Burkina Proud of New President

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(Image credit: Kaboré poster via ITV Ghana)

Roch Marc Kaboré was sworn in today as President of Burkina Faso. The ceremony was at the sports arena in Ouaga 2000, by invitation only, and somehow my invitation must have been lost in the mail. I decided to go anyway and see what I could see. There was a heck of a crowd about who had obviously had the same idea as me, and all hanging about to watch the  convoys of black Mercedes and Lexus limos go by with the ceremonial police escorts in white uniforms on big honking motorcycles. There were traditional dancers lining the streets, lots and lots of people in orange shirts (orange being the color of the president’s political party, the MPP, but it looked like they were celebrating a Dutch soccer victory). Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of all this celebration because, as it turned out, you weren’t allowed to be there with any sort of bag or backpack (to avoid package bombs, I guess). Just as I was getting ready to take a picture, along came a couple of cops in bullet-proof vests with AKs to harass me. I politely pushed off and ended up watching the celebration on TV from the nearby Monument aux Heroes along with a bunch of construction workers who were cleaning and repainting the monument. I figured that they would have had the day off for the inauguration, but no, they knocked off for an hour or so to watch the speeches and then went back to work.

There was quite a sense of pride in the event, even among those who weren’t terribly happy that this was the guy being sworn in. The President of the Constitutional Council, the official body that installs the new officials, received Kaboré and reminded him that he was no longer going to be a partisan political leader but instead the representative of all the Burkinabè people. That his accession to power, the first time in the nation’s history that one civilian president succeeded another, was thanks to the popular uprising of October 2014 and the successful defense of that revolution by popular forces last September.

In his inaugural address, the new president echoed these ideas, paying homage to the people who overthrew former President Compaoré and protected the revolution during the failed coup last fall. His principal message, though, was that now that there was a legitimately elected government, it must be allowed to govern. The people must be prepared to give up “incivisme” (a lack of civic spirit) and give deference to a legitimate state. There’s been a lot of discourse along these lines from responsible folks here for quite some time. During the student strike at the university, several administrators and some students that I spoke with commented that the students had gotten used to being able to make policy in the streets and were unwilling to give up their power. My boss (a former candidate for the legislature on the MPP ticket) remarked, while watching somebody run a red light, that people were tired of obeying the law here because the law had been illegitimate for so long. President Kaboré returned to this theme three times during his address. He said that his principal task would be to reform the institutions of the state so that they were worthy of respect, but at the same time he said that this reform would only be successful if the people were willing in their turn to give respect to the new institutions. He said that it is time for a new Fifth Republic, with rule of law, before any serious national development can take place.

Ironically, while I am writing these words, a few hours after the inauguration, I hear around me sounds of explosions. People have plenty of fireworks – fireworks for New Years’ is a big tradition all over the world – but these sure sound like shots. No doubt fired in the air in celebration, but an example of exactly the sort of unrestrained exuberance Kaboré was talking about. So there is a lot to like in his remarks. On the other hand, there is a lot to be suspicious of, as these could also be the words of someone aspiring to pick up the dropped mantle of Compaoré, of someone who wants to turn a popular mandate into unrestrained power. As I have had occasion to remark before, now starts the hard part.

In the end, all the neighboring countries’ presidents were present, including Cote d’Ivoire’s Ouattara, though he waited until the last second (literally – I saw him riding in about 11:30 for a ceremony that officially started at 11:00). Ouattara’s presence was an important step, since the Cote d’Ivoire government had been very close to Compaoré and gave him refuge after he was driven from power. There is an international arrest warrant out for Compaoré now, that Cote d’Ivoire is refusing to recognize, and an important Ivoirian political leader, a member of Ouattara’s inner circle, was caught on tape discussing tactics with last September’s coup leaders. So showing up for the inauguration helps to calm tensions with a very important neighbor. At the same time, Ouattara made a stop to visit the Mogho Naaba, the traditional king of Ouagadougou, and an important facilitator of the negotiations that brought the fall coup attempt to an end. Unclear exactly what Ouattara thought he was doing; a jaundiced eye would see his visit as undermining the authority of the newly-elected government by recognizing an alternate source of legitimacy, while on a more positive note, he could be looking for a back channel to improve his relations with Burkina Faso.

Among Ghana’s delegation was their former president, Jerry Rawlings. Rawlings was president several times in the 80s and 90s, including while I was in Togo in 1984-85. Rawlings was a military dictator who transformed himself into a popular elected civilian president and who left office in 2000 at the end of his elected term. He is an example of what Compaoré could have been if he had had the nerve to refrain from trying to get re-elected in 2014. Compaoré could have been sitting there smiling next to the other former heads of state, getting the cheers that were reserved, this afternoon, for Michel Kafondo, the outgoing president of the transitional government. Of course, at the end of the ceremony, he would have had to drive his own car home to his own private house, president no more but just a private citizen – and all the people who depended on him for their livelihood and power and impunity for the crimes they committed in his name would have had no defense. And ultimately it was those people behind him who convinced Compaoré, living in the presidential bubble world familiar to anybody with high political power, to try for one more term in the big chair.

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