Activists most often focus on the grievances and challenges immediately in front of them. But in Burkina Faso many do so with one eye cast back, towards the historical precedents of popular action. In their speeches and writings Burkinabè debate the lessons of those prior struggles. In part, they do so in hopes of avoiding earlier blunders and shortcomings, to stand on the shoulders of the past. Yet frequently they also consciously draw inspiration from previous triumphs. Victories beget victory.
In Burkina Faso’s case, such popular successes have been significant, especially on a continent marked by so many movements that have been repressed or co-opted by entrenched elites. The most recent was a massive citizens’ insurrection that toppled the authoritarian regime of Blaise Compaoré in October 2014, a development analyzed in detail in my new book, Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution (London: Zed Books, 2017).
Authoritarian rulers elsewhere in Africa have also faced widespread opposition in the streets. Sometimes such mobilizations led indirectly to a ruler’s downfall. For example, popular agitation in Niger culminated in a 2010 military coup that pushed aside an autocratic president, Mamadou Tandja, and opened the way to subsequent elections. And in 2011, street mobilizations in Senegal blocked Abdoulaye Wade’s attempts to subvert the constitution, contributing to his electoral defeat the following year.
Yet, apart from the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this decade, the 2014 uprising in Burkina Faso was a rare instance in Africa of a popular movement that managed to directly topple a sitting government.
Like many of his contemporaries on the continent, Compaoré tried to follow the common playbook of adhering to the formal tenets of multi-party democracy but in reality managing a closed political system based on a mixture of electoral fraud, the patronage of a dominant party-state and repeated constitutional manipulations. By 2013 that system began to fray, as Compaoré, in office since a 1987 military coup, pushed too far by seeking to once again extend the presidential term limit. Already incensed by widespread poverty, rights abuses, and rampant corruption, people across the country reacted were outraged. Their indignation fueled months of massive protests in the streets and pushed the divided opposition parties, activist groups and labour unions to come together in a coordinated struggle that culminated in the October 2014 events.
Memories of struggle
Opposition leaders and rank-and-file activists alike cited a litany of earlier movements and uprisings. Those experiences led them to believe that “insurrection is rooted in the DNA of the Burkinabè people,” as Guy Hervé Kam, the spokesperson of the prominent activist group Balai citoyen, put it. Those struggles included a January 1966 labour-led insurrection that toppled the country’s first president and a general strike in 1975 that blocked a general’s attempt to impose a single state party.
Numerous other instances of popular opposition erupted during Compaoré’s rule. Two prolonged and intense protest waves were particularly notable. The December 1998 assassination of Norbert Zongo, an independent newspaper editor, set off such sustained protests and strikes that the Compaoré regime seemed to totter on the edge of collapse. Only significant concessions and promises of reform ensured its survival. Then throughout the first half of 2011 came a succession of student and youth demonstrations, labour marches, merchants’ protests, judges’ strikes, farmers’ boycotts, attacks on the homes of leading political figures, and widespread army and police mutinies.
Many of today’s activists drew lessons from those struggles: that popular mobilization on a significantly wide scale could weaken and de-legitimize the authorities; that segments of the political elites and security forces were themselves somewhat divided; and that joint protest campaigns are more effective than dispersed and uncoordinated actions.
Although some contemporary activists had their formative experiences in these protest movements, few could themselves remember the revolutionary era of President Thomas Sankara (1983-87). Many had not yet been born or were children at the time of his assassination by Compaoré’s coup-makers. Yet Sankara’s name resonated strongly during subsequent decades and reached a crescendo during the 2014 insurrection.
The Sankara government was short-lived, but its vigorous action carved a central place in Burkinabè popular lore—and indeed across West Africa. Activists cited Sankara’s massive popular self-help mobilizations, efforts to advance women’s rights, and strong advocacy of pan-Africanism and anti-imperialism, among other positions and initiatives. Burkina Faso’s very name, which means “land of the upright people” and replaced Upper Volta in 1984, has helped redefine national identity, not just for those who idolize Sankara, but across the political spectrum.
The rap artist Smockey, a central founder of Balai citoyen, explained why the activist group adopted Sankara as its symbolic patron. As an individual, Smockey told me, Sankara’s image was that of “simplicity, modesty, and integrity … a model for anyone aspiring to manage public property.” He also recalled Sankara’s political “courage and determination to build a Burkina Faso of social justice and inclusive development.”
Martyrs and victories
In annual commemorations, official holidays, the erection of monuments and other symbolic events, Burkinabè are making conscious endeavour not only to recognize past struggles, but also to educate future generations. Burkina Faso’s previous pantheon of popular heroes has now been supplemented by the “martyrs” of the October 2014 uprising and those who fell during an abortive September 2015 coup attempt by Compaoré’s former presidential guard. Plans are underway to transform the old National Assembly building, badly burned during the insurrection, into a public museum. Just down the same street in central Ouagadougou, the old Conseil de l’Entente complex where Sankara was assassinated will become part of a national commemoration to the late revolutionary.
Meanwhile, segments of Burkina Faso’s neglected anti-colonial history are also receiving attention. In November 2017, for the first time, festivities were organized to mark the widespread and prolonged armed rebellion against French colonial forces a century earlier, in 1915-16. Little known or studied until recently, that revolt in the western parts of the country was notable for its multi-ethnic character and initial military victories. It took major French reinforcements and heavy artillery fire to finally put down the resistance, at a cost of an estimated 30,000 lives.
Evocations of martyrs are emotionally powerful symbols that help solidify movement identities by fostering pride in past struggles. Simultaneously, recalling murdered heroes, such as Thomas Sankara and Norbert Zongo can underscore the inhumanity and injustice of those responsible, thus further legitimizing popular opposition.
Nothing, however, encourages people to undertake the risks of open defiance more than the realization that it is possible to win. Popular victories in other countries can also be inspiring, especially in this digital age when images of mobilized masses and fleeing dictators travel so quickly. Yet the knowledge that one’s own forebears were able to triumph is particularly empowering.
With each successive struggle, the Burkinabè people have deepened their culture of rebellion. That heritage of revolt contributed to the downfall of a detested president in 2014. In the view of a number of activists, it may also hopefully dissuade future leaders from pursuing similarly oppressive practices. As Fousseini Ouédraogo, a participant in the anti-Compaoré movement, commented, “Whenever someone threatens the people’s interests, there are always those who react and say, ‘No!’”