I was at Mass this morning, at my neighborhood parish of St. Camille. Before the service begins, they always read off this huge list of Mass intentions. “For Etienne Kaboré, at the request of those who attended his funeral.” “Thanksgiving for Jean Ouedrago, on the occasion of beginning his work as a public servant.” And so on. I usually get a little drowsy or read the little instructional bits in the missal. I suddenly jerked to attention this morning, though, when they announced an intention of “Thanksgiving for the children of so-and-so, on the occasion of her safe return from Mecca.” Presumably, this would have been one of the dozens of Burkinabè who were injured in the mass crush during the recent pilgrimage. But what’s interesting is that her kids are Catholics. And nobody seemed to think that unusual.
There are lots of people like this. Thomas Sankara was a Catholic whose father was a Muslim. There are also people who’ve gone the other way. The attitude of live and let live is, at first blush, surprising in a region where Islamist rebels are fighting national governments in three countries (Mali, just to the north, Niger, to the northeast, and Nigeria, just past Benin to the east). Theoretically, conversion from Islam is a grievous sin, apostasy. At a minimum, you shouldn’t be associating with apostates. But that sort of hard-core Islamic orthodoxy doesn’t seem to sell well here, even among those who consider themselves quite devout. My host family, the Thiam and Diop clan, are quite observant people. But they have little use for the Wahabis – there is a Wahabi mosque here, quite pretty, just down the street from the somewhat tumbly-down Grand Mosquée, but none of my family would go near the place.
You see people running around in that classic Wahabi black garb, from time to time, and my family laugh, “oh, the ninjas”. This was always the attitude of people I knew in Guinea, too. The Saudis have provided funding to renovate the grand mosquée in Conakry(a really beautiful and imposing structure), but the government got Kuwait to fund the associated Islamic school so they wouldn’t have to take Wahabi teachers. People in Africa often take their religion very seriously, and on those social issues of marriage, gender relations, gay rights, and so on they are quite strict, but fundamentalism and radicalism doesn’t play well. The apparent staying power of Islamic radicals in the region probably has more to do with ethnic divides or urban-rural tensions – in Mali and Niger, the rebels are from the generally despised and oppressed desert people, the Tuareg. In Nigeria and neighboring countries, Boko Haram is a movement based in rural areas that have been bypassed by Nigeria’s oil wealth and growing middle class. In both cases, the turn to Islamism as a philosophy of rebellion has angered some of the constituency. Malian Tuareg nationalist rebels turned against the Islamists after the capture of Timbuktu, when the rebels wanted to destroy the famous Islamic libraries there. Boko Haram has used very harsh repression to keep its rural constituents in line, and has ended up acting much more like rebel groups in Sierra Leone or Liberia than like a classic Islamist insurgency in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, politics in Burkina has turned peaceful, more or less. The election campaign formally kicked off yesterday. There were cars running around all night with blaring horns – usually signs of a marriage party, but these had political posters too. There was a street party on the other side of the main road with a legislative candidate. The parties seem very much alike. Everybody wants lots of economic development without sacrificing human values or the environment. Everybody wants plenty of government services and low taxes. Everybody wants effective police enforcement (especially of anti-corruption laws) but not too heavy of a police state presence. Everybody loves the military and wants to fight extremism, but no actual wars, please. All the parties are nominally socialists of one variety or another, ranging from Sankarists (hard left) to the Union for Progress and Change (centrist, more or less). Hard to tell from their manifestos and speeches what they are actually going to do if they get elected. In French, they say “ils se debrouillent” – they’ll figure it out. I think politics is more about the personality of the candidate than anything else.
As far as party organizations go, there are some inter-party alliances left over from the Compaoré years, when most of these people were in opposition and had to work together. Most of the attention is focused on the presidential election right now, but the legislature has an important role at least according to the formal wording of the constitution. The legislature is partially elected on a national proportional representation standard and partially by regional elections. The regional apportionment gives a lot of power to smaller cities and rural areas. Parties that can’t organize effectively in those rural areas are not going to have very many seats. This was key to Compaoré’s ability to control the government – he always had a comfortable majority in the Assembly because his party was the only one with activists on the ground in every region of the country. The National Democratic Institute has been working with the parties to train poll workers, which is something, but you need more than that. I was describing the workings of a political “ground game” to my neighbors last night over beers. Probably a little late for this election, but what this country needs is a little more politics on a day-to-day basis. Less in the streets and more in the city councils and regional and national assemblies.