An African Spring

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From the Spring 2015 Issue “The Unknown

By Damien Glez

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso—It’s 6 a.m. in a refugee camp at Breidjing in the eastern reaches of Chad. A military escort, charged with ensuring several visitors safe passage to Farchana, 15 miles away, is making haste slowly across difficult depressions in the heavily rutted road—scars inflicted by a season of overly-generous rains. But in the middle, there are also crevasses representing scars of recent history. In this zone, which welcomes tens of thousands of exiles from Darfur, weapons circulate incessantly from hand-to-hand—one-time militiamen turn bandits on the big highways.

From Farchana, the World Food Program transports visitors in a succession of planes too small for even a short person to stand upright—the first flight to Abéché via Iriba, the second to Chad’s capital, Ndjamena via Goz Beïda. So only after passing these rollercoaster of Chadian mountains is there finally the sensation of approaching the final destination—Burkina Faso. Leaving behind a charnel house for a Francophone nation now with its own problems.

If the east of Chad, still a killing zone, is a reflection of its recent history, the center of Burkina Faso, itself, is writing a new page of its own history. As our planes flew over the Sahel last October, the “nation of honest men” was finding itself the subject of new tensions. Members of Burkina Faso’s Parliament were moving toward a modification of the critical Article 37 of the Burkinese constitution that bars the nation’s president from holding more than two consecutive terms. With barely a simple majority, Parliament has the power to lay the foundations for a new rule, effectively a president-for-life.

Indeed, Blaise Compaoré, the president of this poor central African enclave has held power, all but unchallenged, since 1987—yet is still only the sixth longest-ruling leader in Africa. Not surprisingly, he had hardly lost much sleep over any movement to oust him, or indeed to prevent him for continuing, unchecked, to lead the nation. Thanks to the 70 deputies (out of a total of 127) from his Congress for Democracy and Progress Party (CDP), Compaoré was virtually guaranteed a simple majority in Parliament over most issues—certainly including an existential one of constitutional reform that could shake his hold on power.

Add to this simple majority the 11 accomplices he’s had the right to personally name to parliamentary seats, this raises him automatically to a guaranteed two-thirds majority. His parliamentary sleight-of-hand is complete with the addition of another 18 deputies recently recruited to his side for this vote—members of the Alliance pour la Démocratie et la Fédération-Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (ADF-RDA), heirs of the internationalist movement of the Ivory Coast strongman, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who ruled over his country unchallenged for 33 years. Even if Compaoré, a former army captain, has completed little schooling, he still knows how to count. These 99 ‘yes’ votes represent three-quarters of those required by the rules of a qualified majority.

Still, it’s difficult to believe that Compaoré has not become deaf and blind, this president who, for three decades, navigated, however maliciously, these troubled waters. Apparently alarming rumors have been sweeping Chancellery Row for weeks. But, unmoved, he bases his actions on staying within the laws that he wrote. What the opposition believes, however, is that the constitution provided a route toward his seppuku (political suicide) since it allows for the modification of Article 37—a gesture to populist sentiment when it was drafted. Assuming the possibility that timid deputies or others who simply sold out might compromise a qualified majority, a referendum might still allow the popular will to decide.

Compaoré, however, believes the voice of the people could easily be neutralized, and that while the opposition might each day be incrementally radicalized, it still has little hope of winning a referendum. Since 1991, democracy has proved simply to be little more than a sham. During a succession of elections, international observers failed to report massive ballot tampering. Voting boxes were routinely stuffed with pro-Compaoré votes. Worse yet, mostly illiterate, the population of Burkina Faso has little political culture. The majority can neither read nor write, so have no access to what is still a sassy press. On election day, again and again, the choice is the result of several factors—the brutalization of broadcasters who do little more than distill government propaganda; powerful traditional chiefs who support Compaoré who, more even than his revolutionary predecessor, bullied the African aristocracy; and the inconsistency of a misguided opposition who lust after any ministerial post and the lavish, overfunded campaign war chests that are filled by the state or leading business executives.

As for the resources of the state, they are run by Minister of Finance Lucien Bembamba, brother-in-law of Blaise Compaoré. Even the nation’s leading business figures are in Compaoré’s hip pockets—directed by the president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Alizeta Ouedraogo, mother-in-law of Blaise Compaoré. Given these political realities, even the most illiterate peasant would be hard-pressed not to see the presence of an entrenched nepotistic state where, like many nations of the Sahel, family solidarity is a cardinal value.


When Compaoré succeeded in winning a succession of rigged elections—1991, 1998, 2005, and 2010—he did not steal the votes of electors. He simply bought what most Burkina Faso residents were never aware they’d ever sold. The average citizen votes for the president because he is genuinely impressed by his helicopter, though all too often arriving in his village, its dust helping to spread meningitis. The average citizen is sincerely grateful for the free t-shirts distributed on the campaign trail, right before he is shuttled to the polling stations. As the presidential figure of Compaoré arrives with a barrage of musical entertainment, sweets, and clothes, why shouldn’t the average citizen trust him? Indeed, there is little reason to dive into the unknown arms of an opponent bearing little more than abstruse ideological concepts.

So as dawn breaks on October 30, 2014, Compaoré appears politically bulletproof. But the image of his democracy, its tranquility, is a sham—a fact he has only lately come to realize. On the night preceding the election, he hosts all members of Parliament at a hotel adjacent to the National Assembly, encircling the area with heavily-armed security forces. Behind the mask of serenity, Compaoré knows his room for maneuvering is slim. His revolutionary training has taught him that an illiterate rural majority does not always measure up to the awareness of an astute urban core of the population.

On the early afternoon of October 30, word reached Ndjaména, the capital of neighboring Chad. Burkina Faso’s Parliament is on fire. A state of emergency has been declared in Ouagadougou, a curfew imposed, and the nation’s borders sealed. Our onward flights from Ndjaména to Lomé via Douala, then Lomé to Ouagadougou via Cotonou are only scheduled for the next morning—with the Burkinese situation evolving from minute to minute. International media reports the mobilization on the streets of Ouagadougou as “historical” on an African scale. When confronted by the crowd trying to reach the Parliament, security forces quickly abandon the idea of using force to contain the protesters—perhaps a calculated move by those Compaoré would come to call “the traitors” of his military circle. However motivated, the police forces step back and let pass what already looks like an insurrection.

Compaoré has little sense of the scheme he is now denouncing. Clearly, the protesters have no idea they are launching such a transcendent moment. Like a knife entering softened butter, they besiege the Parliament. Windows offer no resistance to hurled knives, while vehicles are set on fire. Some petrified MPs try to escape, their parliamentary majority failing to protect them from the mob’s wrath. Some trip over their flowing boubou, or ceremonial robes. Other struggle to climb the wall. The luckiest, face down, are extracted by police.

Rioters are now targeting the presidential palace of Kosyam. There is no way for Compaoré to speak to the entire nation, which he has used so effectively in the past. The national television, like the Parliament, has been shut down by rioters. Ironically, the president cannot rely on his propaganda organ and must resort to a private television channel. On the privately-controlled BF1, he declares he’s heard the people’s message and has canceled his project to reform the constitution. Compaoré promises to hand power to his successor at the end of his elected term. But his eyes reflect the same panic as those of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, on January 14, 2011, or Hosni Mubarak on February 11 of the same year. While he is finally honest, the call for dialogue rings hollow.

The rioters encircle the palace. Protected by the redoubtable Regiment of Presidential Safety, Kosyam Palace appears to be the only institution able to resist the protesters. Compaoré’s chief of staff, General Gilbert Diendéré, then leads three protesters to an audience with the president. Later, they confess they nearly felt pity for the man who intimidated them for 27 years. By now, his own political forces have abandoned him—along with his haughtiness. Truly, the giant has clay feet.


The power of every leader is loosened from the moment he or she is isolated. Like the fall of Laurent Gbabgo, the tyrant who terrorized the Ivory Coast for more than a decade, the power of Burkina Faso’s president had already begun to shrink as his opponents within his own political party quietly begin clearing out to move toward the opposition. The cardboard king believed that two or three loyalists were a stronger shield than a dozen activist opponents. He built a citadel made of paper. An even more fragile one since in politics, close relations usually don’t tell the truth, blinded by two feelings—the love they have for their leader and the feeling that their futures would  be little likely to improve in his absence. So the leader surrounds himself only with sycophants—in Compaoré’s case, his brother François, spouse Chantal, mother-in-law Alizeta, and brother-in-law Lucien. Family counselors are revealed to be courtesans without any political perspective. François Compaoré, who held the position of his brother’s principal councilor, is in no position to say “it is time for you to leave power,” because his evaluation of Blaise’s work is blinded by his affection and because the end of Blaise’s power will be the end of his own.

But the writing is on the wall. Compaoré simply committed a sin of over-confidence. Given the violent death of his brother-in-arms and predecessor as president, Thomas Sankara, who died at his own hands in a coup he himself engineered, Compaoré could have predicted a similar outcome. The uprising that would lead to his downfall should have been well anticipated.

In December 1998, the murder of Norbert Zongo, publisher and editor of the Ouagadougou newspaper l’Indépendant, was laid at the feet of the president’s brother after the newspaper began investigating the murder of the brother’s driver. The assassination had so deeply shaken Burkina Faso that Compaoré had to concede to some demands, particularly the limitation to two five-year terms for the president. It was this concession that led Compaoré to the impasse in 2014—the end of his next two terms, from 2005 to 2010 and 2010 to 2015. In April 2011, a massive military mutiny revealed the president did not have much control of what used to be his major asset—the army. Compaoré was forced to leave his palace for his home village of Ziniaré and was saved only by the disorganized nature of the revolt.

Now, despite three decades spent manipulating the mysterious levers of power, Compaoré looks like an apprentice politician. During the first night of the rebellion, a state of emergency is successively declared and canceled. The president, usually imperturbable, gropes. A rumor begins to spread. His own brother has been arrested, his house sacked. Without François’ support, how will Blaise survive in his golden enclave? There is an African saying that the night gives sound advice, yet the one from October 30 to 31 only ends in confusion, and in Burkina, confusion usually benefits the same people—the men with power.


The Republic of Upper Volta, which became known as Burkina Faso in 1984, gained independence in 1960. There have been five major changes in power over the last 54 years. Despite the establishment of four Republics, none has been democratic. Each time, the military pulled out, leaving in its wake a deterioration of the hierarchic level of the leaders. In 1966, President Maurice Yaméogo ceded his place to General Sangoulé Lamizana, who was himself evicted in 1980 by Colonel Saye Zerbo, replaced in 1982 by Commandant Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo, who was removed in 1983 by Captain Thomas Sankara, who was finally replaced in 1987 by another Captain, Blaise Compaoré. On October 31, when Compaoré realizes he will probably not last till the end of his mandate in 2015, the army begins to change from decisive inertia to political action. Military boots can be heard, but this time, each belonging to different units—they don’t all hit the ground with the same rhythm. All units do not have the same desire to suppress the people. The gendarmerie is far less disposed to defend Compaoré than members of the elite Presidential Guard. Indeed, several military leaders are each anxious to take over from Compaoré. No longer does the army speak with a single voice.

Compaoré has not yet left Kosyam Palace, but already three army names can be heard. One group of protesters chants the name of retired General Kouamé Lougué, the most popular officer among civilians and already accused by the regime of plotting a coup d’etat. General Nabéré Honoré Traoré, theoretically in a strong position as Chief of Staff of the armed forces, is the first to declare himself head of state as Compaoré loses power. But while Traoré expresses himself from the safety of his armchair, the most junior pretender, Lt. Colonel Yacouba Zida, joins the protesters on the Square of the Revolution. Backed by a host of key civilian activists, he harangues the crowds with a populist air reminiscent at times of the exciting Thomas Sankara, at times of another former African colonel, the Guinean leader Moussa Dadis Camara. The army has again entered the dance and again, as has happened too often across Central Africa, it is a lieutenant colonel who is preparing to lead.

When Barack Obama wished for Africa “strong institutions rather than strong men,” Compaoré replied there are no “strong institutions without strong men.” Now, yet another strong man is about to cede power. As night falls on Friday, October 31, Compaoré resigns. A convoy tries to take him to his favorite city of Po, base of the paratroop unit where the 1983 revolution propelled Sankara to power. Clearly expected in this southern city by other demonstrators, he instead boards a French military helicopter to the village of Fada Ngourma and a waiting plane to take him into exile in the Côte d’Ivoire, and the home of his in-laws.


Returning to Burkina Faso via Togo from a visit to a Darfur refugee camp is hardly easy in the best of circumstances. But now, thousands are trying to leave the country. Togo is barely 600 miles from Ouagadougou, but no planes are taking off for the capital. As for an overland trip, while the situation on the Burkina-Togo border remains unclear, it still seems to be the only viable alternative—a two-day journey  over roads in that part of Africa that are barely navigable.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Zida assumes control. Reports spread of looting in the capital, especially in homes belonging to the nation’s now ousted rulers. The villa of the president’s younger brother François is being dismantled by the mobs. Warehouses of the regime’s wealthy business supporters are being systematically looted and destroyed. A man is running through the streets carrying on his head a window torn from the home of a minister, while a woman runs off with a bag of rice on her back. The country appears out of control.

Is the country sliding into uncontrollable violence? By the time the sun sets on many such regime changes in this part of West Africa, it is often simply a question of punitive operations against the deposed regime. But here, the old regime is not the only target of such brutality. Even the stocks of school lunchrooms are being looted; the home of a distant medical officer that is “visited” and then destroyed. And the violence extends beyond borders, as Burkinese refugees flee across the nation’s frontiers. The private home in the Togo city of Kara where I stayed as I journeyed back to Ouagadougou was broken into, in the birthplace of former Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema. It is a fitting tribute to a man whose own reign lasted 38 years. But sunrise brings more bad news. Two days after the coup, all land borders with Burkina Faso have been closed. Still, African borders can never truly be sealed. After chronicling the Darfur refugees, I—stuck in Togo—have no interest in joining the ranks of the subjects of this report. Instead, as a Burkinese saying goes, “When the water jug breaks on your head, you must take the opportunity to wash up.”

It’s nearly mid-day when our vehicle approaches the northern reaches of Togo. Miles of waiting trucks lined up confirm the situation—crossing the border is difficult, if not impossible. That none of these trucks includes a driver suggests the situation is desperate. Our party is halted by a soldier who bars our passage. Without looking us in the eye, he motions to turn back. “The border is closed,” he finally barks. But Lome is too far away to go back. And Burkina is so close, only a few hundred yards away.

In West Africa, there are no problems; there are only solutions. After a few minutes assessing the situation, there are whispers. It seems that zémidjans—motorcycle taxis that abound in some regions—could take me across the border. If no four-wheeled vehicles are allowed to cross the border, perhaps the same rules would not necessarily apply to some motorbikes. No time to assess the situation. I slip a note to a biker, who grabs my bag and positions it between her legs. As I climb on the back of the Chinese motorcycle, the driver unceremoniously takes off. Skirting the last trucks lined up, the biker soon says we’ve crossed into Burkina Faso territory.

But at the very moment of my sigh of relief, another motorcycle overtakes us. Two sinister-looking customs officers force us to turn back. Insufficiently discreet, our border crossing is interrupted in mid-flight, just as we sniff the scent of Burkina Faso. The customs officers lead us to a police station to report us to a Burkinese civil commissioner. His jacket is too big for his slight body, but it is barely large enough for his ego or his authority. In this small enclave of Togo-Burkina Faso, he is the one who will decide our future.

So we embark on a delicate game of three cushion billiards—a dose of  Burkinese pride coated with a grain of humor. I unveil my press card as a cartoonist for a newspaper he knows. After carefully examining my various documents, he concludes I am not a Bosnian mercenary who has come to lend a hand to the last pockets of resistance by the Compaoré regime and agrees to let us pass. He even manages a smile, proud to have controlled this impudent attempt at infiltration. He concedes we have not crossed the border fraudulently, but rather with his exceptional authorization. Finally I manage to cross officially into Burkina Faso, where I struggle to find a ride to Ouagadougou. And information is sparse about my beloved capital. Telecommunication networks are so disrupted that few, if any, telephone calls manage to make it through.


It’s 4 p.m. in Ouagadougou. All reports indicate that an inferno is in progress, but just the opposite has occurred. Of course, the city bears the scars of the riots: burning tires still smoldering in the streets, warehouse walls blown open, and incendiary inscriptions on the walls. It’s understandable how 27 years of frustration might have burst through the city in hours. But a volcano had not yet erupted.

The city is now quiet, even calm. Groups that led the uprising quickly ask their followers to clear the streets. Citizens’ Brooms, an organization with weapons in hand, has urged the people to sweep the city clean of all traces of President Compaoré. It now calls for sweeping clean all traces of the disorder it admits to having caused in a new operation called mana mana (perfect)—a name that recalls the 1980s and the revolutionary activism of their collective actions.

Already some Ouagalais savor a cold beer, pausing along the way. They consult documents—photocopies sold on the street, disturbing photographs found in the house of François, the brother of Blaise Compaoré. For the moment, rumor has taken over—reports of skulls, traces of blood, and black magic paraphernalia found in this home that’s become a place of pilgrimage. This building where for so many years, people lowered their eyes each time they passed, is now open to crowds. Everyone has been affected by these events. The Compaoré family was convinced they were good for at least three more five-year terms. The security forces, however, have recognized this unexpected change of regime. Though no blood was spilled in the National Assembly, the government is dissolved, the constitution suspended.  Stunned and still suspicious, the entire African continent is proud of this first episode of an “African spring.”

Since the early successes of the Arab Spring and the overthrow of corrupt dictators in North Africa and the Middle East, the people of many black African countries wondered whether they might one day be able to stand up against the power of military-backed regimes. On the streets and in social networks, the new Burkinese adventure has been applauded by much of the continent. In a host of presidential palaces, some applauded sincerely, while others questioned what was in store for them. The fall of Compaoré was that of a president trapped by what was designed to be a trompe l’oeil representation of a democratic constitution, but which in the end turned out to be exactly what it appeared—limiting the number of terms the president could serve.

When Compaoré resigned, other African heads of state were facing the same predicament: Yayi Boni of Benin, Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo, Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, and Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Now, who will even dare program a change in any article of their constitution that prevents their holding power for life? Boni, most recently, seems to have abandoned the idea. Nkuruziza is procrastinating. Sassou-Guesso might well persist. Kagame has insisted to World Policy Journal that he understands and accepts that his term in office will be limited. But the temptations remain for all. The question is whether the same effects might transpire.

In Burkina Faso, it took barely two days to bring down a regime that had ruled nearly 10,000 days. A few weeks later, official statistics would reveal only 24 deaths—martyrs each one, but much less damage than in most popular revolutions. In short, on Thursday, the country exploded. On Friday, the president resigned. Saturday, calm returned. Sunday, political confusion cast a cloud over the seizure of power. And on Monday, the Burkinese people returned to work as if nothing had happened.

Lieutenant Colonel Zida is the new leader of the country. It could hardly have been otherwise, when the regime collapsed like a house of cards, when the army was the only standing institution—an army that should have understood that nothing will ever be the same. Over the following weeks, in a quiet Burkina Faso, negotiations have begun between representatives of political parties, civil society, traditional leaders, religious leaders, and the military. Each understands and accepts at least the principle of a return to constitutional order under a new Fourth Republic, while amputating all those who might have hoped to assume power. The new political system is now in a transition period, leading to the first free and democratic presidential election slated for this November.

The military insists that it will not try to hold onto the power it seized when it overthrew the Compaoré regime. Less than a month after his fall, a civilian leadership has been installed, under a new president, Michel Kafando—a French-educated academic, former foreign minister, and most recently ambassador to the United Nations. Still, in a maneuver worthy of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, Lieutenant Colonel Zida, former head of the “pre-transition” state, swapped his fatigues for the costume of Prime Minister. So who really controls Burkina Faso—the civilian government under Kafando or the military command under Zida—is difficult for the moment to discern.

But there are two reassuring realities. First, there are measures announced jointly by the two, including a rehabilitation of President Thomas Sankara, while at the same time opening probes of war crimes and corruption on the part of the old president and his cronies. Second, though the next presidential election has been deferred for a year, purely for reasons of electoral logistics, Zida will not be a candidate on the ballot, of a nation that has never known a truly democratic election. He is prevented from being a candidate, according to the nation’s transitional charter, which the military itself established.

At the same time, international pressure will be an important, indeed an essential guarantee, at the African level and globally. Moreover, the show of force by unarmed rioters that toppled Compaoré seems to be a guarantee that the old regime’s methods are dead, as well as being no longer effective. Of course, populism can hardly feed a population, of which at least half live beneath below the poverty line. At the same time, Zida, even without experience, still holds the reins of the powerful presidential security regiment that Compaoré was unable to summon in his final hours. But if we must remain vigilant, the popular uprising of October 30, 2014 should not be in vain. Vigilance at all costs must be the watchward for Burkina Faso and for all those who hope for democracy in at least this one corner of sub-Saharan Africa.



Damien Glez, a regular contributor  to World Policy Journal, is a Ouagadougou-based commentator and cartoonist and member of the multi-national Cartooning for Peace.

Translated from French by David A. Andelman.

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