A Beautiful Day in Ouaga

I arrived Sunday night quite late, almost midnight, and went straight to bed. I noticed a good deal of dust in the air, but it is the harmattan, season of winds from the desert, so no big deal I figured.

I woke up in the morning and discovered a beautiful day. Sort of like a summer in the San Francisco Bay area. (OK, maybe the East Bay…). Temperatures in the 80s, a nice little breeze blowing, and sky totally clear and blue. I went for a bike ride and instead of a penance, it was a joy. I rode all the way downtown, bought some groceries at the expat supermarket, rode back home, and on arriving on the main street near my house, I encountered some official-looking people actually working on the road. They were painting stripes for a crosswalk directly in front of my street:

Road Work

You can see the guys with the orange vests taking their ease on the side of the road to the right and admiring their craftsmanship. They really are pretty crosswalks.

I don’t think any of the drivers are going to respect the crosswalk, of course. Nobody stops for pedestrians unless the alternative is to hit them, which means that the practice for crossing the street is to launch yourself suicidally into traffic and hope for the best. Luckily, there aren’t too many cars on the street in Ouaga, just a whole heck of a lot of motorcycles. I’ve walked a lot here and of course ridden my bike a lot and I can tell you it is often anus-clenching adventure.

The country is in the middle of a hot presidential campaign. There are two principal candidates and a bunch of also-rans, for a total of 14 candidates. It is a two-step process unless one of the candidates gets >50% in the first round. Current polls suggest the front-runner, Marc Christian Kaboré, known as “Roch”, is close to the 50% level but it will probably go to a second round. If you believe the polls. Polls got it wrong in Britain and Israel recently, how much more difficult must it be here to get a clear impression of public opinion. The poll I saw was based on a sample of 3,500-odd people, all of whom had cell phones because the polling organization had to call them. The organization that did the poll used language suggesting they had controlled for socio-economic, regional, gender, etc variables in their calculations, but who knows how good a job they did?

Kaboré and his principal rival, Zephirin Diabré, are both people who have long played important roles in Burkinabè politics. Kaboré was Prime Minister for a while under the former president, Blaise Compaoré. He also served in international organizations as Burkina’s representative and was director of the national bank. He is thought of as a technocrat and has the edge as far as experience is concerned. However, Kaboré supported Compaoré’s move to seek another term in office until the popular resistance in the fall of 2014 made it clear that it was impossible. When Kaboré broke, quite publically, with Compaoré in early October, the former ruling party, the CDP, declared him a traitor. They are supposedly urging their supporters to back anybody but Kaboré, though he seems to have inherited at least some of their strength in the rural areas.

My friends, urban middle-class professionals or small business people, mostly appear to be supporting Diabré. He is also a former minister of the Compaoré government, but he broke with the former president in 2010, the last time Compaoré messed with the constitution in order to be able to run for another term. Diabré has also taught in the US, at the Kennedy School at Harvard. He was an international bureaucrat, rising to be the assistant director of the UN Development Program. International development and management is his specialty. He was a member of the National Assembly as an opposition delegate in 2014 during the uprising against Compaoré, which gives him credibility with people who want nothing to do with the old regime. Diabré has plenty of experience in government but he has more of the reputation of a politician than a technocrat.

There is also Bénéwendé Stanislas Sankara, leader of the Sankariste movement. He is a relative of the former president Thomas Sankara, and was the second-place finisher in the 2010 election, running against the CDP machine of Blaise Compaoré. He got about 5% of the vote. He looks to improve on that figure, but not too much. He sounds very intelligent, has of course been in opposition all his life, but doesn’t have much of an organization.

Organization is going to be key to winning this election. Getting your voters to the polls is not nearly as easy as it is in Oregon, where we have vote-by-mail and all campaigns have to do to find their people is look on the list of who has turned in their ballots. Here, people had to register to vote months ago, and many people kept their voter registrations from previous election cycles. I was surprised to discover that my very politically engaged neighbors are mostly not planning to vote on Sunday because their registrations are in their home village, 100 km from town. I suggested that campaigns could get busses to take their supporters to the polls. Nobody appears to have thought of that, or they couldn’t afford it.

Organization on a national level is important. The presidency is a national vote, with no regional granularity like we have in the US with the Electoral College. But the National Assembly has that granularity, and under the current constitution, the government must have the support of a majority in the Assembly. There is a lot of talk among the people I talk to about constitutional reform that would make the Assembly more powerful at the expense of the president, for example, requiring that the ministers of government and top military commanders report to the Prime Minister, who could not be dismissed except by an act of the Assembly. If the constitution becomes more parliamentary, more like a British-influenced system, this will give more power to the regions outside the capital, since when they abolished the Senate they assigned those extra seats to the regions. So there are 127 Assembly seats, with 111 of them elected by proportional representation in the 45 provinces, ranging from 9 members from Kadiogo, the province where Ouagadougou is located, with something like 2 million inhabitants, down to 2 members from Noumbiel, on the Ghana border, with less than 100,000. Then, there are 16 delegates elected at large for the whole country on proportional representation. The side that can generate the most votes in the provinces will control the Assembly, and, potentially, the politics of the country.

It looks like Kaboré’s MPP, (People’s Movement for Progress) has inherited at least a good bit of the organization that the CDP had before, even though the CDP’s principal leadership here in Ouaga dislike him intensely. We’ll see what happens on Sunday. Or rather on Monday night, because they are promising results within 24 hours. In any case, even if there is a second round for the presidency, the Assembly will be decided this week.

My boss at the university, Mme Ilboudo, has gone back to her village for the week. I suggested it was about voting, and she said yes, she was planning to vote, but she was also concerned about disorder. Nobody from the embassy has made any suggestion that I should “shelter in place” or anything like that. the same poll that I saw earlier today asked a question: “what would you do if your candidate lost and then alleged fraud?” About 75% of respondents said they would accept the reported outcome regardless. Hard to judge in advance what you are going to do, though. Depends on how flagrant the irregularities are. And there will, of course, be irregularities, for all the work that the electoral commission has done over the last year to smooth the process out.

3 thoughts on “A Beautiful Day in Ouaga

      1. Les burkinabes (mostly the young people) have shown the world what they stand for, no more putch nor dictactor like compaore. Politicians and those in the military know what awaits them if they mess up! I really enjoyed my time there

        Liked by 1 person

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