Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré and the Secret of [Almost] Eternal Rule

My book The Ringtone and the Drum turned two last Sunday. Conveniently, one of the countries it covers, Burkina Faso, promptly had a revolution. Yesterday a great crowd of protesters set fire to parliament, invaded the state television studios, and may have succeeded in dislodging long-serving president Blaise Compaoré. It is still unclear who is in control in the country, with the army announcing the formation of a transitional government and the president inflaming the ire of the protesters and opposition parties by saying he will hang around to oversee it.

I wrote quite a lot about Compaoré and his ill-fated predecessor Thomas Sankara in the book (by this stage of my journey around West Africa I was too busy having a nervous breakdown to do much actual travel writing). Here’s an excerpt analysing how and why Compaoré and dictators like him cling to power for so long: Continue reading

Gaddafi: ‘Championing a United Africa’

This piece from yesterday’s Africa Review contains much that is spurious. That coalition forces are ‘taking their lead from the US,’ that Libya will become ‘a basket country’ after Gaddafi goes, that African leaders see Gaddafi as a ‘benevolent godfather,’ and that in the Ivory Coast there is ‘little difference’ between Gbagbo and Ouattara are all at the very least arguable.

But these claims pale into insignificance compared with the article’s overarching point, which is that the West wants to remove Gaddafi because he is a ‘dangerous African likely to cause a united front against neo-colonialism in Africa.’ According to the Africa Review, the kindly dictator ‘identified himself with sub-Saharan Africa, championing a united Africa and showing the continent how if they formulated a collective vision, they would be able to stand on their own feet.’

The basis for this claim is unclear, for when one thinks of Gaddafi and sub-Saharan Africa, unity and self-reliance are very far from the first things that spring to mind. Was Gaddafi championing a united Africa when he armed Charles Taylor in Liberia and Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone, enabling them to kill tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans and maim, rape and torture many more (even Taylor’s defence lawyer at the Hague has asked why Gaddafi is not in the dock)? Was he formulating a collective vision when he sent Libyan troops to help the mad cannibal Idi Amin crush a popular uprising, or when he gave Amin arms to massacre sub-Saharan Africans in northern Uganda? Was he helping Africans stand on their own feet when he sent weapons to a rebel leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo who is now on trial for war crimes? The list goes on and on; with friends like these, as sub-Saharan Africans reading the Africa Review must surely be asking themselves as they splutter over this morning’s cornflakes, who needs enemies?

Rumblings of discontent in Burkina Faso

The convulsions in North Africa have in the past three weeks found an echo south of the Sahara.

The death in custody of a student in Burkina Faso has sparked a series of student protests against the brutality of Blaise Compaoré’s regime. At first these protests were limited to Koudougou, where the student died. Koudougou is traditionally a hotbed of Burkinabe agitation, and the government assumed it could confine the protest within the city boundaries by closing schools and clamping down on demonstrators.

But by extending school closures to the whole country, the government seems to have fanned the flames. The protests have spread to at least seven other cities, with police stations burned down, prisoners freed from jails and in one city the headquarters of the ruling party set on fire. The students, moreover, have been joined by hawkers and ordinary citizens.

Compaoré, as is his wont, has responded forcefully. When early concessions did not work – the Koudougou chief of police and regional governor were fired to placate the students – his security forces opened fire on protesters, killing four so far, with one policeman lynched in return. A peaceful march is planned for today in Ouagadougou, the capital, with student unions demanding the removal from office of the minister of security as a condition for halting the demonstrations.

There are many similarities between Burkina Faso and her Middle Eastern counterparts. Compaoré, like Mubarak, Ben-Ali, and his close friend Gaddafi, runs a dictatorial government that brooks no dissent (Western governments count Burkina as a democracy because it holds occasional rigged elections, but few in the country share that view). There are hordes of underemployed young men whom the population explosion has deprived of a livelihood (and if war breaks out in the Ivory Coast their numbers will be swollen by many of the three million Burkinabes currently living there). Food price rises are exacerbating hunger and poverty (the main cities were rocked by food riots in 2008). And the older generation has sequestered the nation’s resources, creating great resentment among the youth.

So far, the protests have focused on police brutality rather than on the repressive government as a whole (in a similar way to Saudi Arabia’s day of rage yesterday and the early rallies in Tunisia and Egypt), but they may become more wide-ranging. Compaoré assuaged the 2008 food riots by subsidising staple foods, but his latest concessions have not been so effective. It would be a stretch to predict that the discontent will harden into a revolutionary movement, but it is not impossible, and given the underlying conditions in the country (and indeed in West Africa as a whole), Compaoré might have to get used to a rougher ride.

Desert Storm

Back in March of this year, I spent a couple of weeks in the far north of Burkina Faso. I slept under the stars on the edge of the Sahara, was offered a live goat at Dori’s spectacular weekly livestock market, and discussed the upcoming hunger season with nomadic Fulani herders. I also spent money (although not on the goat) and contributed a little to the local economy.

Today I could do none of these things. The whole northern half of this beautiful, welcoming country has been declared off limits by the British, American and French governments. Last month, the US evacuated dozens of its citizens from north-western Burkina. Last week, France withdrew twenty-five students from the city of Fada N’Gourma, near the Niger border, and sent them back to Europe. Across that border, in southern Niger, NGO workers helping to deal with that country’s hunger crisis (a crisis which my Fulani interlocutors had foreseen) have been recalled to the capital, Niamey, for unspecified ‘reasons of security.’

Were I to go back to northern Burkina and fall sick or have a traffic accident (statistically by far the greatest dangers to my person), my insurance would not cover the costs of recovery. Were I to be kidnapped by elements linked to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), which the European governments see as the greatest threat to my safety, nobody would pay my ransom and, like the tragic Briton Edwin Dyer last year, I might well be murdered.

My first reaction to this expansion of the already large map of forbidden West African territories was one of anger. So far, two of the dozens captured by Al Qaeda have died. Edwin Dyer was executed because his government refuses to negotiate with terrorists, and earlier this month the 78-year-old French humanitarian worker Michel Germaneau, whose own government normally has no such qualms, either met the same fate or died of natural causes (it is not yet clear). When I compare this figure to the annual number of deaths in car crashes on the M25, on which the Foreign Office is happy for me to drive, or stabbings in London, which I can freely visit, it seems a disproportionate response to tell all foreign visitors that they must avoid northern Burkina and most of Niger, thereby impeding the famine relief effort, hobbling the fledgling tourist industry, and deterring any foreigner thinking of doing business there.

But on reflection, I wondered whether I would be brave enough to revisit the region myself (as I plan to do next year). In March I did not feel in any danger, but if the intelligence the Europeans and Americans claim to have received is correct and AQIM is actively hunting for foreigners to kidnap, would it not be foolhardy to ignore the warnings? In my two weeks, after all, I did not see a single other white face: it would not have been difficult for a desperate local wanting to earn a fast buck to find me and sell me on to the extremists. Perhaps I was lucky not to be snatched myself, although it did not feel that way and no local people seemed concerned that there was any threat. Continue reading

The lost children of Muslim Africa

A couple of weeks ago in the small, poor Sahelian town of Dori in northern Burkina Faso, we were sitting at a roadside stall having a breakfast of coffee and dry bread. As we sat with our backs to the road, a group of five young boys, aged no more than twelve, hovered behind us like seagulls waiting for scraps. From time to time one would move closer, as if making to pounce on a morsel of bread, before retreating again when we looked round. They stood there for twenty minutes. After we got up and left, one of them ran to the table and downed the dregs of Ebru’s coffee.

These are the talibe children of West Africa. They are ubiquitous. In the towns of Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal, posses of these young boys – uniformly skinny, dirty and covered in dust – have been constant companions on our trip. They roam the streets in packs, carrying empty, lidless tomato tins or little plastic buckets, and approach everyone they see for money or food. You never get used to the sight of them.

The boys’ story is grim. Many have been sent from their villages at the age of five or six by destitute parents to live with marabouts, Muslim “holy men” who promise to feed and shelter them and teach them about the Koran. ‘Their parents are too poor to look after them,’ says Karim, a Dori yoghurt seller, ‘and they are uneducated, so they believe the marabouts when they tell them they will house and clothe their kids.’ A few of these marabouts are genuine, and the children combine work in the fields with Arabic and Koranic education. But most are charlatans. ‘They go to the market, buy a cap and a gown and a Koran and say they are Koranic masters,’ Karim, a devout Muslim explains, ‘but it’s pure child exploitation.’

The children are sent out into the streets every morning. They are expected to earn 150 or 250 CFA francs per day (about 20-35p, or 50 cents) from begging. A former talibe child from Niger tells me that if they do not hit their target, the marabout beats or tortures them. Many therefore take to stealing if they haven’t begged enough near the end of the day.

Few receive any form of education, because their masters want them on the streets. Some of these Fagins have twenty or thirty boys. Twenty children can mean 5000 CFA (£8/$12) per day, huge money in these parts, so they do not waste time with teaching.

At night, the children sleep together on crowded floors in marabouts’ homes. Few get enough rest – we often see boys sleeping in the dust under trees in the afternoons. Those who surrounded us at the breakfast table were seriously underfed. In Ouagadougou a few days later, another feral-looking child asked us for money. When we refused, he began staring feverishly at Ebru’s bag and then made to snatch it – I pushed him away, and felt his ribs like a radiator through his T-shirt.

Karim is pessimistic about the children’s future. ‘They get used to this life of begging and stealing, so when they eventually grow up and escape they can only slip into a life of delincuency.’ The boys would make easy prey for extremists and warlords. The Burkina Faso government does occasional round-ups and places them in workshops so they can learn a trade, but this risks encouraging more parents to abandon their sons to the marabouts. Karim believes it is a ‘river that can’t be damned.’ Universal free education with meals seems the most promising solution, but Burkina’s performance in this area is abysmal – fewer than half of rural children are enrolled in school.

Losing the Fight for Food Security

Business is slow at Dori’s spectacular weekly livestock market. The crowds of turbaned Fulani nomads and bejewelled Bella and Tuareg are as dense and colourful as ever, but although a few goats and sheep change hands, trade in cattle – for so long the stars of the show – has ground to a halt. Huge herds of powerful horned beasts led in from across the Burkinabe Sahel stand uninspected, undisturbed, unsold. Admiring Fula, whose love for cattle can be as intense as their love for their wives, look on wistfully from a distance, not daring to get involved.

‘It’s very hard to sell cows these days because people no longer have the confidence to herd them,’ says a young Fula who is trying in vain to offload some of his ten-strong brood. ‘There’s not enough rain and boreholes are drying out, so keeping a large herd is difficult. Sometimes you have to travel for three or four days to find water. Some animals don’t make it. So it’s risky to buy cattle, for both economic and emotional reasons: you don’t want to see the animals suffer.’

It is not only business that is under pressure. Hunger stalks the towns and villages of northern Burkina Faso. In 2005, a million people needed emergency food relief as the prices of maize and millet doubled. In 2008, riots protesting the high cost of food rocked the country. Poverty in Dori is Dickensian – large gangs of scrawny kids forage for food; toddlers’ stomachs are bloated by kwashiorkor. In the villages, theft from granaries has increased as the contest for food intensifies. ‘Famine has become cyclical,’ says a nurse, adding that last year’s shorter than usual rainy season has left many thousands vulnerable in the coming months as their stocks of grain run out.

Fula and Tuareg cattle herders are especially exposed – they have no tradition of growing crops as they must spend all their time finding pasture for their livestock. To obtain essential carbohydrates, they must buy them, and when crop prices rise in a drought many starve.

The main cause of food insecurity here is population growth. The population of the Dori district has tripled in the past forty years. As well as meaning that water and pasture have to be shared more thinly, this increase has also hastened deforestation and desertification. Wood is the only source of fuel, so more people means fewer trees and a clearer path for the encroaching desert. The Sahara is advancing into the Burkinabe Sahel at a rate of 10cm per year, reducing the land and water available for herding and farming. Periodic conflict breaks out between roaming herders and settled agriculturalists over access to these precious resources.

Climate change, which everyone here blames on the West (‘you caused it, we’re suffering from it,’ is a common and irrefutable accusation) could be the final nail in the coffin of the nomadic herding lifestyle. This year, the harmattan wind which deposits huge clouds of sand from the desert is still blowing, over a month after it normally stops. Rainy seasons are starting later and finishing earlier. The Sahel is expected to be one of the world regions hardest hit by climate change: rainfall could decrease by a quarter in the next eighty years.

Adapting to the increasingly challenging conditions will not be easy. As an older Fula man in the oasis village of Oursi (whose large lake has virtually dried out) explains, ‘People here don’t know how to do commerce, they only know herding.’ He himself used to have forty head of cattle, taking them north to Mali in the dry season and returning to Burkina for the rains, but many died through lack of pasture and water and he is now left with just ten cows. He has been forced to take up a menial job at a campsite to make ends meet, and spends hours sitting and staring into space, dreaming of cattle and long journeys. His peers are moving to the cities, quitting their quiet wanderings for a grim life spent hawking the roaring streets of Ouagadougou.

Back at the market in Dori, the young herder is reluctant to accept the new reality. ‘People are keeping their money in their pocket in the hope that the climate will improve,’ he says, desperation cracking his voice. It is likely to be a long wait.

Ten things you probably didn’t know about Burkina Faso

We are now in Burkina Faso, the last stop on what has been a fascinating and somewhat challenging tour of West Africa. Here’s a beginner’s guide to one of the world’s poorest countries:

1. Located in the heart (and heat) of West Africa, between the Sahara desert and the forests of the south, Burkina Faso has one of the highest fertility rates in the world. The average Burkinabe woman has six children. As a consequence, the population has increased five-fold in the past half-century. At 15 million, however, it is still under-populated compared to Great Britain, which is of similar size but has four times more people. It’s still too crowded though for the 3.5 million Burkinabe who live and work in neighbouring Ivory Coast.

2. Known in colonial times as Upper Volta, Burkina Faso means ‘Land of the Honourable People.’ Burkinabes are known as among the most honest folk in Africa.

3. The country has arguably the world’s best place names. Its capital – one of the oldest cities on Earth – is Ouagadougou. Leafy Bobo-Dioulasso, from where I am writing this, is the second city. It also boasts the desert market town of Gorom-Gorom (so good they named it twice), Bouroum-Bouroum (ditto), Fada N’Gourma, Tin-Akof, Niangoloko and, er, Rambo.

4. Burkina has few natural resources. The French only colonised it because it was a bridge between their coastal territories of Benin and Ivory Coast and their desert holdings in modern-day Mali and Niger. It even stopped being a country for 15 years from 1932, when it was carved up between its more important neighbours. The French made good use of Upper Volta’s human resources, however, forcing hundreds of thousands to build railways, farm cocoa and fight in the First World War trenches.

5. The country is dominated by the Mossi ethnic group. A tribe of brilliant horsemen (which may account for the profusion of betting shops in Bobo), the Mossi repelled slave raiders and other rivals and remained intact for 400 years until their kingdom fell to the French. Captain Paul Voulet, who led the French expedition, was a real-life Kurtz figure, who stuck victims’ heads on poles, roasted children over fires, and strung up soldiers who displeased him at a height where their feet could be reached by hyenas’ hungry jaws. When his superiors tried to rein him in, he told his troops he was no longer French but a “black chief,” who would found his own empire. After he was killed, the French, embarrassed that their civilising mission in their colonies had gone awry, attributed Voulet’s activities to the maddening heat of Africa.

6. Burkina Faso is one of Africa’s least urbanised societies. Despite plagues of locusts, catastrophic droughts, desertification, and the fatal effects of US cotton subsidies (Burkina produces cotton at one-quarter the cost of American cotton, but subsidies mean US producers can undercut Burkinabe farmers), over three-quarters still live in the countryside. The French colonial administrator R Delavignette wrote in 1946 that, ‘We came from an industrialised Europe where factories are joyless affairs, and found people who worked to music. Communal labour had its drums and tom-toms, its orchestras to cheer the workers on.’ Drummers still accompany farmers at planting and harvesting times today.

7. Burkina hosts Africa’s most important film festival, the biennial Fespaco (the next one is in 2011). Cinema attendances are falling, however, because of the proliferation of pirated DVDs.

8. Burkina was home to the ill-fated revolutionary Thomas Sankara, who as president alienated the French by calling them neo-colonialists, told the country’s creditors he wouldn’t pay them back (‘you played the game, you lost,’ he explained), slated African leaders for their corruption, and practised what he preached by ditching the ministerial Mercedes for a Renault 4, taking out a $2,000 mortgage to buy a house, and cycling around Ouagadougou on a rusty old bicycle (is David Cameron a secret fan?). Cheques he wrote often bounced. Sankara was killed in 1987 by soldiers close to his friend Blaise Compaore, who many suspect ordered the assassination. Frequently described as Africa’s Che Guevara, Sankara, who unlike most African revolutionaries died before he could sully his reputation, remains a hero to young idealists from all over the continent.

9. Blaise Compaore is still the Presdient of Burkina Faso today. Something of an eminence grise, as well as being linked to Sankara’s death he was also implicated in civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and is a longstanding supporter of the vicious Liberian warlord Charles Taylor (currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes). On the other hand, Compaore has also helped broker peace, for now, in Guinea. In the 2005 election, judged ‘free and fair’ by the 1500 (count ’em) international observers who were flown in to watch, he gained 80% of the vote.

10. Burkina’s main cities saw violent street protests in 2008, as food and fuel prices climbed beyond the reach of most urbanites. As Compaore has loosened his dictatorial grip on the country, protests of all kinds have increased. One year, the authorities in Ouagadougou tried to force motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Vigorous rioting forced them to back down.