The Upright Citizens of Burkina Faso

Burkinabe want to sweep out bad governance, political patronage, poverty, lack of respect for human rights and freedom of speech.

Carsten ten Brink, Via Flickr CC.

Here in Burkina Faso, we put the dust under the carpet … but there are so many things to sweep!

–Interview with Smokey, burkinabè rapper and cofounder of the movement Le Balai Citoyen (The Civic Broom)

In Burkina Faso, the president is Blaise Compaoré. And the Burkinabè have had plenty of time to get used to him: he has been ruling the country since 1987. The next presidential election is set to be held in 2015. Except that it seems that ‘Blaise’, as the Burkinabè call him, is not entirely ready to leave his brand new presidential palace. Like many African presidents before him, he is planning to revise the Constitution, to allow himself to run for another term. In order to make this decision seem more democratic, he is even considering organizing a referendum on the matter. But this election will cost billions of CFA francs and the opposition warns that there may be a risk of fraud. Therefore, the opposition parties and movements are trying to prevent this outrageous attempt to revise the Constitution by taking to the streets in Ouagadougou, the capital, on a regular basis. During the last protest, on August 23rd 2014, we met Smokey and his comrades from the ‘Civic Broom’, a movement they set up during the summer of 2013. They use the lexical field of cleaning with humor to demand the ‘tidying’ of the political scene and the departure of Blaise Compaoré. Smokey and his friends ask the citizens to invest the political field and ‘take control of their destiny’. Their message is spreading through social networks, protests and the radio station Ouaga FM, but also during the concerts they are holding, since both of the founders of the movement are musicians: Smokey is a rapper and Sams’k le Jah is a reggae singer.

Smockey, whose real name is Serge Martin Bambara, has long been writing politically engaged songs. He is the artist behind the album Putsch à Ouaga (‘Putsch in Ouaga’) that came out in 2001. He is currently preparing a double album that should be released before the end of 2014.

What is there to sweep ?

So many things … You should ask instead: what is there not to sweep? Bad governance, political patronage, poverty, lack of respect for human rights, freedom of speech almost nonexistent … Burkina Faso gives the impression of being a democratic country, but in reality we put the dust under the carpet. Unfortunately, it often goes unnoticed by the so-called ‘international community’. But we know what has been going on here for over twenty-eight years : economic crimes, blood crimes … A constitutional judge has recently been murdered, on the same road where a famous journalist had already been killed in 1998. So this is a rogue state. Corruption, decay, there are so many things to sweep !

How was the Balai Citoyen born ?

It was created last year, on August 25th. We held a first press conference, and then we held an official one with other structures such as the Génération Cheikh Anta Diop or the Mouvement des Sans Voix (‘The Voiceless’). We tried to get together with other movements because our slogan is “Our Number is Our Strength’. We want to represent about two million ‘Sweeper Citizens’, as we like to call ourselves. With this goal in mind, we try to unite our base, because there are a lot of different social movements scattered around Burkina Faso. Our advantage is that the Balai Citoyen is already pretty famous because it was founded by well-known musicians. We are a political movement, but we don’t want to come to power or access any political office. We intend to represent a civic strength that can pressure the authorities to get them to work towards the people’s interests. The task may seem easy, but in reality we face a big challenge: a mute and fatalist public opinion. However, a few years ago, things started to change, the youth started to move. My colleague the reggae singer Sams’k le Jah and myself have been meeting people, hosting debates and conferences, visiting universities, outside of the capital, meeting students and sparking political debate. We organized politically engaged concerts. Little by little, it started to rise; there is now a political awareness within the youth. We got the idea to transform all these various disorganized actions we were taking into a more formal framework, a structure like the Balai Citoyen. We were inspired by movements like Y’en a marre in Senegal but also more generally by all the movements that contributed to reinforce the class struggle, as well as 1970s movements like the Black Power, Blaxploitation and Black Panthers. They are inspiring because they were carried out by people who got involved in a mission theoretically designed for citizens who are already knowledgeable about politics. But we think that it is a mistake to let the political class dominate the political scene. Workers, farmers, students, store-keepers, craftsmen, artists must take over the political field. They have to understand the political game and make the government, who is the people’s employee, feel a form of pressure, a sword of Damocles over its head. The government must be aware that if it goes against the people’s interests, it will lose the next election. For years, there has been a disinterest about politics that made the bad situation we currently live in possible.

You are based in Ouagadougou: how do you reach other regions?

We created local clubs. Any group of ten ‘Civic Sweepers’ can create its club in its own town or neighborhood. Then each region forms a coordination, and we manage the national coordination here in Ouagadougou. There are also clubs abroad, that we call our embassies: Paris, New York and Montreal are very dynamic. We recently opened one in Abidjan.

What are your main actions?

We carry out political actions, such as protests and press conferences, against the modification of article 37 of the Constitution and the organization of a referendum, But we don’t act only on a political level: we also carry out actions of service to the community. For example, on August 30, we organized a blood donation. We also held a big cleaning day at the Ouidi maternity ward. We clean both literally and figuratively. Before that, we organized a protest to ask for the Sanou Sourou hospital’s rehabilitation and to denounce power cuts. We are a pacific movement and don’t want to advocate for violence: we need the youth to start believing in politics again and understand that we can do politics without being terrorists. We can use our legal rights, those that democracy offers us. We didn’t make the rules: they were set by the government ruling the country in the last three decades. We just have to use those rules and stay in the legal framework and it is already going to be a good cleaning.

Does this attitude help to protect you against repression?

It protects us against brutal repression, but not against sneaky repression. Some of us have been hurt and beaten up. Others have received direct and indirect threats. However, brutal public repression doesn’t happen anymore because we, in the Balai Citoyen, have set up a certain sense of discipline that our activists have acquired.

The protest’s itinerary has been changed at the last minute to keep the protesters away from the presidential palace, what do you think of that?

It seems pretty obvious to me that Mister Compaoré or his comrades have been reacting this way because of the vicinity of the presidential palace. The fact that the CFOP [the coordination of the opposition movements] wanted to march so close to the palace was a way to tell the president: ‘Next time, we might walk directly into the palace’. Here in Burkina Faso, power has become almost ethnic. It is a big problem for it can come down to xenophobia or ethnic intolerance. A specific ethnic group holds the power and considers it to be a sacred right. You can’t disrespect the king, and the king is the president. You have to bow down to the president… What is going on? We at the Balai Citoyen, we cultivate a form of impertinence that is beginning to annoy the authorities. The Compaoré clan has started to consider the success of the CFOP’s protests as a capital offence, and even as a danger. This is why they forbade today’s protest. The CFOP met them and they had no argument to turn down the protest as long as the CFOP had accepted to modify the itinerary and move it away from Kosyam [the presidential residence]. The huge mobilization this morning is a sign that something big might happen. There were thousands of people.

How do you see the Balai Citoyen’s future?

Our short term goal is to prevent Blaise Compaoré from running for president again and from modifying the Constitution. We will use all legal and civic means, including civil disobedience, without burning traffic lights or official buildings. We don’t want the referendum either: it is going to cost billions of CFA francs to taxpayers though its only purpose is to legitimize the Constitution’s modification and allow one person to run for president. This is too much, we don’t want this referendum.

Our second goal is to watch the next government. A new government means a potential slippery slope for new abuses, as within every power that doesn’t feel watched over. The Balai Citoyen will continue to exist. Today, we are working with the opposition parties: tomorrow, we might fight against those same people who will have come to power. We need a true change in power. New governments need to understand that from now on, they will have to work with the citizens.

What is the Balai Citoyen’s relationship to music ?

We use it to broadcast civic messages. It is easier with music. The Balai Citoyen unites all sorts of social categories, but some reknowned figures have carried the message: we are lucky to have famous artists like Basic Soul, one of the first rappers in Burkina Faso, like Sams’k le Jah (in the pic above with Smockey) who is a reggae singer or like myself. Our faces are easily recognizable and allow us to broadcast our message to the people. They know us so they listen to us.

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