A Hero of Burkinabè Labor

soumane toure

(Image credit Burkina24)

A couple of weeks ago, I made the acquaintance of Soumane Touré, one of my neighbors, a friend of my friend Salif Gouem and a longtime comrade of his father in Burkina politics. Touré was one of the labor leaders who participated in the 1966 uprising against Burkina’s (then Upper Volta’s) first president, Maurice Yaméogo. It’s interesting how similar the 1966 events look to the events of 2014 – an  autocratic president, a popular uprising, demonstrators in the streets by the tens of thousands, allegations of fraud and mismanagement of funds, the president’s younger brother who really makes people mad, the army refusing to fire on demonstrators, and finally the military commander who stepped in, asserted power, and ultimately gave way to civilian government.

Of course, there are differences, as Touré was quick to point out. In the first place, though both changes in government were ultimately contrary to the constitution in force at the time, the transitional government installed in 2014 was put in place without any reference to the existing constitution and in fact in defiance of provisions that explicitly provided for a presidential resignation. In 1966, the military leader who took power, Sangoulé Lamizama, acted at least in principle in the name of the designated alternative authorities under the constitution, although he ended up wielding dictatorial powers. Touré also has a much higher opinion of Lamizama than of the leaders of the 2014-2015 transition, likening him to a kindly father figure. The military leadership that took power in 2014, especially now-General Zida, of whom I have had reason to speak before, quickly ceded nominal power to a civilian, Transitional President Kafondo, but still exercised a good deal of control behind the scenes, with nefarious effects, at least according to Touré’s account.

Touré was a leader of the country’s powerful labor union association throughout his career, and is still a powerful elder statesman though his party did not participate in the 2015 elections. I started out asking him how it was that, not only in Burkina but around Africa, labor unions were so important in politics despite the fact that only a tiny fraction of workers were members of unions (something like 90% of Burkinabè workers are in the informal sector, either as peasants or in urban occupations like small commerce and artisanal labor where they are unlikely to be members of unions). He responded by telling a story. Burkina’s most important export is cotton. Back in the 1970s, before the revolution that brought Thomas Sankara to power, the cotton crop was all sold through the French textile company SOFITEX. The Ministry of Agriculture had several hundred temporary agricultural technicians who supported the cotton sector. Unlike regular civil servants, these employees worked on contract only during the crop year, and their wages were low. They were not members of the normal civil servants’ union, but had their own association. One year, as the planting cycle was about to begin, their association declared a strike, asking for higher wages and a more realistic reimbursement for their travel costs (they had to own their own motorcycles and got some gas, but nothing else). Touré’s public employee union tried to coordinate with them, and declared a one-day sympathy strike. Having gotten the government’s attention, Touré then went to see President Lamizama and asked him “why does the poorest country in the world pay part of the operating expenses for a French company? You should ask SOFITEX for the money to upgrade the agricultural extension guys to the regular civil service and buy them government motorcycles.” The strike, especially with the support of the regular civil servants, imperilled the cotton crop, which would have meant a huge decline in tax income for the state and a blow to relations with the former colonial master and biggest aid donor country, France. Under this pressure, Lamizama did as suggested and SOFITEX came through with the money. Happy ending for everybody. The lesson is, yes, the vast majority of Burkinabè aren’t doing the sort of work that can be easily unionized. However, the minority that are working in the formal sector are doing things that are crucial to the government’s income and status internationally. Unionized workers have a disproportionate impact. And, I should add, the labor unions have done what they can to coordinate with associations of small retailers, farmers, and the like.

Touré has had many adventures in his life. In the early 1980s, a military leader, Saye Zerbo, had outlawed strikes after the coup that brought him to power. In response, Touré called a general strike and then went into hiding. It wasn’t a terribly good hiding place, I guess, because Sankara and Blaise Compaoré, then Sankara’s best friend, came to see him. Compaoré asked if the unions would support a coup d’état against Zerbo, and Touré agreed if the coup could take place without bloodshed. Compaoré and Sankara promised, they made the necessary phone calls, and the troops moved to their positions. In the event, there was very little firing, and four people were killed more or less by accident. Sankara took the leading role among the officers who led the coup, and he went to the national radio station to make a statement to the public. Amusingly, he forgot to push the “record” button – I guess the regular staff had fled – and so had to go back to the station and read his pronunciamiento again.

After the 1983 coup, Touré soon fell out with Sankara. Touré describes himself as a Marxist-Leninist, and belongs to the Party of Labor, a left-socialist organization. However, for him the “democratic” part of “democratic centralism” is all-important. He described several occasions on which the party had lively debates about the way forward and even on one occasion he was on the losing side (and still implemented the party line). As Touré tells it, Sankara, on the other hand, tended more towards the Soviet style of one-party government and totalitarian control of the institutions of society. He wanted all labor unions to merge into his One Big Union. He wanted all political parties to merge into his One Big Party. He supplanted both the traditional authority of local chiefs and the formal authority of the government’s court system with his creation of revolutionary courts at all levels that could conduct very quick public trials of accused corrupt officials and the like. When Touré’s civil servants’ union tried to defend its members against accusations of corruption, they were accused of being “reactionaries”. Touré himself ended up in prison, not for the first nor the last time in his life.

He was in prison in 1987 when Compaoré finally moved against Sankara, and Touré disclaims any responsibility for what happened. This, of course, was the first coup d’état in Burkina’s history that was explicitly not bloodless. Touré was released from prison by soldiers at Compaoré’s orders and was at home, resting on his porch, when he noticed crowds moving steadily down the street out front (the same main street that runs by my house). He enquired as to what was going on, why they were marching, and they said they were going to visit the tomb of Sankara and the martyrs, in the cemetery of Dagnoen, just behind my house. People did miss Sankara; even Touré appears to have been shocked at his death, for all the bad blood between them.

Touré spent some time in prison during Compaoré’s 27 years in power, too, although today Touré seems pretty sympathetic to the former president. At one point, at the time Compaoré purged his former revolutionary comrades Jean-Baptiste Lignani and Henry Zongo, Touré was also on the list to be shot because of a critical article he had published just the day before the triumvirate broke up. Compaoré saw that Touré had been arrested and was slated for execution and spared his life, ultimately releasing him and even permitting him to reform his party (Compaoré governed as a dictator for a while and then introduced multi-party constitutional government – while running a political machine that would have made Big T.J. Pendergast proud). It is suggestive, though, that in our conversation Touré referred to the purge of Lignani and the other officers as the “Lignani coup attempt”. Hard to tell at this distance what, if anything, the pair were planning, but opponents of Compaoré often point to the 1989 executions as unjustified and a symbol of the excesses of the Compaoré years.

One key point – although Burkina Faso is a big country in terms of area, and there are millions of inhabitants, the political space is very small. All these people know each other. In many cases, they went to high school together, served in the same military units, worked in offices next door to each other, live down the street, etcetera. I am realizing how tightly drawn the networks are here, seemingly much more intimate than in Haiti, where there really were two ruling classes that had very little to say to each other. Here, all politics is personal. Maybe this is why, with limited exceptions such as the 1987 coup, they are reluctant to have their opponents shot. If you order the troops to fire on the demonstrators, your childhood friends’ children might be among the victims. I had this realization as I was getting up to leave Touré’s house the other day, and checked with him – yes, in fact, he was in school with many of the figures of his generation – Sankara, Compaoré, Salif’s father – and with the children of the preceding generation of leaders – Lamizama, Yaméogo, Zerbo. They all know each other. This might be part of the answer I’m looking for.

I joke about comparisons to “Game of Thrones”, but maybe the feudal model is the best way to understand this place. And because of a variety of factors, they have a relatively stable and functioning feudalism here rather than the chaos found in neighboring countries. Hmmm. Worth looking into further.

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