Politics and Ideas

compaore laughing

Does Blaise get the last laugh after all? Hmmm…

I had lunch today with a couple of well-informed folks who will remain nameless, by agreement. But they are quite well clued-in to the political currents of the country and work outside government and politics, and so have no axes to grind. Over pizza and cokes they gave me the benefit of their experienced analysis of the political history of this place over the last decades.

Our first topic of conversation was the perennial question that anybody who stays here for any length of time asks: why is this place so different from the neighboring countries? There is little or no sense of ethnic political tension here, though people do belong to a wide variety of ethnic groups. There is a lot of religious diversity but no serious religious conflict. The explanation of my informants – a Protestant from the south and a Muslim from the Sahel, by the way – was that ethnicity and religion have only rarely been politicized, and when they are the majority of folks, even in the supposedly favored religious or ethnic group, resist being used in this way. They gave the example of the prime minister in the transitional government, Issac Zida. He is a Protestant, and thus a member of the smallest of the four religious communities in the country (about 5% of the population, with about 20% Catholics, 15% following traditional religions, and 60% Muslim). Nonetheless, in his government he gave a disproportionate share of the ministry and subcabinet jobs to fellow Protestants, including the most important security and money ministries. My Protestant informant told me that the reaction, even in his community, to this overreach was opposition. It didn’t make things any better that the ministries were poorly run by the prime ministers’ cronies, with accusations of misappropriation of funds, bad management leading to lost opportunities and unsuccessful projects, and a general sense of drift. They also raised the example of a candidate in the recent presidential elections who just mentioned, in a conversation that he thought was off the record, that the fact that he was a Mossi (the largest ethnic group) and a Muslim gave him a political advantage, and when the statement was broadcast he was roundly pilloried and probably lost a lot of votes. Burkinabè are humble, and resist separation into groups. The traditional idea was that the benefits of government should be shared out among the different ethnic groups in rough proportion to their numbers. President Blaise Compaoré was very careful about this. Religious balance has been harder to maintain, with Catholics getting a disproportionate share of the good jobs because of their generally higher social status and education levels, but leaders including Compaoré and the current President Kaboré, have been careful to include Muslims in important positions. My informants termed it a sort of ethnic affirmative action.

My informants also had a very critical view of the performance of the transitional government. They pointed out that, while Zida had been a long-time military supporter of Compaoré, and switched sides at the last minute, he was initially named transitional president. Popular rebel groups in the city, as well as the military and the African Union raised objections, and a civilian technocrat, Michel Kafondo, was named president instead. Kafondo immediately named Zida prime minister, and Zida in fact wielded very significant power. My informants complained about mismanagement, and especially about the irregular way in which Zida was promoted from Lieutenant Colonel to two-star General right before the newly-elected government was sworn in. They said it sounded bad, especially when one of the big criticisms of Compaoré was that he used irregular mechanisms to reward his friends with good jobs and government contracts.

The conversation turned to the Kogl-wéogo community defense groups that I reported on a week or two ago. My informants independently made the same parallel to the Sankara-era Revolutionary Defense Committees that my friend at the neighborhood bar had made. My lunch companions said, as I had earlier reported, that community self-defense is considered normal and justifiable in traditional Burkinabè society. They said that, paradoxically, the fact that the police and justice system try to operate according to the rules makes rural communities suspicious that the police are not doing anything to help them – “the villagers see someone committing a crime, stealing something for example. They catch the person and turn him over to the police. The police keep the person for a couple of days, interrogating him and collecting witness statements. Then, the accused guy gets a trial date and is normally going to be released until then. From the community’s perspective, the police asked a whole bunch of useless questions and then let the guy go. So, they are going to take care of the situation themselves the next time.” They also reported an incident in one village where a Catholic lay catechist refused to get involved in the Kogl-wéogo organization because he didn’t think his religious role allowed him to be associated with an organization that might use violence. His neighbors wouldn’t accept his refusal and took him prisoner, assaulting his wife in the process. The local Catholic authorities had to come down and pay a few hundred dollars to the community fund in order to get him released. According to my informants, this suggests both that the groups are becoming more organized and that they are trying to exert a broad authority over community affairs in addition to merely supporting law enforcement. They also pointed out that for all the discussion of these events, political leaders have been reluctant to condemn the phenomenon. They pointed out that municipal elections are coming up soon, and the municipal authorities in many villages in a few months might well be the same as the Kogl-wéogo leadership. They generally rejected the idea that the Kogl-wéogo are necessarily party militias, but suggested that they could become politicized. They pointed out that the former ruling party, the CDP of Blaise Compaoré, had a very vibrant organization in the countryside with many of the current village leaders having held positions in the party organization at one time. Some of these people have deserted to the new ruling party, the MPP, since the new government now has the power to hand out the goodies, but the CDP got 15% of the vote in the national elections in the fall without running a campaign at all. Their prediction was that the CDP will be back as a major political player, though Blaise Compaoré himself is gone for good.

When talking about the Compaoré regime, one thing my interlocutors said was that the generalized atmosphere of corruption during those 27 years somewhat eroded the special Burkinabè character. Burkinabè are known as hard workers, but now a generation of young people sit around bemoaning the lousy economy and waiting for somebody to take them under their wing and find them a job. This is because before 2014, the way you got a government job, or indeed most any job in the formal economy, was by knowing somebody. Corruption and nepotism means that initiative and hard work are not necessarily rewarded. They also said something that my – staunchly opposition – neighborhood bar denizens have also said: Blaise Compaoré was not the devil, was not the center of the corruption and mismanagement of his government. He is a quiet guy who wanted to delegate power and balance competing interests. As a result, he empowered corrupt and disruptive people around him, especially his brother, François, and François’ wife and mother-in-law. The story they told really sounded like 18th-century European court politics. There is M. le Prince, the king’s younger brother, who has married a girl from outside the aristocratic circle. She has brought her grasping family with her to court, and they are blackening the reputation of the king. Meanwhile, the queen has given her attention to larger causes and isn’t exercising control over the extended family. Shakespeare could have written the story. In fact he did, in Henry VI.

Perhaps it is a product of my historical specialization, but I am beginning to think that one can approach politics here in terms of early modern European patterns. That is, there are absolutist states, like Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe, but they lack legitimacy, especially since Mugabe managed to lose an election even with all the advantages of incumbency. There are more broadly-based feudal systems as well, like Compaoré’s long reign. They trade off the autonomy of the boss for legitimacy based on the support of powerful barons. The boss balances the interests of the barons, and as long as he doesn’t let any of his subjects get over-mighty, he can ride the wave for a long time. People often vote based on the recommendations of their village elders and chiefs, who in turn owe loyalty to regional or national barons, who are playing their own game of balancing the interests of their liegemen. The CDP worked this way for a long time, although finally the increasing influence of the François Compaoré family squeezed out a number of the barons. These are the people who went on, after 2012, to form the MPP and, in 2015, to win the election for their own candidate. The young rebels, intellectuals, and city folks who make up the official opposition movement, the CUP, are talking about a new kind of politics, but the power of the old system is strong. Or maybe we could fall back on another, more hopeful, historical parallel. Compaoré and his henchmen were like the boss and the ward heelers in a 19th-century big city political “machine”. As sometimes happened in machine politics, the machine leaders took to fighting among themselves. This opens the door to a Teddy Roosevelt figure, a reformer who is calling for a new politics based on the public interest and true democracy. Sometimes, the good guys win, at least for a while, and then can implement reforms that make it easier for the next set of good guys to win while making the machine bosses’ jobs harder. Bossism doesn’t go away – it still hasn’t gone away, look at Rahm Emmanuel in Chicago – but it gets more and more transparent and less and less corrupt.


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