Traditional Chiefs, Political Power, and the State

Chief of Gampela 640

The handsome gentleman in the hat is the chief of Gampela. Gampela is a town of a couple of thousand people, southwest of Ouagadougou about 25 km, and is the capital of a region with several smaller villages that covers a space of about 80 square kilometers. My boss and I and a couple of her friends went out there; it is the native village of one of her friends. Gampela is a traditional chiefdom, subordinate to the Moogo Naaba, the king of Ouagadougou. We talked in general terms for a couple of hours, of course over food (one always offers food and water to the visitor, and the visitor must eat and drink). I’m hoping to get back with him for a more detailed conversation later about politics and society; he seems like a smart, pleasant, interesting guy.

Meeting him got me thinking more about the question of political authority in Burkina. Longtime readers will remember that during the failed September coup d’état, the Moogo Naaba proclaimed himself opposed to the coup, and then inflicted a ritual humiliation on the general who led the rebellious Presidential Guard battalion, before finally presiding over negotiations with rebel officers and the government that led to a deal under which most of the rebels voluntarily laid down their arms. In this case, the traditional structures of authority were instrumental in preventing a bloodbath: the rebels had control of a large part of the national army’s arsenal of heavy weapons and were ensconced in their camp on the outskirts of town with enough firepower to reduce a good portion of the city to rubble. The loyal part of the army and thousands of seriously annoyed civilians surrounded the camp and at least some of them were spoiling for a fight. In other countries, similar sorts of confrontations have led to mass casualties and multi-year paralysis of governing institutions. In neighboring Cote d’Ivoire, there were two such events in the 2000s, turning the country from the bright spot of West Africa to a source of economic migrants for Burkina (many of the migrants are people whose parents went down there in the 50s and 60s to work in Cote d’Ivoire’s then-booming economy; I meet people all the time who call themselves Ivorians but have Burkinabè last names; the current president of Cote d’Ivoire is named Alhassane Ouattara, Ouattara being a name associated with the Bobo people of western Burkina).

On the other hand, traditional structures of authority are tied up in the currently controversial kogl-wéogo phenomenon. In a dramatic confrontation this weekend, several hundred kogl-wéogo members converged on the eastern city of Fada-N’Gourma for a showdown with the Gendarmerie.


(Image credit Burkina24)

A group of ten kogl-wéogo were arrested for assault last week in a village in the region; they had beaten up a couple of people accused of cattle rustling.  The cattle rustling in question supposedly took place four years ago, and the accused were Peuhl  (aka Fulani), members of a group concentrated in the north and thus a minority in the region. There is frequently friction between Peuhl and other ethnic groups because the traditional Peuhl lifestyle is nomadic cattle herding. They coexist poorly with sedentary farmers. So in this case, one suspects ethnic or personal tensions rather than actual crime were at the root of the controversy. In any case, the local cops came to investigate the supposed crime, and instead of taking the accused cattle rustlers into custody, they took them to the hospital and arrested the kogl-wéogo. So all the kogl-wéogo guys’ friends took off on Saturday and went to town to confront the gendarmes. The Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité, the riot police, came up from Ouaga, along with a couple companies of the regular army. Tension ensued. But not, one notes, bloodshed. The group met with the king of the Gulmu, the local ethnic group, and with the governor of the eastern region. At first, they gave a 12-hour ultimatum for the release of their friends, but then they backed down and agreed to return to their homes if they could send a delegation to Ouaga to meet with the Minister of Internal Security. An audience was duly granted, and a couple of dozen kogl-wéogo got on their motorcycles with their shotguns – shades of the Hell’s Angels – and rode on into the capital. The ministry issued a rather bland statement afterwards reaffirming the arrests and promising a quick and transparent process to establish the facts in the case and fix any criminal responsibility.

People in kogl-wéogo groups point to the feeble number of policemen in rural areas – frequently only one or two cops for a village the size of Gampela – and persistent questions about corruption of the police. The demonstrators claimed that the accused cattle rustlers had paid off the cops to be released, though on the facts of the case as reported in national media this seems unlikely. Still, Burkina (despite the fact that the name of the country means “land of the upright men”) falls about midway on the scale of (perceived) corruption published by Transparency International, with a rating of 38 on a 1-100 scale, (100 being Denmark), 76th out of 167 countries evaluated, and tied with Brazil. Not bad, but not super-good either. So, in response, local traditional authorities organize these militias, or you might call them local police. There are going to be municipal elections next month to select town councils in all these little places like Gampela, and presumably thereupon the people in charge of the kogl-wéogo will become officials in the formal government system as well as the traditional system. Often, chiefs themselves do not run for town council seats, but they have influence over who is chosen and are often the real “power behind the throne” at the local level. Which will further confuse the local power structure.

Basically, there are four sources of authority in rural Burkina: the first is the central government, represented by an appointed official, the préfet or sous-préfet, the police, and other government structures like the education and health systems. To the extent that these structures function efficiently and deliver the promised social goods, the central government and the governing party have more credibility. The second is the traditional power structure exemplified by the chief but also including community elders, traditional societies, and so on. Chiefs generally have at least a comfortable lifestyle with some resources to deliver public goods, though they also have to work for a living. The chief of Gampela commutes to work in Ouaga, I think a government job. The third source of authority is civil society, often represented in rural areas by churches and mosques but which could also include associations of market sellers, traditional weavers, and so on. This bleeds over into the traditional structure especially when you have an ethnic minority; the herdsmen’s association is often led by the Peuhl traditional leadership, for example. Kogl-wéogo groups can be considered civil society organizations, though maybe in a not-so-good sense.  The fourth is the newly-established democratically elected municipal governments. Each of these sets of authority figures interacts with the others, and people trying to live and work in these societies have to take each one into account in order to get anything done. It’s complex and certainly inefficient, but probably necessary. Reformers have attempted to break the structure up in the past; famously, in his revolution in the 1980s, President Sankara tried to break the power of the traditional chiefs and civil society groups by forming Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in each village that were loyal to the central government and the ruling party. They had some impact, but after Sankara was killed, his successor, President Compaoré, dissolved the CDRs and went back to conciliating the chiefs and coopting their support for the ruling party. My boss and her two friends who visited Gampela with me are all members of the current ruling party, the MPP, and the chief was appropriately supportive of the party as well.

And, speaking of initiatives, as mentioned in a previous post, this past week was International Women’s Day, and our little delegation went to a celebration of the day organized by a women’s association. We made a contribution to the work of the organization. They do a lot of things, as described by their leader, a public school teacher with a master’s in history from our university: they teach girls about safe sex and pregnancy in schools, they have various money-raising activities (including making peanut butter, mmmmm…), they import and sell solar-powered lights and battery chargers (important in an area with very intermittent electric service), and they sponsor a girl’s soccer team:

Girls soccer 640

The girls were playing a match against some local boys – they play seven on seven on a smaller field than normal; don’t know if this is a result of shortage of players or something about girls being thought weaker or less able to run around than boys. The US women’s soccer team is perennially a global powerhouse, while our men’s soccer team is OK but not going to win a World Cup or Olympic gold medal anytime soon. That’s because North America is one of the few places where girls and women play soccer much. I got the feeling that this girls’ team was a real innovation for Burkina. Sports teams don’t make much concrete difference in people’s lives, but they are important symbols. At least in this neighborhood, people have been introduced to the idea of girls and women as vigorous, athletic, autonomous individuals.

And alongside the soccer field, some distant relative had a furniture store:

King meuble 640

If it wasn’t so far away, I’d go buy some chairs or a desk.


One thought on “Traditional Chiefs, Political Power, and the State

  1. We have a Mayor in Adair Village. I think he has a job too or he is retired.

    no shields at TL one

    Phil Callicrate Callicrate Computer Services 541 908-3799 cell 541 745-5744 office (message machine)

    On Tue, Mar 15, 2016 at 2:08 AM, stewartroyceking wrote:

    > stewartroyceking posted: ” The handsome gentleman in the hat is the chief > of Gampela. Gampela is a town of a couple of thousand people, southwest of > Ouagadougou about 25 km, and is the capital of a region with several > smaller villages that covers a space of about 80 square kilo” >


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