Revolt in Burkina Faso and the Challenge of Working People’s Alternative
Revolt in Burkina Faso and the Challenge of Working People’s Alternative
By Kola Ibrahim
After what seems like atrophy in mass movements in Africa, aftermath of counterrevolutionary rise in countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the working people and youth of Burkina Faso have brought the issue of mass movement and revolution back to the political agenda. The attempt of corrupt and politically bankrupt Blaise Compaore to grant himself extra term(s) in addition to his 27-year old rule could now only bring the mass discontent already bottled up, to the fore. The working people, youth and the poor could not stomach a day extension for a government that would only assure more poverty and misery for the majority. Against all odds, and throwing their fears to the sea, the mass of working people and youth stormed onto the streets, and in a sign of clear revolutionary instincts, stormed the centres of power the parliamentary building, the seat of government, Place de la Nation, state broadcast station, etc.
What the so-called opposition parties could not achieve in 27 years, the mass of working people, youth and the poor achieved it in less than 72 hours; they forced out the corrupt regime of Blaise Compaore. After continuous three days of mass protests, strikes, sit-ins and confrontations with the security forces, Compaore was forced to abdicate power on October 31, 2014, and subsequently embark on self-exile in Ivory Coast.
The removal of Compaore shows the enormous power of the working and poor people when they take their destinies in their hands. The general strike declared jointly by the five labour centres played decisive role in forcing down Compaore regime. Such was the mass opposition that the whole country was on a standstill.
POWER ON THE STREETS
The ruling class was confounded by the huge mass movement that confronted and defeated Compaore regime, such that none of them was prepared for any leadership role. According to Deutsche Welle (the German broadcaster) most of the opposition parties were not prepared for political power or the immediate exit of Compaore. At best, what they were expecting was stopping Compaore from extending his rule. Moreover, they feared the mass movement and its aftermath, especially the possibility of the movement moving leftward. They therefore feared that taking responsibility of leadership in such revolutionary situation would only expose their limitations.
The military echelon had tried to fill the vacuum, but, on the basis of the level of mass radicalization, the military top ranks became divided, confused and fearful, at least for a period. This in itself generated power tussle within the military. While army Chief of Staff, General HonorÃ© NabÃ©rÃ© TraorÃ© announced his assumption of power on October 31, the following day saw Presidential Guard Commander Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida being announced as the head of the transition government by the military hierarchy. The main reason for the change was because of the unpopularity of Traore. Ironically, the following day, November 2, mass protests were held against the attempt of the military of grab victory from the masses. The mass protests called on Zida to “degage” leave.
The French government also expressed ‘concern’ at the military takeover but for different reasons: Western powers would prefer a civilian face at the head of the State, who would look more presentable to back up.
The military tried to test its strength with the soldiers using firearms to deter protesters, with scored already killed or arrested; but it is glaring that the power is not in the hand of the military or any other section of the ruling class, but on the streets. Such was the level of uncertainty that the regional power bloc, ECOWAS had to practically intervene in who leads the country. Consequently, they resorted to searching for an ’eminent civilian personality’ to lead the transition.
Now Michel Kafando, a former Forecast Minister and ambassador to United Nations, has replaced Zida as the interim president while the latter became Prime Minister. No doubt Kafando represents a mere fig leaf to douse tension, the defecto leader remains Zida. The 1991 constitution stipulates that the speaker of the National Assembly shall take charge in situation where the president resigns or is removed. But the parliament and its leadership itself were deeply involved in the attempt to extend Compaore’s tenure, such that the parliamentary building was the first to be attacked by the revolting masses. Reflecting the level of unpopularity of the parliament, the whereabouts of the speaker was unknown.
Currently, various sections of the ruling class are trying to fit in into the situation by posing as part and parcel of the movement. But it was the general strike called by the five trade union centres in the wake of mass protests on Wednesday, 28th October, that played a decisive role in forcing Compaore out. Indeed, the labour movement has played active roles in the political history of the country since independence in 1960. Massive protests and strikes by the labour movement in Burkina Faso were central to removal of three rulers since independence. While there is loose unity among the five trade union centres, a product of the divide-and-rule tactics of the Compaore’s regime. This has not stopped mass protests and strikes.
In 2013, labour movement, in spite of its leadership fraternizing with the government (the government partially fund the trade union centres), had to lead mass protests and strike against rise in food cost and poverty. Prior to this time, in 2011, widespread mass protests and strike, and even mutiny of rank and file of the army convulsed the country in a dress rehearsal of what was to come. The semi-uprising was only bought off with increase in minimum wage, subsidy on foodstuffs and improvement in income of rank and file of the army. In 1998/99 mass protests against the Compaore regime also forced out concession from the government including limiting presidential terms. However, it seems Compaore had run out of concessions, as all attempts to placate the latest wave of protests could only ignite stronger will to chase out the bankrupt regime.
Unfortunately, the labour movement leadership, despite the obvious reality that the power is lying on the street, has refused to draw out a decisive programme to reorganize society. One incident showed the perfidious role of the current trade union leadership when, at the meeting orchestrated by the regional power bloc ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) to create soft-landing for the ruling class in Burkina Faso and prevent a regional/continental contagion, the trade union representative was quoted to have said that transitional process will take time, and should be allowed to flourish! This shows that the trade union leadership has no independent political programme to change the course of history in Burkina Faso. In the best of time, this can only lead to emergence of one of the so-called opposition figures, or at worst, emergence of an authoritarian regime or strong state; all of which can only throw the society backward.
SIX AND HALF-A-DOZEN
None of the opposition parties or politicians poses any fundamental alternative. Quoting Elke Erlecke, head of West Africa Programme at Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the Deutsche Welle broadcaster reported that most of the political parties do not have manifestoes, but are only built around individual politicians (04/11/2014). Moreover, many of the opposition politicians including Sara Sereme of Union for Progress and Change and Zephirin Dlabre of the Congress for Democracy and Progress, were formerly in the ruling party, and are only looking for opportunity to up their political career, rather than providing alternative.
Meanwhile, behind the various protests and strikes are chronic misery and poverty facing the working and poor people of the country. While multilateral agencies talk of economic growth averaging more than 4 percent, about 50 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. More than 70 percent of the workforce is jobless, while minimum wage is a measly $2 per day. The country ranks 183 out of 186 on the Human Development Index.
On the other hand, the tiny ruling elite and capitalists are living large on the country’s wealth. In a landlocked country with few human resources, and less favourable weather, the wealth is concentrated in the hands of few capitalist big businesses and foreigners. For instance, the financial sector which controls 30% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is controlled by eleven private banks and five non-banking financial institutions, owned by a handful of local and foreign big business people. In fact, just 3 of the 11 banks control 60% of the financial sector assets. The mining sector also is controlled by few local and multinational companies and moneybags. Meanwhile, 90% of the workforce is living on subsistence agriculture.
REGIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSES
The responses of regional governments and imperialist governments have further shown that capitalist governments globally are united in their phobia for social movements of the working and poor people. The quick intervention of ECOWAS, with the support of AU and United Nations, has little to do with democracy but more to do with preventing domino effect especially in countries where sit-tights still hold sway.
Indeed, many of African leaders, on the basis of their corrupt rule, and subservience to imperialist and neo-liberal policies that have alienated their population socially and economically, have mortal fears of mass uprising anywhere in the region. From South Africa, to Angola, D R Congo, Cameroun and Nigeria, mass anger are brewing against anti-poor, neo-liberal policies that have made live more miserable for majority. In the last two decades of neo-liberal policies, the whole continent of Africa, in spite of its enormous human and natural resources has seen a majority of the population living in impoverishment.
Furthermore, the uprising in Burkina Faso has again exposed the hypocrisy of western governments, when it comes to democracy. The belated opposition of the United States and France to the attempted extension of Compaore’s tenure amounts to hiding under a fig leaf. The same United States had been an ally of Blaise Compaore for years, granting the government military aids. The alliance with Compaore by countries like US and France was a major booster and bone of support for the regime. While the US and France prop up dictatorial rulers like Compaore, poverty and misery continue to be the lots of the majority. Millions of dollars and francs to Compaore government in form of military aids could have significantly improved the living conditions of millions of Burkinabe in this landlocked and impoverished country. But imperialism is not interested in such ventures despite diplomatic niceties. Inasmuch as a country serves the strategic and economic interests of global capitalism, the working and poor people can die in destitution. Obviously, had the working and poor people not taken their destinies in their hands, Compaore would still be the pampered boy of capitalist imperialism.
ECHOES OF SANKARA?
The uprising in Burkina Faso has also brought back to public discourse the legacies of Thomas Sankara, the murdered leader of the country. Sankara is one of the respected African anti-imperialism heroes. He led a young officers’ coup in 1983 but was assassinated in 1987 through a bloody coup led by his then deputy, Blaise Compaore, acting the script of French imperialism. He left a legacy of austere lifestyle as a leader, in a continent where leaders are notoriously corrupt. He also maintained anti-imperialist stand during his short rule. He implemented some social measures including mass education, healthcare and mass vaccination, women liberation policies, land redistribution to the poor and infrastructural investment, in a country with pervasive poverty. The renewed enthusiasm for Sankara and his ideas, particularly among the youth, reflects the search and potential for radical left wing alternatives. But Sankara’s tragic end also highlights the need to study carefully the legacy and limitations of his rule, and in particular the importance of a complete break up with capitalism -that can only be realized through the democratic involvement of the mass of working and poor people in the revolutionary struggle, rather than through personal rule and measures introduced from above. The government, as much as it implemented some positive social measures, faced growing isolation by imperialism and global capitalism, based on its anti-imperialist stance. A government rooted in the mass of working and oppressed people, and appealing over the heads of imperialism to working people not only in Africa, but also in the western world, could have broken through this imperialist blockade. In fact it was a mass movement of the oppressed through widespread protests and strikes against Jean-Baptiste Ouedrao junta that paved the way for the success of Sankara-led coup.
The contradiction of wanting to break through imperialist blockades while limiting the democratic rights of the working and oppressed people, under the guise of implementing radical measures and protecting the revolution, isolated the government and made the imperialist coup, organized and led by Sankara’s own kit and kin Blaise Compaore, successful. Interestingly, Blaise Compaore, the now-deposed ruler, reversed all the positive measures of Sankara government and handed over Burkina Faso to global finance capital, by joining IMF and implementing Structural Adjustment programmes.
This lesson is important for the working people and youths of Africa, who are looking back into history. While individuals may play heroic roles in history, only a working people-led revolutionary movement premised on full democratic participation can ensure total liberation from the yoke of global capitalism and imperialism
WHERE THE FUTURE LIES
The revolution in Burkina Faso has again brought to the fore the reality that capitalism everywhere is will face renewed social uprising. Despite attempts of imperialism and global capitalism to prevent emergence of global mass movement through wars and siege mentality (rapped up, for example, under the guise of fighting terrorism), working and poor people, from the centres of capitalism to the most backward part of the world, will re-discover the enormous potential in their collective power.
The revolution in Burkina Faso has also sent the shockwave to other dictatorial rulers in Africa, that their days are numbers. However, what is lacking is a political platform for working and oppressed people. The labour movement in Burkina Faso, with over 500,000-strong members has the wherewithal to lead the process for the political liberation of working and poor people of the country. The enormous youth population in Burkina Faso(over 60 percent is under 25 years) shows the country’s revolutionary potential.
The organisation “BalaiCitoyen” has been a crucial part in the mobilizations that led to the overthrow of Compaore’s regime. Reclaiming Sankara’s legacy, the BalaiCitoyen has been a spinal cord for action, especially for the revolutionary youth, mistrustful of the existing political parties and establishment politicians. Unfortunately, its leaders have no clear idea on how to bring the revolution forward. This has led them to waver between encouraging grassroots mobilization, including by setting up local committees of action, and on the other hand, spreading dangerous illusions in the benevolence of the army Chiefs in “taking their responsibilities” and “restoring stability”.
On the basis of the failure of the workers, the poor people and the youth to build their own revolutionary government, some elements within the capitalist class will maneuver and occupy the political vacuum, trying to hijack the movement for their own interests. But the working masses should have no illusion in any section of the capitalist ruling class, being with a military or a civilian face.
Rather than calling on the army to “fulfill its responsibilities”, a revolutionary leadership should organized mass meetings in the communities, workplaces, schools, villages, as well as in the military barracks (with involvement of rank-and-file of the armed forces, who are also living in stinking poverty) and urban centres. These mass meetings, aside from discussing how to take the revolution to the next step, , should elect their representatives, subject to recall. Linking up from the local to the national level, this could form the basis for a government of the representatives of the workers and poor that could convene a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly that would begin the process of reorganizing society in the interests of the working people. This would involve firstly putting the mainstay of the economy the mines, financial sector and the cotton industry under public ownership, with planning being democratically drawn on how to use these resources in the interests of the working and poor people.
Only a working class political programme that seek to put public resources and wealth under common and collective ownership can provide the necessary solution to the economic and social quagmire being faced by the working and poor people.
The banner of revolutionary solidarity with working and young people in the rest of Africa and the western world will also have to be raised, with the aim of undermining the sabotage and blockades that capitalist governments will launch on the country. One can only imagine what revolutionary effect a successful revolution by working and young people will have on a country like Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso’s main trading partner. This can spread the revolution to other countries in both West Africa, and in fact the African continent sooner than expected. The example of the so-called Arab Spring shows how revolution can spread like contagion, especially when conscious efforts are made by working and young people across countries to spread the message.