Is Burkina Faso becoming a failed state?

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I was out riding around yesterday and I came across this billboard. The text reads: “Burkinabè Movement of Human Rights and Peoples (MBDHP), Stop Torture. Dabo Boukary, a seventh-year medical student at the University of Ouagadougou, was kidnapped May 19th, 1990, and tortured to death, 26 years later, his assassins are still running around. Together, let us denounce torture and torturers.” Their address is at the bottom. That’s a riot police car on the left, interestingly…just a coincidence, nothing going on.

The MBDHP is one of the oldest civil society organizations in the country, founded in the 90s when Blaise Compaoré was liberalizing his regime. It was the organization that was involved in a recent confrontation in the traditional authorities in the regional capital of Dédougou. The head of the provincial organizing committee was informally taken into custody by people working for the traditional chief of the town. The people broke into his house, took his personal property, loaded it on a truck along with the official, and drove him to his native village. A few days later, a large group of MBDHP activists escorted their leader back to his house in the city. In neither case did the representatives of the government, the police or gendarmes interfere. That’s where it rests today, with a major civil society organisation, one of the oldest in the country, facing off with local traditional authorities, and the government on the sidelines despite some obvious and public criminal acts committed by the traditional authorities.

There was another case reported in the news recently that also has some disturbing elements: a young woman, a teacher in a village near Fada-Ngourma, was stopped, again by representatives of the local traditional authorities acting as “kogl-wéogo” vigilantes. They told her they were looking for a friend of hers who was suspected of stealing a motorcycle. She denied knowing where he was. They told her they were going to hold her until he turned himself in. They loaded her in a truck and took her, first to the local regional capital of Fada and then to Ouagadougou (believing that the suspect had fled to the city). They had to pass several military police checkpoints on the way, where the gendarmes check everybody’s ID. She did not have her ID with her when she was “arrested” by the kogl-wéogo, so she was challenged at each checkpoint. She explained her situation to the gendarmes, but it wasn’t until arriving at the entrance to Ouagadougou that the gendarmes finally liberated her from the custody of the kogl-wéogo and told them they did not have the right to hold people hostage in that way. Nobody has been arrested for kidnapping.

Down in the village of Sapouy, the chief of the local kogl-wéogo defied the Minister of Internal Security, Simon Compaoré, last week, telling him that if he wanted the kogl-wéogo to work under the supervision of the police they had to be paid and in any case they reserved the right to act as they saw fit to protect their communities, rules be damned. Sapouy was one of the places that sparked the current crisis over the actions of the kogl-wéogo when one of their prisoners died there in February as the result of a beating. Investigation showed that the arrest was probably caused by personal problems between the dead man and influential members of the community and that the theft of which he was accused had taken place years before. When the police attempted to take some of the killers into custody, hundreds of kogl-wéogo from neighboring communities descended on the town to protect their colleagues. And the state backed down.

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Sapouy kogl-wéogo confront the cops in February: Image credit Burkina24

It looks like the Burkinabè state is either unable or unwilling to interfere in these “local security initiatives” – the term used by the Minister. They seem to have the attitude that fostering and trying to control the initiatives, and turning a blind eye to at least some excesses, is the way to progressively rein them in and gain their support for at least a decentralized situation of rule of law. The problem, from the perspective of at least some activists on the civil society side like the MBDHP, and my friends in the local maquis, is that ignoring excesses and deviations from a true rule of law only encourages local strongmen to act more and more like warlords. In the end, you get a failed state. Last night, when discussing these events, somebody pointed out that Boko Haram started like this, with local self-service law enforcement efforts against drug dealing, prostitution, corruption, and so on. They graduated to bars and women not wearing veils and ended up attacking schools and kidnapping children into sex slavery and suicide bombing squads.

Burkinabè are not Nigerians. Violence is much less common here than was my experience in Nigeria, even interpersonal violence as mild as harsh words and posturing in bars. I was shocked the other day to overhear a truly angry conversation in a maquis where I often buy food. Domestic violence is much less accepted here than in other African countries I have visited (though thirty years of changing cultural values may have had an impact as well). Still, the Burkinabè did not overthrow the long autocracy of Blaise Compaoré in order to replace it with a failed state. People are going to judge the government’s performance first on its ability to maintain civil peace and order, a necessary prerequisite for the economic development and cultural flourishing that everybody is hoping for.

On the personal front, I have finished almost all of my work for the university. I’ve heard all but a couple of the student presentations. I’m still working through the last of my lectures – I’m on the 1980’s now – but it looks like I won’t be giving a second exam since the way the system works, not every student who failed to get a 10 out of 20 in my class will be required to take it. The department has to get all the scores for all the classes in first, then only the people who did not get an overall average of 10/20 will be required to re-take the exams in the classes they failed. So a student who got a 9/20 from me but 11/20 in some other class will still average out as passing the year. This means many fewer people will have to re-take the exam, but the re-takes can’t happen until the fall. When, presumably, they will have forgotten everything I told them in the spring. I will write an exam and give a rubric for grading to my colleague, anyway. But I won’t be here in the fall, and there is generalized unwillingness to send me piles of exam papers through the unreliable international mail service. They could scan and email them, I guess. I don’t know how enthusiastic I will be to do another stack of grading for the Université Ki-Zerbo in October either, though if that is the only solution to the problem I guess I’ll do what’s needful.

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