Politics and Beer Go Together

For several days, a group of my neighbors outside a streetside “maquis” have been inviting me to have a beer with them. Last night, I stopped to say hi and ended up sitting for several hours for a fascinating conversation. Unfortunately, my phone’s battery died early in the process so I didn’t get any photos…

The Gouem family have an auto body shop and street-side cafe a block or two up the street. There are at least six or so of them, an uncle who is the patriarch and then a bunch of brothers and sisters that I met. A younger brother had done his education in the States at Cal State Dominguez Hills, and wanted to speak English, especially when he found out that I have been to LA (quite some time ago) and had actually heard of his institution. Another brother is a civil servant, and another is a member of the National Transitional Council, the national interim legislature set up after the overthrow of Blaise Compaoré. They were all fascinating.

The National Transitional Council was established last November to take the place of the National Assembly elected in the last year of Compaoré’s reign. Some members of the former Assembly took part, both from the former governing party and from the old opposition parties, but many of the members were people who came to the fore as leaders of the popular movement that ousted Comporé.  This is apparently the case of the Gouem brother who is a member, since he said he only got directly involved in politics a few years ago.

So since I had a real live opposition leader in front of me, as well as several bottles of beer to lubricate the conversation, I asked him the questions I had from last night. He said that the missing people on the electoral list are as likely – perhaps even more likely – to be urban middle-class people who lost faith in elections under Compaoré. He said that country people were an important part of Compaoré’s coalition and that, working through traditional chiefs, the former ruling party, the old CDP, had been very successful in getting country folks registered to vote. The question now was how were they going to vote in the absence of CDP candidates on the ballot – were they going to coalesce around any party, as, for example, any of several led by former CDP leaders who had fallen out with Compaoré before the end?

Which led us back to a discussion of political parties and their policies. I said it was really hard to tell what the policies of the different parties were. I haven’t seen any formal platform statements, and while party names and pedigrees suggest an ideological approach, there’s a big difference between abstract beliefs and actual behaviors in government, as witness the Socialist Party of France.

We also got into a discussion of what foreign governments could do to help (or hinder) the process. There was a good deal of criticism of France, who, from their perspective, had been pretty lax, both in the lead-up to the coup in warning General Diendéré off, and in the immediate aftermath, in condemning the coup. Correspondingly, a great deal of support for the US role: in the years preceding, for supporting the regular Burkinabè military with weapons and training, and in the immediate aftermath, when Ambassador Mushingi went on the radio within hours to condemn the putsch (we can’t say “coup” because that word has legal significance for American aid levels) and call for the release of the hostages. Then, the Ambassador took an active role in the negotiations for the peaceful resolution of the crisis, bringing along (at least that was the perception) the French ambassador in his wake. How different from the coup in Togo in 1986 when I was there, when the French took the lead in defending the military government with French paratroopers, and we were a footnote?

What I should have asked about was the role that governance-based NGO’s like the Democratic and Republican Institutes could play in the process. In the end it is mostly US government money, but it might be a little more acceptable to have foreigners working in your electoral process if they come from an NGO. And I get the impression that the electoral machinery could still use some support – for one thing, there is that issue of 17,000 polling places that should each have a full component of party observers to ensure full transparency. Voter education campaigns are underway. There is a billboard down the road – and if I get my bike back from the shop soon I’ll go get a picture of it to post – that urges people to refuse and report electoral fraud. From the image, I’m assuming they mean bribery and/or threats to get people to vote a particular way. One wonders how, if the voting is truly secret, anybody could influence a person’s choice? All you would have to do is lie. In the old days, it was much easier, because going into the election place you would get a bunch of ballots, each with the name of a candidate on it (and his picture, for those who don’t read). Then, you put the one of your choice in the box and carry the remaining ones outside with you to show the guy who is giving you the bribe and/or threatening you that you voted the right way. I have to say that this billboard is the only evidence I’ve seen so far of voter education. I listen to the radio intermittently but haven’t heard any discussion there yet. Maybe I should spend more time listening? I remember in Haiti we had a whole project set up to listen to all the radio news programs and produce summaries that were widely read. Wonder if they have something like that here?

Another interesting participant in our conversation, speaking of attitudes towards foreign governments, was a young man, Belko Tall, who is one of the organizers of an annual demonstration at the American Embassy on 9/11. Funny story, I’d actually heard of him before because Brenda Soya told me the story: back several years ago when they did the demo the first time the security people were terrified. “There’s going to be a demonstration at the Embassy? Let’s lock down, get extra security, call the Gendarmes,” and so on. Brenda invited the leaders of the demonstration inside to meet with the Ambassador. And they were charmed. Like anybody is charmed when they meet the Ambassador. But in reality, as Brenda understood, the demonstrators were there to show solidarity, to say that though they are Muslims they are not in favor of extremism or killing people at random, that America is not the enemy of Muslims. You couldn’t ask for better public relations.

All this conversation was a little rough on the liver. Now it’s morning, and although I’m without my bike (getting that handlebar replaced and a general checkup from Brenda’s bike mechanic) I’m going to go for a walk and sweat some of the hangover out.

Back from the walk, and I didn’t find the political billboard I was looking for, but I did find this one:

Human rights

It reads “No to violation of the rights of persons detained” and “People who are detained are still human beings. Respect their rights!” and is a product of the Burkinabè movement for People’s and Human rights with financing from the UN Development Program and the Japanese Embassy. Interesting – the people detained right now are the coup plotters, though presumably the intent of the funders was broader. In any case, I haven’t heard bad things about Burkinabè lockups or the justice system in general, though God knows I sure don’t want to be in jail here.

I also saw this very interesting bit of architecture

Six pack building

advertising beer, presumably sold inside. I’m calling it the six-pack building. Interestingly, between the beer bottles is a little representation of the White House, further driving home the point that things American are in fashion in Burkina Faso.

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