I saw this sign posted on the wall next to the door to my classroom this morning:
The text reads: In the name of God, the merciful, the forgiving, The Guide keeps his promises, on this day, Tuesday, the 18th of March, 2003, by the grace of God, the Brother Guide of the Revolution of El-Fateh Colonel Mohammar El-Kadhafi and his brother Monsieur Blaise Comaporé, President of [Burkina] Faso inaugurated these two amphitheatres of the University of Ouagadougou, as part of their commitment to the struggle against underdevelopment and illness and so that humanity can flourish.”
Here’s a picture of the two “brothers” yukking it up from Agence France Presse:
Reminded me of how things used to be here. Blaise Compaoré, quiet, buttoned-down guy that he was, was able to be good friends with Kadhafi and George Bush at the same time. I’m getting started on interviewing subjects for my book, looking for background right now. It is such a fascinating tale. You have to have a lot of respect for a guy who can manage his diplomacy so that he is friends with such a wide range of people who really, really dislike each other. Dislike each other to the point of lobbing bombs at one another. And yet, here’s Blaise, ruler of a small, landlocked, desperately poor country in West Africa, who somehow managed to get everybody on his side. The poshest hotel in the country, the one visiting diplomats are housed in, is the Laico – stands for Libyan Arab International Company, a Libyan state enterprise. They also own a shopping mall. As we see, the Libyan state paid for a bunch of infrastructure improvements at the university, some of which are still under construction (presumably the funds were transferred before Colonel Kadhafi’s death). The main street of the new neighborhood, Ouaga 2000, where the embassies and the presidential palace are, is called Muammar Kadhafi Avenue. And yet at the same time, French and American development assistance is everywhere. Burkina Faso was a key ally against international terrorism and destabilizing conflicts in the region, according to the US. At the same time, just a few blocks from my house here in the Wemtenga neighborhood, there is a government guest house that apparently has had a long list of very unsavory guests including Charles Taylor, now a convicted war criminal prisoner in the Hague after a blood-soaked career screwing up Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Remember the hand-chopping rebels in Sierra Leone? Taylor started them on their way to fame. Not Blaise’s fault, of course, guilt by association is always suspect. But a sign of his ability to keep all his options open and be friendly to everyone.
Burkina Faso has always punched above its weight diplomatically, even back when it was Upper Volta. They were able to manipulate hostility between the two powerful coastal neighbors, Ghana and Ivory Coast, led by two very different strongmen in the early 1960s, to get economic concessions from each by threatening to buddy up with the other. Both Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Ivory Coast’s Houphouet Boigny wanted to federate with or assimilate Upper Volta, but Upper Volta took the assistance and declined to amalgamate. In the era of Africa’s sexiest dictator , Thomas Sankara, in the 1980s, leftist governments and rebel groups all across the continent and beyond beat a path to Ouagadougou. Even after Sankara became too irritating to France and Ivory Coast and was killed, Compaoré was able to continue to play the game, only with a little more circumspection and deference to the real powers. And when the chance came to impose his will on the Ivorians after their failed election in 2010, he jumped at it and reversed the previous relationship of dependence between the two countries. Until the fall of Compaoré in 2014, the tail wagged the dog, as Burkinabè soldiers helped put President Ouattara in power. Ivorians come up to Ouagadougou now looking for work – I was served a drink the other night by a waitress from Abidjan. In the 1980s and before, it would have been the other way, as hundreds of thousands of Burkinabè (including President Ouattara’s parents, apparently) went down to Abidjan to wait tables and clean hotel rooms and suchlike.
Speaking of university infrastructure, by the way, they are in a big tearing hurry to finish up their project of building new classroom buildings and paving more of the streets on campus. A good thing, except that it means that heavy equipment is moving around outside during class, kicking up enormous clouds of dust – since it is the dusty season here – and otherwise making the classroom environment even more uncomfortable than it already is. And the competition for classrooms is really cutthroat. That room with Blaise and his brother’s name on it? I am theoretically the occupant from 10-12 every Thursday. Today was the first session since early December when we’ve actually been able to use that room. And we got in there about five minutes before another professor showed up and tried to take it away from me. But we were already sitting in the seats and I had my projector set up; possession is 9/10 of the law. I have held that class in five different classrooms so far this term. And one sort of infrastructure they aren’t investing in? Information technology. No computers, no satellite internet, no campus-wide wi-fi. Since students can’t afford textbooks, I was hoping at least to be able to refer them to useful Internet sources, but only a tiny fraction of students can take advantage in any meaningful way. The problem with IT is that, having invested in the less-than-spectacular infrastructure, you then need to be able to pay every month for the bandwidth and to keep the machines turned on and for staff to come and clean the viruses off (every student seems to have about six viruses on his or her laptop). Donors are happy to give money for a big fancy building that they can hang their name on, like the Brother Guide, but a regular payment to keep the place working? Not interested. That’s why, although the Kadhafi memorial amphitheater has air conditioners, they are never turned on and presumably don’t work any more. Electricity costs too much.