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.