Burkina Politics Once Again

Yesterday, Sunday May 8th, marked the official kick-off of the municipal election campaign here in Burkina. Each “arrondissement” in the major cities and each rural village has a municipal council. In addition, each village and arrondissement has a mayor, elected by the council members, and each major city like Ouaga has a mayor who is elected by all the council members of all the arrondissements. Right now, those council members are appointed officials, chosen by the Transitional Council that governed the country between the overthrow of Blaise Compaoré in October 2014 and the December 2015 election of President Kaboré. Under the Constitution, which is somewhat decentralized, these are elected officials and so the democratic transition project continues May 22nd with elections for these positions.

Municipal governments do a lot of stuff that has direct effects on people’s lives. They collect taxes on real estate. They also collect fees for use of public space, both in formally designated markets and along public rights-of-way that are often the sites of semi-permanent market stalls. Basically, this constitutes a tax on the informal retail sector that actually provides most of the goods people consume. When I go to buy bread, fruit, corn flakes, soap, street food meals, or beer, I’m shopping in stalls that sit on the sidewalk and pay fees to local governments. Local governments use their budgets (at least in principle) to maintain public infrastructure, especially streets and roads. Water, sewage, and electricity are not local government’s problem as they are operated by parastatals with their own budget (and budget problems). Schools, a function of local government in the US, are run by the national Ministry of Education here, as are public health centers. However, keeping the schools, health centers, and so on accessible and clean is a local government responsibility. They can hire a lot of people to sweep the streets, repair streets by hand labor, collect trash, dig or repair drainage ditches, maintain parks and monuments, as well as office workers. In other words, there is a significant political benefit to winning control of municipal councils.

The municipal council members before October 2014 were elected – but the former ruling party, the CDP (Committee for Democracy and Progress), had an organization that rivaled anything Boss Tweed or Big Jim Pendergast ever had. CDP activists at the local level in neighborhoods and villages knew every voter, knew what they needed, had resources to meet those needs, and rewarded loyalty. The CDP controlled almost all local governments outside the major cities, and was in control of most of the cities as well. The Transitional Council purged some of those CDP ward-heelers, and some of them defected to other parties. One source of strength for the current ruling party, the MPP (People’s Movement for Progress) is the fact that its leadership includes several top CDP leaders who defected from the party when Compaoré announced that he wanted a fourth term in office. One of these barons is Simon Compaoré, the Mayor of Ouagadougou from 1995 to 2012, and currently the Minister of Interior Security and Administration in the Kaboré government. His administration of Ouaga was much admired because he organized the “ladies in green” who used to get out and sweep the streets every day. When I profiled the Women’s Day parade, I noted the storm of applause that met the delegation of green-clad sanitation ladies as they passed the reviewing stand.

cdp rally(

(Image Credit Burkina24)

The old CDP “machine” is fragmented, but not dead. Here they are announcing the launch of their municipal campaign in Bobo-Dioulasso last week. Their slogan is “they chased out on the streets but we will return by the ballot box.” They are portraying the overthrow of the Compaoré government as a coup by the afore-mentioned “barons”, Kaboré, Simon Compaoré, and Salif Diallo. They say “yes, it’s true that Blaise stuck around too long, that was a mistake, but it is also a mistake to say that he did nothing good during his 27 years in power.” Judging from comments from my neighborhood friends, they appear to have judged the public mood well. My friends at the local maquis, almost all members of the main opposition party, the UPC (Union for Change and Progress), would agree; not that they’re planning to vote for the CDP municipal candidates.

It is an interesting sign of the ability of Burkinabè to paper over differences and work harmoniously with their former opponents that the CDP is even allowed to exist as an organization. In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 uprising, CDP offices across the country were sacked. Sacking buildings appears to be a common amusement for the politically-minded in this country, as we will see. However, within weeks of the October events, the CDP had begun to organize, proposed candidates for the 2015 elections, and re-occupied their damaged real estate. Their candidate for the presidency was rejected by the electoral council, sparking the September 2015 coup d’état. However, their legislative candidates were allowed to stand and they are the third-largest party in the legislature (after MPP and UPC). They won a lot of votes in rural areas, and since the legislature is slanted to give greater representation to rural areas (like the US congress that gives two votes in the Senate to each state regardless of population, and for the same reason), the CDP is going to go on having a lot of influence. They will presumably win a lot of municipal council seats in villages around the country.

In the big cities, the opposition parties appear to have some sort of electoral alliance going on. I have not seen any CDP posters in Ouaga at all. Instead, every light pole appears to have a UPC poster on it. The UPC candidate for mayor of the city (elected by the arrondissement councils) is strongly favored, as far as I can tell, though of course there is no such thing as a reliable poll here. There has been no formal announcement of an electoral alliance between the UPC and the CDP, but according to my friends, there has certainly a wink and a nod behind the scenes. This is really an example of strange bedfellows, since the UPC was the principal opposition party during the years of Compaoré’s rule and made some very unflattering comments about him during the period of the uprising. However, their mutual dislike for the MPP’s leadership appears to have driven them to what is at least a tactical alliance.

[edit: Now the opposition parties have announced an official electoral alliance, at least in the Northern region. The UPC, CDP, and a variety of smaller groups are “marching hand in hand”.]

The MPP hasn’t been quiet either. One thing that local government does that isn’t part of its constitutional duties is provide local security. The phenomenon known in Moore, the local language, as “Kogl-wéogo” hasn’t gone away. Longtime followers will remember several outbreaks of insecurity in previous months with men from rural areas implementing vigilante justice on suspected law-breakers and then confronting the official police when their actions were challenged. The Minister of Interior Security and Administration, the afore-mentioned Simon Compaoré, has been working the Kogl-wéogo village by village over the last couple of months. He has been referred to, not entirely ironically, in the press recently as the “Supreme Chief” of the Kogl-wéogo. Along with senior officers of the Gendarmerie (military police) and national police, he has been touring the country speaking to gatherings of Kogl-wéogo. Here he is in Dédougou the other day:


(Image credit Burkina24)

His message is pretty straightforward: respect the law, don’t think of yourselves as substitutes for the police but as their assistants, arrest people if necessary but turn them over to the police without any unnecessary violence, don’t presume to act like judges or punish crimes yourself, and if the police decide to release an individual you have arrested, you shouldn’t take it as an insult to your activities, the rule of law can lead to some unexpected outcomes but the law is more important that personalities.  So far, so good. The problem is, the people who participate in kogl-wéogo groups are generally the same people who have traditionally led rural communities. Many of them are former municipal councillors (and thus CDP members) and many are candidates in the upcoming elections. To his opponents, Compaoré’s tour looks like an MPP political campaign combined with the recruitment of an armed party militia. In recent stops, Compaoré has insisted that kogl-wéogo members lay down their arms before he speaks to them, pointing out that armed defense of the state needs to be a monopoly of the official armed forces and police. This in response to the criticisms that some have made that the kogl-wéogo are starting to look like the MPP’s militia. It’s hard to tell what’s going on: on the one hand, he is saying the right things about the rule of law, the need to respect the constitution and the government, to reject vigilantism and random violence. On the other hand, he obviously relishes the opportunity to get out and talk to locally-influential people and try to make them supporters of his movement. Given the importance of local initiatives in the resistance during the last two big political disturbances here, the October 2014 uprising and the September 2015 coup, Compaoré has a clear motive to rally local armed groups to his cause in case of future disturbances. The question is, will the MPP use this power responsibly, or as a way to turn themselves into a new political machine? And, of course, other parties would love to have their own machines and can reasonably be suspected of a bit of jealousy in their reactions to Compaoré’s activities.

Rural disturbances haven’t stopped. In one village a few weeks ago, students at the local college (middle school) went on strike, trashed the school (including tearing up the national flag), broke into the teachers’ housing and burned a building, all in protest against the expulsion of one of their classmates for disrespecting a teacher. I should point out that for economic reasons and as a result of failing tests, people go through the educational ranks much more slowly here than in the US. These students were not 12 year olds but more like 16-18. My students in the university, second-year college students, range in age from 21 up to the mid-30s. In the larger city of Dédougou, a few days before Compaoré spoke there, people trashed the headquarters of the Gendarmerie, burned several soldiers’ personal motorcycles, looted one officer’s house, and besieged the troops in a blockhouse for more than a day after an accused thief died in custody. No particular evidence has been brought forward that his death was caused by mistreatment by the gendarmes, who claim that he died of a heart attack perhaps brought on by the extreme heat (it was 45 C = 113 F the day he died). Sitting in a couple of fans with a cool bottle of water in that sort of weather is still pretty uncomfortable, I can only imagine what it must have been like in an airless police cell. The Gendarmes resolved their problem, apparently, by releasing all their prisoners on their own recognizance, with orders to return for their trial dates, a decision that provoked complaints from the kogl-wéogo that dangerous criminals were being allowed to walk the streets. Lots of cops in the US will sympathize – you really can’t win in situations like that.

Friday morning, before it got too hot, I went down to see my civil society friends in Ouaga 2000 again. They were meeting with a representative of the NAFA (New Faso Alliance) political group that unites a number of small parties in the legislature. They are members of something called the People’s Democratic Party. They want to do something about drainage of flood waters in the rainy season. Apparently, the neighborhood where they live – not actually Ouaga 2000 but across the Boulevard France-Afrique to the west for people who know the town – was laid out in the 1990s without sufficient attention to water flow. In the rainy season, when there is a heavy rainfall, the streets are all inundated, sometimes as much as a meter deep. People drown all the time, especially little kids. They pointed out that the big deep drainage ditches that are omnipresent in other parts of the city including my neighborhood, alongside every major boulevard and even some of the dirt “six meter” minor streets, are not to be seen in their neighborhood. This is a fundamental public safety and health initiative. In addition, they point out, most of the water flows away, very quickly, in a matter of hours after the rain ends. However, enough remains, in potholes and low spots in the streets, to create mosquito ranches. We were sitting around under a mango tree enjoying the sweet strong tea of the Sahel and gentle breezes. In the rainy season, from late May through September, you can’t do that unless you have taken a shower in DEET first because the mosquitos would drain you of blood in minutes. Or so they say. I’m prepared to believe them; mosquitos were bad enough in my neighborhood when I first got here.


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