The revolutionary reawakening of Burkina Faso
by Ben Morken
Wed 5th Nov 2014
We publish here an article written last week by Ben Morken of the International Marxist Tendency in South Africa, who reports on the revolutionary events unfolding in Burkina Faso. The situation has developed since this article was written - with President Compaoré resigning, further mass protests against attempts by the military to take power, and promises by the military to establish a transitional government - but it nevertheless provides a useful analysis of the events taking place.
The West African country of Burkina Faso exploded into a full blown revolutionary situation on Thursday 30th October, with tens of thousands of people storming the parliament and other government buildings, setting them ablaze, ransacking government offices and sending politicians, including long serving president Blaise Compaoré fleeing.
The people were protesting against plans of Compaoré to change the law which sets presidential term limits in order for him to extend his stay in office. These events mark a qualitative change in the situation and are bound to have an electrifying effect in West and Sub-Saharan Africa. Some already refer to it as Burkina Faso's ''Black Spring'', in reference to the Arab Spring.
On Thursday a massive crowd of thousands converged on the main square in the capital Ouagadougou and began marching towards the parliamentary buildings where the vote to extend the term limits was to be held. Protesters then stormed the compound and managed to break through the heavy security cordon. The police and the army were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the crowds of angry protesters. The crowds then surged into the parliament itself and managed to set the National Assembly and adjacent buildings alight. Flames soon engulfed the buildings. Black smoke was seen billowing from the parliament throughout the city. Panic-stricken, politicians then fled to a nearby hotel.
Once again we see how, in a revolutionary situation, when the masses have had enough and have decided to sweep away everything in their path, no amount of state repression can stop them.
An opposition MP told the Associated Press: ''I was inside when the demonstrators stormed in. I was put in a secure place by the parliament's security team. Now it is difficult to say what will happen next but things are out of control because the demonstrators are not listening to anyone.''
The crowds also besieged the nearby building of the state broadcaster and forced it off the air. Another section of the crowd marched on the presidential palace. Troops were deployed to try to disperse the demonstrators. Tear gas was fired at the marching crowds, including from a helicopter. There were reports of security forces opening fire with live ammunition on the protesters. Early reports said that at least three people were killed.
Events then took off sharply. In the second largest city, Bobo Dioulasso, the headquarters of the ruling party were set alight. Protests also erupted in Ouahigouya in the north of the country. In the capital, the homes of the president's relatives were burned down. Protesters constructed barricades and used them to block traffic. There were face offs with troops outside the presidential palace for hours. The massive sea of people made it clear on the streets that they wanted Compaoré out. ''We want Blaise to leave. We want change'', they demanded.
The government, comically, announced that the vote had been abandoned, after the building had been burned down and they were forced to flee! Compaoré then declared a state of emergency. He was forced to hand over power although he said he would stay on as head of the interim authority: ''I dissolve the government from today so to create conditions for change. A state of emergency is declared across the national territory. The chief of the armed forces is in charge of implementing this decision which enters into effect today,” he said in a statement on radio. Army general Honore Traore, the joint chief of staff then took over the government and dissolved parliament. He then announced a curfew from 7pm to 6pm. However, this was ignored by the revolutionary masses who continued to occupy the Place de la Nation, a major square in the capital (renamed by the demonstrators as Place de la Revolution), according to Al Jazeera.
The army then announced a transitional authority: ''A transitional body will be put in place in consultation with all parties. A return to the constitutional order is expected in no more than 12 months,” Traore announced.
Opposition leader, Zephirin Diabre opposed the state of emergency: ''The state of emergency is unacceptable. We are calling on the people to show they are against it. The resignation of President Compaoré is the only thing that can bring peace to the country'', he told a local broadcaster. However, this is a ruse. This is also the position of French imperialism. This is not a crisis involving one man, but a crisis of the entire regime that is in bed with the imperialists. The masses must only trust in themselves and overthrow the entire regime
These events open up a clear revolutionary situation. Thursday's events were the culmination of revolutionary events throughout the whole week. On Wednesday the trade unions called a general strike following a day of protests on Tuesday where up to one million people marched to call on the government to scrap plans to change the law on term limits. The demonstrations turned violent with crowds battling armed police with iron bars and stones. The police charged the protesters when they came too close to the presidential palace. There was then a mass rally of hundreds of thousands of people outside the presidential palace with protesters blowing whistles and vuvuzelas and carrying banners reading ''Blaise GET OUT!'' and ''DON'T TOUCH ARTICLE 37!", in reference to the constitutional term limit that was going to be scrapped to allow the president to seek re-election.
One opposition protester said: ''Our march is already a huge success, phenomenal. Our struggle has entered its final phase. It is make or break time - nation or death.'' Women took part in the demonstration bearing raised wooden spatulas - a symbol of defiance.
Earlier on Tuesday violence broke out just before dawn as the police battled youths who were barricading the country's main highway. Thousands of people also occupied the Place de la Nation. Protesters have been erecting barricades and burning tyres in the capital city since the proposal on the changing of the law was announced on 21 October. The opposition leaders consist of various groups and former insiders of the previous government. The initial aim was just to protest the extension of presidential terms. But unbeknown to them, they have unleashed forces they cannot control.
Blaise Compaoré has been the president of Burkina Faso for the last 27 years. He came into office through a coup that had the full backing of French imperialism. This coup was organized against the legendary African revolutionary, Thomas Sankara who was supposed to be the friend and comrade of Compaoré.
Thomas Sankara was an outstanding revolutionary figure and revered liberation hero. He is generally referred to as ''Africa's Che Guevara''. He came to power in the former French colony of what was then called Upper Volta through a military coup in 1983. In fact, the country has a history of left-wing coups. Sankara's aim was to restore the dignity and pride of the African people. He immediately changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso, meaning ''Land of the Upright man'', or ''Country of the Incorruptible.'' However his legacy goes beyond symbolic gestures.
He immediately carried out some of the most sweeping revolutionary programmes in African history. Sankara nationalised all land and mineral wealth immediately. He cut all ties with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He carried out a radical land reform programme with the aim of making the country self-sufficient enough not to rely on aid from the West. Food production, especially wheat increased enormously under his leadership to the extent that the country could produce all basic needs for its people.
He was an anti-imperialist fighter and wanted to break away from the practice of receiving aid from the imperialists. That is why, he turned away from the IMF and the World Bank. ''He who feeds you, controls you,'' he said. He also pulled Burkina Faso out of participating in the 1984 Olympic Games in solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
Thomas Sankara prioritized health and education. Within his first year in office, 2.5 million children were vaccinated. His government was one of the first governments to publicly recognize the HIV epidemic as a serious health threat. School attendance more than doubled in his first two years in government.
He loathed the weak and parasitic African bourgeoisie, calling them ''passive and pathetic consumers.'' Sankara shunned living lavishly and made radical pay cuts to his own wages and those of top officials, earning just $450 a month. He made his ministers travel in the cheapest cars on the market.
He spoke and acted against corruption: ''The enemies of our people here inside this country are all those who have illicitly taken advantage of their social position and their place in the bureaucracy to enrich themselves. By means of bribery, manoeuvres, and forged documents, they have become shareholders in different companies," he said.
Under the four years of his leadership, the position of women improved enormously. ''The revolution and women's liberation go together. We do not talk of women's emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution,” he said. His government banned female genital mutilation and forced marriages. Women were allowed to initiate divorce for the first time. Sankara actively sought out women to serve in his cabinet and in the army.
Many Burkinabes still cherish Sankara's nationalisation policies. A retired professor of economics, Noel Nebie, told Al Jazeera: ''Sankara wanted a thriving Burkina Faso, relying on local human and natural resources as opposed to aid… And starting with agriculture, which represents more than 32 percent of the country's GDP and employs 80 percent of the working population, he smashed the economic elite who controlled most of the arable land and granted access to subsistence farmers. That improved production making the country almost self- sufficient.”
Blaise Compaoré and the French coup
Sankara endeared himself to the masses by standing up to the landlords and capitalists. However, there was also another side to him. His bonapartist tendencies meant that he saw change as having to come from above, and saw any organised workers’ movement that could challenge his decisions as an obstacle, and that explains why he had incessant clashes with organised trade unions. For example, the strike by the teachers in October 1987 led to the dismissal of over 2,500 teachers. It was this aspect that led to the weakening of his regime.
At the same time, French imperialism could not allow such a revolutionary regime to survive for long and eventually organized a coup led by Blaise Compaoré who was responsible for Sankara's death. In a cowardly manner, Thomas Sankara was murdered in the early hours of the morning and buried in a shallow grave. Al Jazeera reports that many protesters on Thursday said that they were inspired by the memory of Thomas Sankara.
Compaoré immediately reversed all previous reforms. Born in 1950 and trained in Cameroon and Morocco, Blaise Compaoré served under Thomas Sankara as Minister to the Presidency before overthrowing him. He remained in office since then, being re-elected president four times since 1991 - two seven-year and two-five year terms. In 2005 constitutional limits were introduced. Compaoré's second five year term was to come to an end in 2015.
He disarmed local militias and, despite his reputed left-wing leanings, embarked on a programme of privatisation and austerity measures sponsored by the International Monetary Fund. He officially ''rejected'' socialism prior to being elected president unopposed in 1991.
But he had to tread carefully at first, referring to his counter-reforms as so-called ''pragmatic Marxism''. With the help of the French government, Blaise Compaoré managed to stabilise the situation. In 1991 he received a massive loan from the IMF which demanded a Structural Adjustment Programme.
The economy grew at a rate of 10 percent, but at the expense of the poor. More than half of the population was trapped into poverty. This growth only led to the creation of a few super-rich individuals at the top, with a mass of poor at the bottom.
Life expectancy is only 45 years and according to the UN Human Development Index, the country ranks as one of the poorest in Africa. Over 80 percent of the population live in rural areas and 90 percent work in agriculture. This backwardness is the direct result of the policies imposed by French imperialism and the IMF.
The 2008 global crisis of capitalism led to the sharp drop in the prices of commodities such as cotton. This was a major turning point and the origins of the current mass movement. In early 2011 Compaoré faced a serious challenge to his authority when mutinous soldiers joined protesters demanding better wages and action against declining living standards. The mutinies were successfully quelled and hundreds of soldiers were court-martialed or dismissed.
The events unfolding now mark a qualitative change in the situation. Whatever happens, the uprising of the revolutionary masses is bound to have a big impact in West Africa and throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Of particular importance would be the situation in Nigeria, which also experienced revolutionary moods in January 2012 during the Occupy Nigeria movement.
What has been noticeable, initially, is how conspicuously absent some African leaders were in commenting on these events. This is no accident. Compaoré is one of West Africa's most important leaders. He has been an important power broker and has been doing the bidding of American imperialism in the Ivory Coast and in Mali. He is a very close ally of America. A US military base in Ouagadougou has been operating since 2007 which is a hub for a US spy network in the region, with spy planes departing from this base and flying over Mali and the Sahara.
This revolutionary uprising in Burkina Faso is also a direct warning to other long time dictators like Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Biya of Cameroon. Thomas Sankara's legacy is also enormous in South Africa, where the Economic Freedom Fighters have installed a ''Thomas Sankara oath'' for their office bearers.
After the revolutionary events of yesterday it is clear that today, Friday 31, is crucial. The Compaoré regime is still trying to cling to power. The president has gone into hiding, but the army has formally taken power in his name and talked about a one year transitional period. This is too little too late from the point of view of the masses and even the bourgeois opposition politicians can see it and have rejected the declaration.
What they would like is for Compaoré to relinquish power altogether and for some sort of “national unity government” to be formed including themselves. There is also talk of another army officer, the former minister of defence, stepping in and taking over as a “friend of the people”. The French and US embassies are working around the clock so that they can channel the situation back into some semblance of “institutional” legality - anything but giving power to the people who are the ones who have fought bravely in the streets and borne the brunt of state repression.
The masses, correctly have remained on the streets and this morning there have been calls for renewed mobilisation. Crowds are gathering outside the main government buildings and the Chief of Staff of the Army has been demanding that Compaoré should go immediately. The youth “Citizens Broom” (Balai Citoyen) movement has issued the rallying cry of “Down with the military bourgeoisie” and appealed for the “real army” to unite with the people.
The leader of the Sankarist Party Bénéwendé Sankara has said that “the only strong man is the people”. This is the correct line to be putting forward: No deals behind the backs of the people, no trust in bourgeois politicians nor generals! The masses can only trust in their own forces: All power to the people! Committees of action should be organised everywhere and coordinated at local, regional and national level, perhaps modelled on Sankara’s Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. These committees should take over the organisation of public life, self-defence, supplies, etc.
It is not enough to occupy and destroy the symbols of the hated power of the regime. A new, revolutionary, power must be put in their place. Above all, the revolution, which started over constitutional and democratic issues, must adopt a wider programme of food, housing and jobs, a social programme which can address the real needs of the masses.
Events are moving at an enormous pace and the situation is very fluid. If the masses can overthrow the entire regime, it will only double the impact that this will have on the entire Africa continent. Whichever way events move in the coming days, one thing is certain: the genie is out of the bottle. The Black Spring has begun!
This article first appeared at http://www.socialist.net/the-revolutionary-reawakening-of-burkina-faso.htm