like in football matches, is a popular part of the demonstrations—giving Blaise a red card, or telling him the game is over. Several demonstrators brandish banners equating Blaise with the Ebola epidemic that our West African neighbors are busy trying to kick out. Opposition parties claim that one million people participate in the Ouagadougou demonstration, which is about half the population of the city.

Demonstrators in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina’s second biggest town, pull down a bronze statue of Blaise. He is standing next to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (it was erected several years ago to celebrate Burkina’s friendship with Libya). They take care not to touch a proverbial hair on Gaddafi’s statue to make it clear whom they have a problem with.

October 29, 2014: Ouagadougou comes back to life and people get on with their daily occupations. It is the day before the scheduled vote and the government announces that the time of the vote tomorrow has been pushed forward from 4pm to 10am. Azalai Hotel, strategically located just behind the parliament, vehemently denies that it is housing ruling party members ahead of the contested vote.

Despite the denials, everyone knows that the MPs are indeed at the five-star hotel and that a door has been opened up between the hotel and parliament so that the MPs do not have to step out into the street to get to their voting chamber. A Burkinabe journalist would later win the CNN Multichoice Best Journalist award for his report on the night he spent with the holed-up MPs at the hotel. Some MPs were terrified, some voiced doubts about whether it was right to hold the vote, and others focused on making the most of the government’s largesse, wining and dining to the hilt. There are also rumors, this time denied by the government, that mercenary troops from Togo have been brought in to counter demonstrators on the day of the vote.

That night, from 11pm, we start to hear demonstrators marching past our neighborhood to the city center. This continues all night until morning hours. Those that we see are young, some still looking like teenagers. The economist, Ra-sabgla Ouedraogo later noted that almost 60% of Burkina’s population was born under Blaise Compaore’s 27-year reign; it would be these “children of Blaise” whom would control his fate in the coming days.

October 30, 2014: Holed up safely at home, we follow events on radio, television, and social media. From 8:00am the mass of demonstrators is pushing forward against security forces to get into the Nation Square, that a few hours later people would start calling again by its Thomas Sankara-era name “Revolution Square.” Elements of the security forces are sympathetic to the demonstrators; there are stories of armed forces giving demonstrators tips on how to neutralize tear gas or how to get around the barricades. But there are also violent clashes. Images of ordinary citizens taking risks go viral. Of those that achieved particular fame was the photo of a 27-year old engineering student, who later told journalists that he woke up that morning with no fear of dying, saying, “I had unusual courage.” He donned a shirt on which he had scrawled “Shoot at me!” followed by Burkina Faso’s motto, “Homeland or death, victory will be ours!” unchanged since Sankara’s time. Another memorable image is of a man, in his forties, standing defiantly as two helmeted and bullet-proof vested soldiers prepare to beat him with a large tree branch. It later emerged that he was a tax inspector. I kept thinking he bore a striking resemblance to the mild-mannered and very helpful tax clerk who had provided me with all the necessary information for getting my new tax number a few months prior.

By 9:30am demonstrators have managed to push through to the House of Parliament. They sing the national anthem and then proceed to set the parliament on fire. Honorable MPs flee helter-skelter, some stealing clothes from housecleaning to disguise themselves. At this point, there are rumors that Blaise had fled to Ivory Coast the previous night. I think to myself, “Thank God, finally he came to his senses.” Unfortunately, this is not the case; Blaise is still not reading things clearly. After some weak declarations from his ministers rescheduling the constitutional review and total silence from Blaise himself, the mass demonstration, initially against just the constitutional amendment, has galvanized into a movement to get rid of the president once and for all. Mid-morning, the leader of the opposition is heckled by the crowds during a press conference for his timid ambitions focused on the annulment of the constitutional review, until he finally calls for Blaise to step down.

In our neighborhood, we pick up news through the grapevine of young demonstrators coming back home to recharge their batteries. We continue listening to the radio; local stations are blasting evocative songs such as Tikken Jah Fakoly’s “Quitte le pouvoir” (Leave power) in between their news bulletins.

For several hours more there is complete silence from the presidential camp and confusion reigns as to who is in charge of the country. The French international news channel France 24 stuns with its partiality, incompetence, or just pure laziness in reporting on events. It rushes to call “coup d’état” what other media outlets are calling insurrection, uprising, or mass demonstrations.

On Thursday night, Burkina Faso goes to sleep after Blaise finally breaks his silence, not to resign, but to announce a state of emergency. In French the unfortunate term is literally “a state of siege.”

“Siege? Who is under siege? Us or him?!” many Burkinabe ponder, aggravated by this poor choice of words.

October 31, 2014: Demonstrators amass again in Revolution Square, calling for Blaise’s resignation. Finally, at around lunch time the long-awaited announcement of Blaise vacating the presidency is made on a private television station. Hours of confusion follow and after several back-and-forths, an army man, Lt. Col. Zida takes power and announces the instauration of a transitional government within a few weeks.

There is widespread jubilation at the news of Blaise stepping down, but celebrations are quietly cautious because: 1) a 7:00pm curfew is still in place, and 2) there is widespread mistrust of the army which has taken power. A few days later, our supermarket attendant would lament the painful joy of that day, “Imagine, you have just been given Christmas and New Year’s rolled in one, and you can’t even go to a bar, you have to go home at 7:00!”

Simon Compaoré, Ouagadougou’s former mayor and long-time ally of Blaise, who defected to the opposition at the beginning of the year, calls for Operation Mana-mana to clean up Ouagadougou from the debris of days of demonstrations starting at 5:00am Saturday morning. The name “mana-mana” is a reference to obligatory clean-up operations that communities had to participate in during the Sankara era to keep their neighborhoods clean.

November 1, 2014: A surprising number of people, mostly youths, report present for Operation Mana-mana and by lunch-time, when we decide to venture into town to finally see with our eyes the scene of the recent historic events, the streets of Ouagadougou are clean. Gone are the burnt tires, the broken glass, and the rubble. The Ouagadougou of that moment presents a strange map of completely ransacked, sometimes burnt buildings, next to buildings completely intact. The lootings that international media kept reporting on, without further explanation, were for the most part targeted: the parliament where the vote was to take place, the hotel that housed the MPs (several in the crowd of demonstrators allegedly tried to dissuade against this), the headquarters of Blaise’s ruling party. They also targeted houses, businesses and property belonging to Blaise’s widely despised brother François Compaoré and his mother-in-law Alizeta Ouedraogo, both of whom were believed to have strangleholds on most of Burkina Faso’s economy, as well as the property of other regime cronies considered to have played a key role in pushing for the constitutional amendment, or to have amassed riches through mass fraud and corruption. The looting also had a very pragmatic character to it. To ensure the total destruction of what were considered ill-gotten goods and thus send a clear message to alleged perpetrators of economic crimes, property of the former governing elite was burned. But before setting the properties ablaze, anything useful that could be recycled was removed. Thus, on this day, houses are completely gutted—their window frames stripped, doors unhinged, even electrical wiring removed. A friend who had been active on the streets the past two days told us how mechanics had followed demonstrators around, pleading with them to wait a few minutes before setting luxury cars ablaze, so that they could remove batteries, tires, and other valuable spare parts.

On the streets, vendors sell photocopies of documents found in François Compaoré’s house, which had become a sort of sinister museum. Blaise’s younger brother was implicated in several crimes, the most notorious being the assassination of journalist Norbert Zongo in 1997, and was regarded by many ordinary Burkinabe as a massively corrupt figure. A few years previously, when Blaise and his allies had started insinuating that François could be the presidential candidate in 2015, it quickly became clear that this would not be accepted. A few months later, talk of amending the constitution started.

Impromptu parking attendants, seeing opportunity, briskly organize the parking of hundreds of motorcycles and bicycles of curious by-passers. Burkinabe want to see for themselves what François did with the wealth he amassed and whether the widespread reports of discoveries of all kinds of strange paraphernalia, and a basement with blood-stained walls were true. A few days later a statement released, supposedly by François Compaoré’s family, claims François’s daughter did her art homework in the basement, thus explaining what looked like blood stains on the wall. The documents being hawked on the streets include alleged secret police reports on the assassinated journalist Norbert Zongo, lists of houses being shared out by the regime to influential figures, and photos of witchcraft practices.

November 3, 2014: Life regains a sense of normality; people go to work, children go to school, and everyone seems to have a story to tell about the events of the past few days.

November 16, 2014: Lt Col Zida, the provisional head of state, signs the transitional charter organizing the transitional period until elections planned scheduled for October 2015. In his speech handing over power to the transitional president, Michel Kafando, he makes several references to the Sankara era and brings tears of emotion to the eyes of many. Zida is appointed Prime Minister of the transition.

Official ceremonies would later be organized in homage to the 24 people who lost their lives and the hundreds injured during the insurrection.

Life goes on, post-insurrection

“Nothing will be as it was before” was the refrain in the immediate days after the insurrection. This has not quite proven true. Prime Minister Zida became a controversial figure, believed by some to be embroiled in corruption himself. In September 2015, as Burkina prepared for the elections to end the transitional period, a military putsch led by General Dienderé, Blaise’s right-hand man, occurred. This event, aptly summed up on a demonstrator’s sign as “the stupidest coup in the world,” incited another extraordinary wave of determined collective action. People took to the streets, an underground resistance radio station was set up, the Twittersphere was filled with revolutionary haikus to incite resistance. The army, after a brief period of indecision, showed a great sense of civic duty and protected civilians, taking decisive action to end the coup. The coup was swiftly countered, and the perpetrator of the military coup ended up apologizing, followed by the streets being cleaned again. And unfortunately, another dozen deaths were mourned.

Elections were held peacefully in November 2015, and in January 2016, Burkina Faso suffered its first large-scale terrorist attack on its soil, a harbinger of one of the most trying moments in Burkina Faso’s history. Today, terrorism has become deeply entrenched in certain regions of Burkina Faso, straining the country’s legendary inter-religious and inter-ethnic tolerance and generally sapping morale, all the more so because there is no clear understanding of what exactly is behind the wave of terrorist attacks. Faced with a much more diffuse and nebulous target than bringing down a president who overstayed, decisive collective action has been more difficult. But Burkinabe can at least remember that they have been capable of such action in the past.

Further Reading