More Burkina Faso Politics


Major General Yacouba Isaac Zida at the inauguration of President Kaboré, December 22, 2015 (image credit

There have been a variety of developments in Burkina politics over the last couple of weeks, and since I spent an informative evening at the maquis chatting with the usual suspects, I’m up to speed (at least on their prejudices). I also read newspapers.

The big issue is complaints about the administration of government funds during the transitional government. The heavily-braided gentleman above is former Lt. Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida. He was the second-in-command of the presidential guard, the RSP, under President Compaoré. During the October 2014 uprising, he left the palace and went to the Place de la Nation, where the demonstrators had gathered, and declared his support for the uprising. At first, he was declared transitional president, but pretty much everybody in civil society objected to having a military man at the top, and Zida stepped down, to be replaced by President Kafondo, who was a civilian and an NGO bureaucrat. Kafondo then appointed Zida his Prime Minister. The Burkina constitution is modeled on the French 5th Republic constitution, the one Charles de Gaulle wrote, so it vests supreme power in the president and makes the prime minister a sort of errand boy, though one who could conceivably come from another political party. In reality, though, in Burkina, Zida had plenty of power because he was at least thought to have the residual loyalty of some of the armed forces. He made use of his power to appoint a bunch of his cronies to important (read lucrative and/or powerful) ministry jobs. One thing that my friends accuse him of is appointing a disproportionate share of his fellow Protestants to high office. There is a sort of informal affirmative action here where leadership – at least under Compaoré – is careful to give a fairly proportionate share of good jobs to each religious and ethnic community. Religious affiliation aside, though, Zida’s crew appear to have made off with a big pile of money. A certain amount of theft of government funds is kind of expected, but it seems that Zida is at least suspected of exaggerating. The figure being bandied about is 86 billion CFA, which equals about 150 million US$. That’s a lot of money to steal in just one year. Government revenues in 2012 were 2.25 billion US$, which would mean that, if true, he is accused of stealing more than 5% of the total revenue for the year. It would be like an American politician stealing 400 billion US$.

At the end of the transition period, Kafondo promoted Zida from Lieutenant Colonel to Major General, a big jump, which gave him the highest rank in the Burkina armed forces. The armed forces number about 40,000, about half of whom are cops, so there aren’t going to be many divisions for a major general to command. Zida was then assigned as ambassador to the United States. Then, Kafondo left office, to be replaced by the newly-elected Kaboré, and Zida took off for North America. Not Washington, where he was quickly replaced as Burkina’s ambassador by the guy who had been serving in that job since Compaoré’s time, but Canada. When he was recently ordered to return to an administrative job at the Chief of Staff’s office, he decided to stay. That’s where it sits today – he is pretty unpopular among his old comrades in the military, but he might still have loyalists, and he has a big stack of money. Kind of like Compaoré. No international arrest warrant, though.

Speaking of Compaoré, there are more and more people now openly saying they wish they could have him back. It seems that the economy is not doing too well right now. I notice that when I go to the maquis or restaurants – there are few customers. I went to a very nice Indian restaurant the other night after choir practice. There were exactly two other customers in the place and the proprietor seemed very happy to see me. I got an excellent meal for about 1/3 of what it would have cost me back home, I might add. Namasté Indian Restaurant, if anybody is visiting West Africa; he has restaurants in Bamako and Niamey too, if anybody is there. The economic downturn might have something to do with the missing government funds; the 150 million US$ would be about 2% of GDP, and if the money went out of the country that would be a blow to the economy. Further damage appears to have been done by the terrorist attacks of January. I don’t think tourism is a big industry in Burkina, but to the extent that there were tourists before 1/15 there aren’t any now. Even expat mining company and aid workers are keeping a low profile right now. With the continuing sporadic attacks, in Ivory Coast a few weeks ago and Brussels this week, people are feeling vulnerable. I remember in the US, even though poor dear W encouraged us to do our patriotic duty and hurry back to the malls, Americans were pretty subdued through the winter of 2001-02. I went to the American Historical Association convention in San Francisco that January, and I stayed in a really really nice hotel on Union Square that would probably have cost me 300-500 dollars a night in ordinary times, but was 85 dollars a night because they didn’t have any customers. So anyway, people are comparing hard times now with relatively flush times under Compaoré and blaming the new administration for their troubles. It’s irrational, but who says politics have to be rational?


Kogl-wéogo demonstrate in Fada-N’gourma, March 16th, 2016 (image credit Burkina 24)

Outside the city, the kogl-wéogo problem continues. Two weeks ago, I reported on a confrontation between the armed forces and some kogl-wéogo in the east of the country. Armed groups converged on the main city of the province in an attempt to liberate some of their buddies who had been arrested for getting a little too rough with a suspected cattle rustler. The army and gendarmerie went out to face them down; cooler heads prevailed and nobody got killed. And the accused remained in government custody. So far, so good. The next act, though, saw the police arresting a few more kogl-wéogo, participants in the aforementioned armed demonstration, on riot charges. The kogl-wéogo’s reaction, similar to protests by country folks in France, was to start blocking the highways, including most crucially the main highway leading to Togo and Bénin, a major artery for Burkina’s international trade. Sporadic roadblocks have sprung up with groups of armed men blocking the roads or only letting local traffic through until the cops arrive. Up to now, they have dispersed when challenged and no blood has been shed. Burkinabè are pretty good at that no-bloodshed business.

So we don’t have a rural rebellion so much as an “open-carry” protest. I make the parallel to the Bundy family and their rural protests in Nevada and Oregon. They feel that the American government is not responding to their needs and so they pick up their guns, not so much to shoot anybody with but as a statement that they consider themselves primarily responsible for their own security and they see law enforcement, especially the federal government’s law enforcement, as interlopers. The kogl-wéogo want police protection, but they also want to be responsible for security in their own communities. There are municipal police agencies in Burkina, for the major cities, but nothing at the level of the village. So these guys are just taking the responsibility on themselves. The downside, as has often been the case with local law enforcement in the US as well, is that the kogl-wéogo work for the leaders of the local community. Those leaders might have ethnic differences with some members of the community – think Ferguson, Missouri – or political differences with the national government – like the Bundy clan – and so the local law enforcement becomes a potential source of violent repression and/or resistance to central authority. The key is to have checks on the autonomy of the local armed force. In the case of the US, the Bundy boys had no official authority at all and so they can and have been arrested for their gun-brandishing, minor vandalism, and theft of government grass (through not paying their grazing fees on public lands). A police official in Oregon who supported their movement is being investigated and will presumably lose his law enforcement certification and have to leave office. The Ferguson cops were acting under color of authority but state and federal officials were able to crack down through investigations, civil rights lawsuits, etc. The latter mechanism is obviously what Simon Compaoré, the Minister of Domestic Security, wants to implement in the case of the kogl-wéogo: he wants them to be regularized in some way and made responsible to the central government. Hard to tell if many groups will want to sign up for his program, though, unless there are benefits that the Burkina government can’t really afford, like salaries and government weapons – see the preceding discussion about the missing 150 million US$.



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