So, I went on down to school this morning for my class, and when I arrived at the classroom, crickets…
Not exactly crickets, there were a few students hanging round studying or chatting. A few of my students were there and they told me that there were no classes today. Apparently, the student association decided to take the day off to protest the killing, 26 years ago, of Dabo Boukary, he of the billboards that have been popping up around town.
I am not in favor of people being kidnapped and tortured to death, and I am not in favor of impunity for crimes committed, presumably, by the former government, but I don’t see how this issue takes priority over the second-t0-last day of class. The two remaining student groups who hadn’t presented their group projects yet were scheduled to go today. They were there, and, crucially, several of their members work outside of Ouaga and can’t come back next week. On the one hand, I have little sympathy for s0-called students who can’t show up for class regularly, but this is a recognized feature of the way the university works here and the students declaring the strike seriously inconvenienced their fellow students. Nobody heard anything about this day of activity until late last night, and I of course didn’t hear about it until this morning.
So I sat down with the students and we tried to figure out how we were going to find some alternative way to get their projects done. I called the “délégué”, the class president, who agreed to come down. While we were talking, some very polite young men intercepted us and reminded us that any sort of pedagogical activities were forbidden while the students were on strike. I responded politely by explaining that I was trying to figure out a class schedule around their impromptu strike. I managed to resist the temptation to tell them to go fuck themselves. This is, after all, their country and not mine. But I sure felt like it.
Returning to my office to put my projector back in the closet, I ran across a colleague, who informed me that the professors, too, are on strike. This was to some degree anticipated, since this is the period of exams and thus the most strategic time for a strike. Faculty want better pay and working conditions. I’d say the first thing they ought to strike for is an increase in staffing levels – there are something like 3000 history students and 15 professors counting myself. Anyway, the faculty strike may be connected to the student strike: the students may have figured their teachers wouldn’t be there anyway so why not take the opportunity to get a word in on the conversation about consequences for crimes under the old regime? Except I was there because nobody had told me about the faculty strike either.
This is a real question, by the way, that the government is having trouble answering. Some crimes were certainly committed in the old days. During the coup that overthrew the Sankara government, President Sankara and more than a dozen of his supporters were shot out of hand and without even the semblance of a trial. Two prominent members of the group of revolutionary officers that included Sankara and Blaise Compaoré were subsequently shot, accused of plotting the overthrow of Compaoré’s government. Several human rights activists, like Mr. Dabo, journalists, and other annoyances to the regime met sticky ends during the 27 years of Compaoré’s presidency. During the rebellion that kicked him out and during the abortive attempt to reverse things last year, a couple of dozen people got killed, though there was no wholesale bloodshed. There is also the question of that missing money, 84 billion CFA or something like US$ 400 million, that can’t be accounted for. When the new administrative district of Ouaga 2000 was set up, favored members of the ruling group got preferential access to land that is now worth a whole bunch more than they paid for it. The president’s brother François married a young woman whose mother subsequently became one of the biggest contractors for the Burkinabè government. Basically, the story goes, if you wanted to do business with the government here, you had to cut the “national mother-in-law” in for five percent. And so on, stories that are distressingly similar to ones you will hear in almost any third-world country. In fact, the Compaoré government was probably less bloodthirsty and corrupt than many of its neighbors, a fact that helps explain the relatively functional government and cohesive society here. Still, now that the “broom” of Balai Citoyen has swept Compaoré from power, there is a strong feeling that it should sweep away corruption and impunity for past crimes.
The only problem is, as has been pointed out before, the current government is led by people who were a part of the Compaoré system for almost all of its 27 years. In fact, most of the opposition parties are also led by people who rose to prominence under Compaoré, though some of them broke with him earlier than the current president, Kaboré, and his fellow barons, Simon Compaoré and Salif Diallo. They are in a difficult position – if they push too hard for accountability for past crimes, defendants will be able to point out that Kaboré’s signature is on this and that piece of administrative paperwork permitting them to have the plot of land or the payment or contract in question. I don’t think anybody suspects the current leadership of killing anybody – they were civilian administrators – but they rely on the support of army officers who likewise rose to their current ranks in the old regime. A couple of the coup plotters from last year, currently in the military jail in town, are suspected in some of the earlier killings but again there is reluctance to try them on those charges because they will then be able to point out that General so-and-so or Colonel whoever was standing right next to them when they pulled the trigger and yet is not next to them in the dock and instead still commands troops in the Burkina military. The magazine Jeune Afrique headlined a story a couple of weeks ago talking about contacts between the coup plotters and the supposedly loyal military leadership in the months before the September 2015 uprising. Not surprising that there should have been contacts and conversations, there always are in coup plots. The top military leadership basically kept their troops in barracks the first couple of days of the coup, while the civilian activists were manning barricades. Increasingly, lower-ranking officers and enlisted men put pressure on their officers to lead them against the coup, and the army high command finally gave in to that pressure. This is well-known. But again, the defense in these cases could certainly make the case that their clients were being unjustly singled out – I think perhaps with less justice, but the case could still be made. And Burkina’s government is fragile, nobody wants to push things too far.
Again, it’s not my country, I don’t have an answer. In my country, a variety of blatantly unlawful things were done by the George W Bush government in the lead-up to war in Iraq and in fighting that war. American soldiers and civilian employees were directed to torture people. High government officials lied to Congress, the United Nations, and the American people as a whole. Quite a few people died as a result of these crimes, many more than Compaoré and his lieutenants are accused of killing here in Burkina. Yet when the new government came to power they felt that there were good reasons to overlook the crimes of the past, and so there has been complete impunity. I’m outraged, I think that the rule of law is much more important than any possible advantage that we might get in foreign affairs from overlooking the crimes of the Bush years, but President Obama felt otherwise. If President Kaboré is making the same call, at least he is in good company.