Posts Tagged ‘Norbert Zongo’

And then there were…

January 30, 2022

…not putting a number here. There may be further changes. But the current tally is three. 

Three neighbours in West Africa, three coups (four, if you count Mali’s double; five if you include the failed one in Niger), three military-led and/or military-dominated governments. Or, as our handwringing friends would put it: three democracies put in the bin. As you probably know, I for one am not so terribly upset by this supposed “loss”.

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Early morning every Friday, a historical event is re-enacted in Ouagadougou. It takes places near the palace of one of Burkina Faso’s traditional leaders and it’s called Le Faux Départ de Moogho Naba. The ceremony is directly linked to an episode in the almost one millennium-old history of this Burkinabè dynasty. In essence it is the story of a family feud that threatened to become a bloody civil war, which was prevented by a ruse performed by the Queen Mother and the king’s council’s powers of persuasion. The current Moogho Naba still lives in this palace and he is the go-to person whenever there is a political crisis in Burkina Faso, which is often. When, on that Friday morning, the ceremony had ended with two deafening salvos from an ancient cannon I discussed the role of the traditional, king with a friend. He explained that he is revered throughout the vast plateau where the Mossi people have lived for many centuries. When I finally asked him what then the position was of the formally elected head of state as compared to the Moogho Naba, he replied with a dismissive: ‘Ah, him? He’s just a little boy’. 

Lt-Col Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, Ouagadougou January 2022

That little boy in question at the time was long-reigning head of state Blaise Compaoré, who had been duly elected and re-elected according to the international rulebook with nary a peep from the “international community”. No-one made any noise as he went about enriching himself and his venal clan, had the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo assassinated and was busy fomenting armed rebellions in (among others) Côte d’Ivoire and later Mali. His rap sheet would have been as long as your arm. 

In October 2014, just a few short years after I had this conversation, Blaise Compaoré was removed in a popular insurrection and an army coup, resembling a similar situation that had occurred in Mali, in 1991. 

Was democracy ushered in? Well, put it this way: democracy, supposedly meaning regular presidential, parliamentary, regional and/or local elections was already happening but the people were not feeling it. And when he attempted to use the supposedly democratic process to stay in power forever, people clearly had enough. Symbolically, the building housing the people’s elected representatives, was burnt. 

Generally speaking, countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and many others were/are ruled by internationally well-connected jet-setting elites who understand and speak the language of the donors and/or businesses that keep their bank accounts filled. (Almost nobody in Burkina Faso, Mali or for that matter Guinea has a bank account.) The rulers are mostly accountable to said donors and/or businesses, not to the people who have elected them. And as a result, the people have stopped bothering with elections.

Democracy is an excellent idea – on paper. But as long as it uses concepts and methods that are alien to the vast majority of the population it is supposed to serve and as long as it is perceived to be working for foreigners (donors, partners, former colonisers even) rather than the intended beneficiaries (i.e. the people) it will be regarded as irrelevant. There were home-grown systems of governance in place before they were replaced with French, British, Portuguese or Belgian varieties that don’t speak to peoples’ lives. As a result, the “loss of democracy” thus anchored in alien systems is decried in international circles  but applauded in the countries themselves. 

Col Mamady Doumbouya, Conakry September 2021

Yes, another colonel. We have had to learn a few new names lately. The colonels are young (late 30s, early 40s), well-trained in a variety of countries (France, Russia, United States, African nations) and most of them have had battlefield experience, especially those in Mali and Burkina Faso, which have been severely affected by the armed Islamist extremist menace. 

And they are popular. True, the pro-junta demonstrations in Bamako and other cities around Mali carried some rent-a-crowd elements but the spontaneous outbursts in Conakry, Ouagadougou and Bamako at the news of the removal of a sitting president could definitely not be staged. Perhaps it is not even the fact that these young men in battle fatigues look more appealing than the elderly or (in the case of former president Alpha Condé of Guinea) very old men in suits. Are we witnessing some kind of shift towards a new model of governance even though we presently have no idea how it will look? 

We can make a few educated guesses, though. 

Looking at the histories of these lands I am always struck by the centrality of the military, long before the coloniser came on the scene. The “carriers of the quivers” (aka the army) were the dominant class in traditional Mande society. The history of the Mossis in Burkina Faso is replete with stories of Warrior Kings – or, most famous of them all, Warrior Queen Yennega.

And when you consider peoples’ ordinary daily lives, two things immediately take centre stage. One is religion, be it this one or the Christian variety (Abidjan and Monrovia reverberate all weekend with hymns) or indeed the authentic varieties that are still in evidence in many places. And the other is the extended family, the organisational cornerstone of West African life. Two immovable anchors in peoples’ lives. 

So we have a large region where there is a home-grown and long-standing reverence for the military and where religion and family reign supreme. This may offend our liberal, progressive, Western sensibilities but this is irrelevant. We have had many instances where inserting these sensibilities in societies different to those in Europe or North America has not led to the desired results.

Col Assimi Goïta, Bamako August 2020 and May 2021

Exactly ten years ago I interviewed Senegalese superstar Youssou Ndour as he was putting the finer touches on his presidential bid, which never materialised. As I reflected on my interview with him for my own program at Radio Netherlands Worldwide (still dearly missed) I asked myself whether he was using the established (more or less) democratic model for a possible return to more traditional ways. Are the colonels doing this in real life? 

I bring this up because the adoration for the putchists is matched by a visceral disdain bordering on hatred for anything and everything Western, particularly French. Since the old model is so clearly based on the Western example and also so clearly fails to deliver development, fails to deliver the feeling that people have a stake in the running of their own country, fails to deliver decent economic prospects for all but a few chosen few and – most crucially – fails to deliver security, people are prepared to cast it aside. It is too early to tell but this might just be the start of a transition towards creating a system of governance that actually matters to people as they go about their daily lives. And as always, this change is a messy process. The countless memos, policy documents, think pieces and minutes that will be written about this in pristine air-conditioned rooms across Europe or North America will be irrelevant to this process.