Burkina’s capital, Ouagadougou, known to locals as ‘Ouaga’, retains the engaging feel of an overgrown village in a country still dominated by subsistence farming. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world but at the start of this year it seemed like an island of calm in a troubled region. While nearby countries in West Africa had undergone brutal civil wars, Burkina had sailed blithely on. After 24 years in power, President Blaise Compaoré was being billed as a regional peacemaker, despite his own distinctly murky reputation, and in the November 2010 election he won 80.2 per cent of the vote.
But then, out of the blue, Compaoré was hit by successive waves of opposition. The trouble started in February when a schoolchild was allegedly killed by police, setting off a wave of demonstrations by students across the country. In April the biggest mass protest for many years took place in the capital, over rising food prices partly derived from the ongoing conflict in Côte d’Ivoire.
More disturbing still for Compaoré was the mutiny in April by police and soldiers – including many from the élite presidential guard – protesting that the government had not paid their housing allowances. In Ouaga, 43 people were wounded by gunshots, women were raped, shops were ransacked and hotels were attacked. The home of presidential guard commander Gilbert Diendéré was razed to the ground. The mutiny spread to other cities – to Pô, Kaya and Tenkodogo – before Compaoré agreed to their demands and sacked his own government, appointing himself Minister of Defence.
But his troubles were by no means over. Traders whose property had been damaged by the rioting soldiers took to the streets, setting the ruling party’s headquarters on fire, and attacking the National Assembly and other key public buildings before their demands for compensation were met. In May, teachers entered the fray, striking in protest at the government’s failure to respond to their long-held grievances over allowances and overcrowded classrooms. Students took to the streets in support, and at one point offices in the education ministry were ransacked. In this case, too, the government eventually acceded to all the teachers’ demands.
Resentment has always bubbled beneath the surface in Burkina. Independence from France in 1960 was followed by a bewildering series of military coups that did little to help the country’s battle against chronic poverty. In 1983, however, the latest of those coups turned into one of Africa’s most promising revolutions, led by the inspirational Thomas Sankara, who is still revered well beyond the continent for his wisdom and idealism.
Sankara was assassinated in 1987 by his former friend and comrade-in-arms, Compaoré, who seized the presidency and proceeded to curry favour with the West by doing its neoliberal economic bidding. An inevitable byproduct has been a harbouring of massive wealth by a rich élite, many of whom, like Compaoré himself, now live in opulent mansions in a newly built section of the capital called Ouaga 2000. Corruption is an ever-growing problem – the newspaper Le Reporter uncovered huge loans secured by ministers from the nation’s social security fund to build themselves these ‘futuristic villas’. Sankara’s renaming of what used to be Upper Volta is beginning to seem like a curse – Burkina Faso means ‘land of the incorruptible’.
Compaoré has governed through patronage and the shrewd distribution of Western money while actively cultivating political apathy – in the November election only 1.6 million Burkinabès voted, out of a total population 10 times that size. But the genie of protest is now out of the bottle and Compaoré’s aura of invincibility has been shattered. Politics in Burkina has at long last come alive again.