What’s next in Burkina Faso?

November 6, 2014

Andy Wynne explains the background to the mass protests in the West African country of Burkina Faso that ousted dictator Blaise Compaoré after 27 years in power.

IN THE early 1980s, Burkina Faso President Thomas Sankara was a beacon of hope against the increased inequality and insecurity that structural adjustment introduced across Africa.

In the first half of 2011, Burkina Faso was again in the news as strikes--including an April 8 general strike--mass action and even mutinies by the presidential guard came close to bringing the Arab Spring to sub-Saharan Africa and toppling Blaise Compaoré. He had been president for a quarter century after ordering the murder of Sankara and 12 of his comrades in a hail of bullets in 1987.

But this bloody dictator was finally removed this year on October 31 after massive demonstrations and the burning of the parliament building. The military declared it is forming a new government, but the opposition organized another demonstration for November 2. In a statement the organizers said, "The victory born from this popular uprising belongs to the people, and the task of managing the transition falls by right to the people. In no case can it be confiscated by the army." So the struggle continues!

Celebrations after Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré steps down
Celebrations after Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré steps down

THOMAS SANKARA'S strategy was defined in his Political Orientation Speech. It was a defiant alternative to neoliberal development strategies. In contrast, it aimed to eliminate corruption, avert famine, and make education and health real priorities with a nationwide literacy campaign and vaccinating 2.5 million children. It launched the most ambitious program for social and economic change ever attempted in Africa.

The strong commitment to women's rights led to the outlawing of female genital mutilation, forced marriage and polygamy. Women were appointed to high government positions and actively recruited into the military. They were encouraged to work outside the home, and girls were encouraged to stay in school even if they became pregnant. The Sankara government was also the first African government to publicly recognize the challenge of HIV/AIDS.

Sankara and his allies were committed to achieving their egalitarian ideals, but reforms were imposed, rather than won through collective action of the workers and mass of the poor people. Despite its many significant achievements, this was socialism from above, not the self-emancipation of the working class and popular masses. This approach was to lead to the regime coming into conflict with sections of the working class and its organizations.

When school teachers went on strike just over six months after Sankara came to power, nearly 1,500 of them were dismissed and didn't return to their jobs until after his death. A union front was set up in January 1985 against the decline in democratic and trade union freedoms.

This was to stay active throughout the "revolutionary" Sankara period even though the trade unions and independent organizations were considerably weakened as a result of repression (including dismissal of civil servants, arrests and torture). The actions of the unions were considered subversive and could be punished with "military sanctions."

The Sankara government banned trade unions and a free press because it saw them as getting in the way of its reforms. Corrupt officials, counter-revolutionaries and "lazy workers" were tried in peoples' revolutionary tribunals. The public trials of former senior government officials were a positive development, but these trails were also used against genuine critics of the regime.

In the name of wanting to make a revolution for the mass of the poor people, Sankara did it without them or even against them. Sankara recognized this in a self-critical speech on October 2, 1987, but he and his allies didn't have time to restore the links between the government and the mass independent working-class organizations.

Sankara was assassinated with 12 of his comrades in a coup d'état led by his deputy, Blaise Compaoré. A week before his death, he declared, "While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas." One of the main opposition parties in Burkina Faso remains his Sankarist Party, and Sankara is commonly referred to as "Africa's Che Guevara." He remains an inspiration for many young people across the region and proof that another world is possible for Africa.

IN THE beginning of the 1990s, international geopolitics pushed the government of Compaoré to start the transition to multi-party democracy and a free-market economy. Burkina Faso is now presented as one of the World Bank and IMF's best pupils, but it is still one of the poorest countries in the world--181th out of 187 countries in the 2013 UN Human Development Index--with 46 percent of the population struggling to exist beneath the poverty line.

Like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, this situation of neoliberal structural adjustment led to great inequality. One in 10 Burkinabe now own half of the country's wealth. There has also been a pillage of national resources by the former president's clique (senior political officials and senior military figures). Partly as a result, there is high unemployment, especially for the two thirds of the population that is under 25 years old.

Blaise Compaoré was last re-elected in November 2010 by more than 80 percent of the vote after a quarter century in power. However, he only received 1.7 million votes from a total electorate of 7 million. Less than three months later, in the first half of 2011, a powerful popular movement erupted with demonstrations and strikes--but also military mutinies. Strikes took place in many workplaces--for example, in schools, at the Comoé Sugar Company and in the gold mines, where fantastic bravery was demonstrated against the police who supported the mine owners.

The people turned to the police present and said:

There is no authority anymore, so we will solve our problems with violence...What we ask you to do is to call Ouagadougou [the capital] and tell them to bring all the riot police. Because we have realized that the policy of the mining bosses is to use the riot police to suppress the local people. While the ministers in charge of the mines are happy to dine with the mining bosses, they never have as much as 30 minutes to talk to the local people.

So let the riot police come. Some of us will fall. We want to see the police shoot at us. But we also have confidence in ourselves. We are sure we will eventually overcome Essakane mine.

Such strikes also demonstrated solidarity from beyond the working class. During a strike by workers at the Comoé Sugar Company, the largest private employer in the country, women, children, young people, other private-sector workers and pensioners showed their solidarity.

The authority of Compaoré was shaken, as his authority rested on the army and especially the presidential guard--which mutinied on April 14, 2011. At this stage, the government gave in to many popular demands--from the teachers, for example--but once order was restored the regime returned to repression against the first group of workers to strike--workers in the Ministry of Finance.

SINCE 2008, gold has replaced cotton as the primary source of wealth. By 2012, Burkina Faso was the fourth largest producer of gold in the world. This is based on seven major gold mines, most of which are owned by foreign multinationals--from Canada, Russia, Britain, etc.--with the government owning around 10 percent of shares, giving it the financial incentive to intervene on the side of the owners.

The challenges the workers face include casualization and discrimination in favor of expatriate workers. The mines have also had a detrimental impact on local communities with expropriation or low levels of compensation for peasant land, increasing scarcity of water, banning of informal gold mining, pollution and the disruption of local life.

In August 2012, a new conflict broke out at Taparko mines where 29 workers were dismissed for "inciting their colleagues to disobedience" after a union general assembly agreed to take a 30-minute break during their 10-hour shifts--as stipulated in their collective bargaining agreement. The workers were forcibly expelled with the help of the riot police and their leaders dismissed despite the local labor board refusing to accept the dismissals.

As in several other African countries such as Egypt and Senegal, one aspect of the protests is the uncertainty over the future of the president. Constitutionally his term in office was due to end in 2015. With Compaoré standing down, there is rivalry over his succession--with two military leaders, for example, initially claiming to be leading the new regime.

The mass protest that led to the end of his regime were ignited when parliament was due to vote on a proposal for Compaoré to be allowed a further term as president. However, the leader of the opposition has said, "I am not afraid or ashamed to say that I am a neoliberal... today, the world belongs to us neoliberals." So even a change of president may not see a major change to the government's economic policies.

Tolé Sagnon, secretary general of CGT-B, a major trade union center, explained this problem, saying:

We can replace Blaise Compaoré with someone else who will choose the same neoliberal policies. In this sense, we need to develop critical thought toward the various political forces that are attempting to present themselves as alternatives to the current government but which, for the most part, share the basic fundamentals of the neoliberal policies of the existing government.

Even in Burkina Faso, where the majority of the people still live in rural areas, the organized working class usually forms the core of social protests. In the first half of 2014, this included:

-- significantly increased allowances for public-sector workers following a public-sector and teachers' strike in early February,

a three-day sit-in at the Ouagadougou municipality headquarters in early May, and

a one-day strike by public-sector journalists in radio, TV and print in mid-July over pay and against government interference.

But the lack of an organized socialist opposition with a clear view of the need for the self-emancipation of the working class means that these protests can often be contained within the limits of current society and so don't result is significant improvements for the working class or other poor people.

A radical break from neoliberal economic policies will only take place once the sugar workers, gold miners, teachers and other members of the core working class are able to use the power they have clearly exercised to end their exploitation and alienation. But it needs the development of a clear socialist organization with mass support to fuse the power of the small, organized working class and the poor majority of the population.

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