Burkina in Revolt


By David Michael Newstead.

Ernest Harsch’s latest book is a political history of Burkina Faso from the colonial era up to the present. It’s marked by dramatic events and missed opportunities that could serve as a microcosm for a story replicated across Africa. Indeed, the book follows a country born from arbitrary borders, exploited by foreign powers, and upon independence left to deal with the legacy and political scaffolding of a repressive, unaccountable government. But in vivid detail, Harsch describes the tradition of rebellion that has changed the course of this landlocked country’s history again and again. In the introduction, he writes:

For more than a quarter-century Burkina Faso’s legislature sat prominently at the heart of the capital, Ouagadougou, a representation of dominance by the country’s ruling elites. But now the walls of the former National Assembly are soot-blackened, its window shattered, and the skeleton of a fire-gutted vehicle sits just inside the main gate. The charred ruins were left by angry demonstrators who sacked and burned the building in a popular insurrection that ousted an autocratic president, Blaise Compaoré, during the last two days of October 2014. Although elections were held a year later, the new legislators met elsewhere in temporary quarters, with no plans to restore the former seat of parliament. Rather, they chose to transform it into a museum and monument, a lasting reminder to future generations that the insurgent action of ordinary citizens – their “transformative violence,” as the official museum agreement termed it – can oblige rulers to respect “the sovereign people’s will, democracy, and freedom.”

Like many others, the people of Burkina Faso embrace their historical symbols. Almost a century before the October 2014 insurrection, in 1915-16, there was an anti-colonial uprising by the peoples of the west, bloodily suppressed by French forces. There was also a January 1966 outpouring in Ouagadougou that brought down the nation’s first president, followed by an August 1983 takeover by a revolutionary alliance led by Thomas Sankara. The contemporary name of the country, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), and its people, Burkinabé, date from that revolutionary era. Many local political thinkers and activists cite this heritage of revolt in explaining the Burkinabé people’s readiness to challenge oppressive authority.

Today, Ernest Harsch joins me to discuss his book and African politics past and present as other countries on the continent continue to grapple with entrenched rulers of their own. In light of that fact, Burkina Faso provides a notable success story worth examining.

David Newstead: First, do former leaders like President Yameogo or General Lamizana have any contemporary significance in Burkina Faso? Or are the days of “Upper Volta” now considered ancient history?

Ernest Harsch: Neither have much contemporary significance, except perhaps among an older generation. That said, Burkinabè tend to recall Lamizana somewhat more fondly than any of the other presidents before Sankara, in part because he lived a modest life, did not engage in wholesale corruption and his regime was only moderately repressive. By contrast, many revile Yaméogo for his authoritarianism and corruption. The anniversary of the popular uprising that brought his downfall is in fact still celebrated as a national holiday.

As for the days of Upper Volta, most Burkinabè who think about their history would probably see elements of both continuity and rupture. The changes brought about by Sankara’s revolution were profound, but some were undone during the Compaoré era, including a reversion to some of the practices of the 1960s and 1970s, including patronage politics and reliance on rural chiefs to keep villagers in line.

David Newstead: Revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara is often labelled Africa’s Che Guevara. I understand the comparison because both of them are Marxist revolutionaries who wore berets. But just to scrutinize this characterization a little, wasn’t Sankara much less controversial than Che?

Ernest Harsch: Both had some controversial aspects, but admirers tend to focus on their positive legacies. In Burkina Faso, for obvious reasons, people know a lot more about Sankara, while Che is largely a distant image seen on T-shirts. In Latin America, Che is clearly much more of a hero, and Sankara little known.

David Newstead: Related to that, I’ve heard mention of a supportive relationship between Thomas Sankara and Cuban President Fidel Castro who was involved in Africa in a number of ways. Can you expand on what that connection was like?

Ernest Harsch: The close relations between Sankara and Castro were a matter of public record. When Sankara was briefly prime minister in an earlier government, he specifically sought out Castro during a Non-Aligned Movement summit in New Delhi. Then after he became president he visited Cuba twice and again met with Castro. Sankara repeatedly praised the Cuban revolution, and in discussions with me made a point of the Cuban government’s efforts to ensure that services reached the most remote rural residents, not just people in the cities. Castro in turn admired Sankara’s role in Burkina Faso and in Africa more widely, and sent assistance to Burkina Faso in a variety of fields, including health, agriculture, education, and stock raising.

David Newstead: So, how did Sankara’s Marxism actually influence his policies?

Ernest Harsch: Sankara was a Marxist, and proudly so. Few of the policies of his government could be considered specifically Marxist, however. Sankara pointed out that Burkina Faso was such a poor and underdeveloped country, with little industry and a tiny working class, that the process there could not be compared with the Russian Revolution, for example. In Marxist terms, the tasks facing Sankara and his fellow revolutionaries were essentially democratic, in the sense of expanding opportunities for everyone, especially among the poor, combating the dominance of the old political and social elites, building a somewhat unified nation-state and achieving genuine national independence (from France and other Western powers). Some of those policies had a lasting impact, while others have since been eroded.

David Newstead: Is nation-building really the enduring success of this revolutionary era? In the book, you talk about how Burkina Faso’s national identity really came together during the Sankara years even among his critics.

Ernest Harsch: The revolutionary era under Sankara marked a major surge in efforts to build a stronger, more cohesive national identity. There was the symbolism of renaming the country from Upper Volta—the French colonial designation—to Burkina Faso, which means “Land of the Upright People” from words in two different African languages. Almost no one, even among politically conservative critics of Sankara, has suggested going back to “Upper Volta.” They are too proud of their identity as Burkinabè. In social terms, that identity also acknowledges all the country’s language, ethnic and religious groups. In the past, the Mossi, whose chiefs were favored by the colonial authorities and who comprise nearly half the population, were generally seen as dominant. Now there is great inclusiveness, with careful attention to ensuring that members of all ethnic groups are represented in government, politics, business and the professions. It is not perfect, of course, and some strains do exist, but the progress in forging a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-confessional identity has served to help minimize the kind of conflicts that plague a number of Burkina Faso’s neighbors.

David Newstead: Thomas Sankara’s assassination in 1987 is now being investigated along with other human rights abuses in the aftermath of Blaise Compaoré’s fall from power in 2014. How do you think this trial is progressing? And what do you think the verdict will be?             

Ernest Harsch: The formal judicial procedures only began in 2015, long after Sankara’s death. About a dozen individuals have been charged, including Compaoré, who is in exile in Côte d’Ivoire, and General Diendéré, who has been in custody since his failed coup attempt in September 2015. It is hard to know how long the process will take. There is considerable public impatience to finally see justice—in the cases of Sankara, journalist Norbert Zongo, and others—but the investigators and prosecutors seem to be treading carefully. It is likely that there will be a number of guilty verdicts, although the lead suspect (Compaoré) may not actually serve his sentence, since the Ivorian government will not likely accede to Burkina Faso’s request for extradition.

David Newstead: Do you think the killings of political figures like Major Lingani and Captain Henri Zongo warrant investigation as well? And is there much interest in these men nowadays?

Ernest Harsch: Lingani and Zongo played important historic roles in Sankara’s revolution. Although they sided with Compaoré during his rift with Sankara, they do not appear to have played any direct role in Compaoré’s 1987 coup. Compaoré clearly didn’t trust them, and his security chief, Gilbert Diendéré, fabricated a coup plot in 1989 to justify their summary execution. Although their names later came up from time to time in discussions of the Compaoré regime’s political crimes, they didn’t elicit the same kind of passions as the cases of Sankara or Norbert Zongo, for example. Since Compaoré’s overthrow, a High Council for Reconciliation and National Unity has been set up to look into more than 5,000 cases of unresolved economic and “blood” crimes—including the killings of Lingani and Zongo.

David Newstead: What do you think is behind Thomas Sankara’s enduring appeal to young people thirty years after his death?

Ernest Harsch: Sankara’s appeal rests above all on his revolutionary and pan-African ideas, which resonate with young people in Burkina Faso and across Africa. And because he actively tried to put them into practice during his brief time in power—and provided a personal example of honesty and modesty—it became obvious that Sankara was a strikingly different kind of leader than so many corrupt despots in Africa and the rest of the world. Most immediately within Burkina Faso, he provided such a stark contrast with Compaoré that many people across the political spectrum have now come to accept Sankara as a genuine national hero.

David Newstead: You mention that activists from Burkina Faso’s 2014 revolution are now training democratic activists in other African countries. Do you see the effects of that in what’s currently going on in Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo or what just took place in Zimbabwe for instance?

Ernest Harsch: I would not say that Burkinabè activists are “training” their counterparts elsewhere. It’s not a question of imparting specific skills. Rather they are extending solidarity, sharing their experiences, explaining how they had some success at home, and leaving it to activists from other countries to decide what lessons, if any, may be of use in their own struggles. Overall, it seems obvious that the ouster of Compaoré has been an inspiration to democratic activists across Africa.

David Newstead: Turning to overthrown leaders like Blaise Compaoré, Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia, and Robert Mugabe, it seems like former African dictators are now able to successfully leverage their decades in power into lucrative exit packages and near immunity from prosecution if they just agree to leave office. Is that really progress or a dangerous precedent? 

Ernest Harsch: Despite the broad shift toward multi-party electoral systems in Africa in the 1990s, far too many presidents were able to build dominant political parties and patronage systems that left little room for genuine opposition and dissent. More recently, as shown by the downfalls of Compaoré and several others, such rulers are not omnipotent and can be ousted, whether by popular revolt, electoral defeat or rifts within the ruling elites themselves. In part, that may reflect the growing power of ordinary citizens, who are getting better organized and more apt to express themselves in the streets. To that extent, the trend represents some progress. But insofar as entrenched political elites are still able to hang on—perhaps by pushing aside an aging president to defuse popular anger—then clearly much more work needs to be done at the grassroots, to build citizens’ confidence and capacities.

David Newstead: In your view, did Burkina Faso start an African Spring? And are we entering a new era for governing in Africa?

Ernest Harsch: Burkina Faso did not start anything. Struggles for freedom and rights have been ongoing across Africa for decades, with ups and downs over time and in both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. The popular uprisings of 2010-11 that brought down the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt inspired people across the continent, and many activists in sub-Saharan Africa hoped that revolts similar to the Arab Spring might arise in their own countries. There were popular movements in many African countries, but so far only in Burkina Faso did they succeed in directly overthrowing a sitting president. Whether or not other countries eventually follow a similar pattern, the important development is that ordinary African citizens are less and less willing to accept corrupt, repressive or incompetent leaders who do little but line their own pockets while carrying out the dictates of Africa’s former colonial masters. Sooner or later, those movements from below will usher in a “new era” of governing. Burkinabè are proud of their contribution to that overall process.

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A Historic Election in Burkina Faso

By David Michael Newstead.

In October 2014, the longtime president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, was overthrown in a mass uprising. At the time, Compaoré was trying to amend the constitution, extending his 27-year rule indefinitely. But the backlash to those plans was swift and intense. People set fire to parliament and flooded the streets in protest. In the aftermath, Compaoré fled the country, an interim government was established, and elections were scheduled for October 2015.

Not long after that, several high profile investigations were launched into the alleged crimes of the former regime. But those efforts and the 2015 elections were nearly derailed by a dramatic coup attempt staged by Compaoré loyalists this September. Despite those obstacles, voting took place on November 30th, beginning the country’s first peaceful transition of power in decades. To find out more, I spoke with biographer and Burkina Faso expert Ernest Harsch about this historic election.

David Newstead: In your view, what are the main takeaways from the election?

Ernest Harsch: Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of the People’s Movement for Progress was declared winner of the presidential election. The emergence of a clear victor will go a long way towards restoring political stability in a country marked by turbulence since a popular uprising ousted the autocratic government of Blaise Compaoré.

Without a parliamentary majority, Kaboré will first need delicately to forge alliances across party lines. To prove to skeptics that he has broken from his past with the former regime, he will need to tackle high-level impunity on past abuses and corruption. Without notable improvements, citizens disaffected by years of poor governance may again resort to street action to effect political change.

That said, the Independent National Electoral Commission enjoys wide credibility. A sign of this was the updated registration list to 5.5 million potential voters – 70% more than for the last presidential election in 2010. The election was competitive. After the exclusion of several prospective old-regime candidates, there still were 14 presidential contenders. Nearly 7,000 candidates stood for the 127 national assembly seats, from 81 political parties and 19 groups of independents. With no one from the transitional government allowed to run, the race was free of the favoritism of incumbency. The legitimacy and credibility of Kaboré’s 53.5% win should be understood in this context.

David Newstead: The last time we spoke in June, you specifically cited General Gilbert Diendéré as a possible threat to the country’s transition to democracy. In September, he led a coup attempt against the interim government and his forces briefly imprisoned the president and the prime minister. After the coup failed, I know that there was some talk about granting amnesty to the perpetrators. Can you clarify what happened next?

Ernest Harsch: Diendéré never got amnesty. One African mediator had suggested the idea while his coup was still underway, but almost everyone in Burkina rejected it. Diendéré was arrested as soon as the coup was defeated, and is now in prison, along with a bunch of other coup ringleaders.

David Newstead: How do you think the newly elected government will influence the on-going investigation into the assassination of President Thomas Sankara in 1987?

Ernest Harsch: A few days ago, General Diendéré was also formally charged in Sankara’s assassination. That judicial process (in a military court) will probably proceed according to its own rules and pace, and there is little the new incoming government can do about it (and no sign that it would want to). So hopefully there will finally be some justice.

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The Life and Death of Thomas Sankara

9780821421260-coverBy David Michael Newstead.

For those who are familiar with it, the life of Thomas Sankara has a certain Shakespearean quality. He was a genuine and dynamic leader who came to power on a continent that’s mostly known for kleptocrats and entrenched dictators. Sankara set ambitious goals to reduce poverty in Burkina Faso and championed women’s rights. He fought against corruption and stood up to the old colonial power. Ultimately though, he was betrayed and murdered by his close friend, Blaise Compaoré. And as president, Compaoré went on to become the very antithesis of his predecessor – a corrupt tyrant winning rigged elections year after year in a country mired in poverty.

But decades after his death, people continue to remember Thomas Sankara, while other leaders have become little more than a footnote. Today, he’s known as the African Che Guevara and the man who turned Upper Volta into Burkina Faso. While his death in 1987 might seem like ancient history to Americans, Blaise Compaoré was only overthrown in late 2014 as rioters burned down parliament to prevent him from extending his presidency any further. In the aftermath, there’s renewed interest in Sankara’s legacy and today I’m speaking with Sankara biographer, Ernest Harsch. Harsch is a Columbia University professor and formerly a journalist in Africa during Sankara’s rule. His recent book, Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary, is an engaging and approachable portrait of this historical figure. It also happens to be the first-ever English language biography of the man.

David Newstead: You actually knew Thomas Sankara in the 1980s, how would you describe his personality and his behavior towards others?

Ernest Harsch: Well, I observed him both directly face-to-face and at public events. How he spoke to crowds and with colleagues. I first met him in 1984 when he came to the U.S. to speak in front of the United Nations. Immediately, you could tell he was kind of different. Very direct. Very frank. Not liking the general pomp that came with the office. That he was interested in ideas. He’d think for a while, then respond to your questions. In terms of public events, he really knew how to talk to people. He was a great orator. He loved to joke. He often played with the French language and coined new terms. And often puns. So, he had a sense of humor. In Burkina Faso, you’d see him riding around the capital on a bicycle or walking around on foot without an entourage. Talking to some of his aides, he was not an easy person to work for. He really pushed people. There was this sense of urgency concerning health, education, the efficiency of the state apparatus. He insisted on people making decisions and taking responsibility for those decisions. He came across as someone who was genuinely committed to the development of his people. He wasn’t in it either for the glory or for the money. Definitely not the money. After he became president, his children stayed in the public schools. His parents stayed in their old house. And his wife kept her job as an accountant. He turned away relatives who showed up asking for patronage jobs. And that was so untypical around Africa. One of the lasting images of him was his incorruptibility and he insisted on fighting corruption. And that may have been one of the factors that fed into the coup against him.

David Newstead: In your view, what was his greatest strength and his greatest weakness as a leader?

Ernest Harsch: He had great self-confidence, not blindly so. He felt strongly that if you believed in an idea that it was possible. In his case, building up a nation basically from scratch. He had confidence in himself, in those around him, and in ordinary people. He brought a certain energy. One weakness I think is the same thing. He had a lot of faith in ordinary people, but that couldn’t overcome the weakness of the political circles in Burkina Faso. A lot of ordinary young people admired him and the work of the revolution. But when he was killed, most of that collapsed. And Compaoré took over. But many felt Sankara was not just the father of the revolution, but also the father of Burkina Faso.

David Newstead: Did you also have any interactions with Blaise Compaoré at the time? And if so, what were your impressions of him?

Ernest Harsch: Uh, no. There were occasions I might have, but it just didn’t work out. I was invited to interview him after Sankara was killed. I turned it down. Probably, I was too upset by the coup. Let other journalists do that. Maybe I spoke with him in large press settings, but not one-on-one. Compaoré became very close to conservative elites in Burkina Faso and around the region as well as some really unsavory people: Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Charles Taylor in Liberia. Compaoré went back to the old way with him as supreme patron, ruling by dispensing favors. So, a lot of corruption. And when corruption didn’t work, there was the heavy hand of repression like with the death of investigative journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998. By 2014, the only way to keep Compaoré in power would have been a major bloodbath.

David Newstead: In the book, you detail Sankara’s death in 1987 along with 12 of his staff members. They were shot to death, except for one man who managed to survive his wounds and provide an eyewitness account. In May of this year, their bodies were finally exhumed after 27 years as part of an on-going investigation. What are your feelings on this effort and what do you think authorities might discover?

Ernest Harsch: This is the first real movement to finally come to grips with Sankara’s assassination. The new transitional government promised to open judicial investigations into the death of Norbert Zongo and Thomas Sankara. Older Zongo investigations had been stalled in the past, but there had never been an investigation into Sankara’s death for obvious reasons. So, a military judge has been assigned to the case and this can be extremely politically explosive. In 1987, some people bragged after the coup that they killed him. Some of those people are dead now. Some are still alive. General Gilbert Diendéré is the most notable person. He’s still very powerful and very dangerous. The investigation could point towards him as well as other officials. And there’s so much sentiment to get at the truth now. Hundreds of people came to the scene, while the bodies were being exhumed. People want to know the truth. What happened? Who ordered it? Many think there’s a chance of charges being brought against Blaise Compaoré himself. And it’s been discussed in the UN Human Rights Committee. A case needs to be brought, because this is a wider issue than just for Burkina Faso. What happens with this case matters for other cases. For those killed or unjustly imprisoned like with Zongo and many others. Whether this goes far before the elections in October 2015, we don’t know. It could be a very good instance of coming to terms with the ghosts of the past. For the last quarter century, the truth has either been ignored or buried and people want answers.

David Newstead: I just want to clarify something. Recently, I saw an interview with Sankara’s younger brother, Paul. He said that the cause of death was listed on official documents in 1987 as “natural causes“. Is that actually true?

Ernest Harsch: Yeah, I saw that at the time. That’s part of the reason exhuming the bodies is important. Identify whose remains are in which grave, because the families want to know. And the other thing is to examine how they actually died.

David Newstead: Yeah. But hypothetically even if Sankara had died from natural causes, I’m not quite sure how the 12 people around him would have spontaneously died from natural causes as well. How does the former colonial power, France, fit into all this?

Ernest Harsch: There’s been a request of opening up the French security archives to see if there’s any documentary evidence of French involvement in the 1987 coup. That’s one thing the French could do. But right as Compaoré was fleeing the country last year, President Hollande openly admitted that they sent in French Special Forces to assist in his departure. If Burkina Faso ever requests his extradition that should be taken seriously. France pledged support to the transitional government, but I would say the French government doesn’t seem too keen about doing mea culpa’s.

David Newstead: You know, there have been a lot of African leaders over the years. Why do you think people should care who Thomas Sankara was?

Ernest Harsch: Partly, because it’s a rare instance of a leader who had a real rapport with his people, who was genuinely interested in improving their conditions, and at least trying to organize ordinary people to improve their conditions. Here we’re in an era where most African leaders go through elections – however genuine they are. But it’s still all too often that an African leader is in power either for his own benefit or that for his family or party or a particular ethnic group. So, Sankara is really an example that something can be done, even in one of the poorest countries in the world.

David Newstead: Ultimately, how do you think Sankara’s legacy will compare to leaders like Blaise Compaoré?

Ernest Harsch: It’s already starkly different. I read the Burkinabé press daily. Sankara is seen as a hero. A variety of political parties rally behind him. So, Sankara’s legacy is there. Compaoré didn’t really leave much of a legacy. That wasn’t really the kind of presidency he had unless you count foreign bank accounts. Maybe there were some donor investments and some improvements in the capital. But when Sankara was killed, he was mourned across Africa. Some countries lowered their flags to half-mast. I don’t see anybody having any regrets of Compaoré’s departure. Also, Sankara was certainly ahead of his time among African leaders in terms of promoting women’s rights and putting it on the agenda, trying to tackle difficult social development issues. And he promoted women into the cabinet, which was quite unusual in African countries at the time. Important posts, too. One of his ministers is the Justice Minister in Burkina Faso today in the transitional government. And he was a male leader who really took seriously women’s rights as best you could in a country like that at the time.

David Newstead: Now that the biography is done, what’s your next project?

Ernest Harsch: I’m writing sort of a political history for Burkina Faso through the colonial era up to the election in October 2015. I’m also working on a piece about the bodies being exhumed now.

David Newstead: Important, but very fluid developments to keep an eye on as the elections approach.

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From the LA Times: An Article in Retrospect

Sankara, Charismatic Leader of Burkina Faso, Killed in Coup

October 17, 1987 | From Times Wire Services

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Capt. Thomas Sankara, the charismatic leader of Burkina Faso who preached hard work and incorruptibility, was killed in Thursday’s coup by forces loyal to his chief aide, witnesses said Friday.

Sankara, 37, was shot to death in a gun battle at the presidential palace when his personal guard tried to repulse forces loyal to the coup leader, Capt. Blaise Compaore, the witnesses said.

(The Associated Press, quoting an unnamed official source, reported that Sankara and 12 other officials were executed and buried Friday.)

Compaore, 36, was a boyhood friend of Sankara and had been his No. 2 man in the leftist government. Compaore, Sankara and two other soldiers were the nucleus of a coup that put Sankara in power in August, 1983.

Western diplomats said Compaore appeared to be of the same mold as Sankara, with perhaps a more pro-Soviet inclination. At least 13 other people were reported killed and some reports said the figure could go as high as 100 dead in Burkina Faso, a landlocked West African nation of 7 million people formerly called Upper Volta.

Witnesses said Sankara and the others, mostly soldiers, were buried in a small cemetery east of the capital. Each grave was identified, and Sankara’s name was on one of them. Residents said a large number of people visited Sankara’s grave Friday.

The government radio made no mention of Sankara’s fate, but regional stations broadcast news of his death.

A communique read on government radio Friday night said Sankara had planned to “arrest and execute” his opponents during a meeting scheduled Thursday night. The communique said some members of the presidential guard and security forces learned of Sankara’s plan and acted to “avoid an unnecessary bloodbath.”

Compaore announced that representatives from the country’s 30 provinces would meet to elect a new president. The announcement did not set a date for the election.