A few hours ago I flinched after one tweet exchange with the inimitable Jon Lee Anderson. Fuck! I’ve been reading him in The New Yorker for years, and he tweets about Burkina Faso, and I try to be all sassy like I know more than he does, and I get schooled.
Basically the brief exchange was about nuance when commenting on what is and has happened in Burkina Faso. I bristle when I sense commentators putting things into sinners-saints and heros-villains. I’ve always loved Bertold Brecht’s lines from Galileo: Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.
Galileo: No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.
Heros with capital H are not the answer to anything. As reporter Joe Penney pointed out (one of the few western journalists on the ground during today’s demonstrations) the real lower-case heroes are the hundreds of youth who defied the security forces and pushed through the police barricades and said “trop, c’est trop.” But they have no names. And they deserve more than a sinner-saint version of history.
So what am I referring to exactly? Well in Burkina Faso’s case it is the tendency to cast Thomas Sankara as an other-worldy combination of Mother Theresa and Che Guevara, a manly killing machine who would wipe out imperialism in the name of the lepers and then pick up his guitar and strum “Across the Universe” around a campfire while comrades did the cooking and women cleaned the guns.
Here’s the nuance in some bullet points:
- Sankara took power in a coup d’etat. By force. And he didn’t announce a transition to civilian rule. He intended to stay in power. For a good long while. Who did he admire? Jerry Rawlings. Would he have followed his example? We will never know. Because he also admired Fidel Castro.
- Sankara’s fellow coup plotter in 1983 was Blaise Compaoré. Sankara had been imprisoned by Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo (an army doctor who had assumed the presidency in the military interregnum of 1983), and Blaise’s forces had freed him. So if Blaise is the devil, then Sankara was a serious misjudge of character.
- Killing Sankara can never be justified, but Sankara’s forces themselves had killed Gabriel Somé Yoryam, the previous army chief of staff, in their 1983 coup. Sankara did not offer to put himself on trial for that killing.
- In 1987, when Blaise loyalists killed Sankara, it was not something that happened out of the blue. Sankara himself knew that he was in a power struggle with Blaise and others. Blaise and others wanted rectification and pragmatism, Sankara wanted to devote more attention to revolutionary internationalism. The regime had lost almost all its legitimacy and was struggling to survive. The “political class” of Burkina was against the young revolutionary military captains. Why? Well, one reason was that when the teacher’s union went on strike, Sankara ordered them all to be fired!
- What forces in the country did Sankara characterize as evil owls? Traditional leaders like the Mogho Naba. Who have all the opposition figures today asked to intercede and negotiate a transition? The Mogho Naba. Whatever one thinks of the Mogho Naba and inherited rule (which personally I loathe) politically-speaking it was a major miscalculation on Sankara’s part.
- The major opposition leaders- Salif Diallo (formerly Blaise’s right hand man in politics), Roch Marc Christian Kaboré (formerly head of CDP and speaker of the National Assembly that was just looted), and Zepherin Diabré (formerly finance minister and Africa chief of AREVA, the French nuclear giant)… well…. they were also part of Sankara’s revolution. Should they all be characterized as traitors and sinners? None of them went out on the line in the past 15 years, until 2013. Diabré, to his credit, started earlier, and presumably was pursuing a real-politique.
- Blaise asked for pardon and was given pardon by the political elite in 1999, the year after the killing of Norbert Zongo. The political elite led enormous demonstrations against Pres. Compaoré. They chose to compromise, rather than pursue a more “street” approach. Right or wrong, that was the choice at the time. Blaise and his circle then manipulated and consolidated their hold on power. The opposition, in the inimitable words of Joseph Ki-Zerbo, basically went back to sleep. They finally woke up in 2013. (After clicking the snooze button in 2011.)
- At the local level, the CDP controls practically every municipality. Local politics easily could have been more vibrant and contested. Political leaders chose an accommodating path of patronage and participation. The regime wasn’t all-powerful, it was all-coopting. There is a big difference I think.
- Why was CDP all-coopting? Because at the end of the day, the regime delivered. Burkina had maybe 3% per capita GDP growth for 15 years. Very rapid urbanization. Ouagadougou was booming. New universities constructed. Cell phone network throughout the country. A new wealthy middle and upper-class emerged. Political and media discourse became freer and freer. A real transition seemed like a likelihood. And then Blaise for reasons that remain very unclear, decided to ruin it all by insisting that he stay in power even after 27 years.