Nov. 1, 2015

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — During their brief, failed coup last September, soldiers from Burkina Faso’s elite presidential guard moved swiftly through the capital, Ouagadougou, to assert control and stifle dissent. Driving in convoys, they toured main intersections and other potential rallying points, training automatic weapons on unarmed civilians trying to organize demonstrations. (An Amnesty International investigation later found that 14 people were killed.) Other members of the regiment targeted the media, forcing radio and television stations to suspend their programming, burning the motorbikes of radio journalists and beating at least one photographer until he lost consciousness.

Amid the confusion and chaos that one observer likened to “guerrilla warfare,”[1] a group of soldiers also took the time to go after a more unconventional target: the recording studio of Serge Bambara, a rapper better known by his stage name, Smockey. Around noon on Sept. 17, witnesses said, soldiers pulled up to the studio in a three-vehicle convoy. Told no one was inside, one of the soldiers went down on one knee and fired two anti-tank rockets at the unassuming building, its doorway shrouded in green vines. The studio quickly caught fire, and nearly all of Smockey’s production equipment was destroyed or looted.

The soldiers’ intimidation tactics were for naught; within a week, the coup was over and the government was back in power. But the question remains: Why, in the middle of their bid to take over the country, had they bothered to attack a rapper? The assault on Smockey’s studio highlights the central role he is widely believed to have played during an uprising that toppled the country’s longtime ruler last year. With his social media reach and ability to connect with young people whose political engagement has traditionally been limited or non-existent, he was clearly seen as one of the main threats to the coup’s success.

The rapper Serge Bambara, better known as Smockey, stands in front of the studio that was hit with rockets during a short coup in Burkina Faso in September 2015.
The rapper Serge Bambara, better known as Smockey, stands in front of the studio that was hit with rockets during a short coup in Burkina Faso in September 2015.

Like many West African musicians, Smockey has long operated at the intersection of art and politics, a fact evident to even the casual listener of his albums. Prior to the rocket attack, the front room of his studio, where I interviewed him last March, was decorated with political cartoons and images of figures such as Malcolm X. The largest poster was from a conference held in Rome in December 2007 honoring Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s beloved revolutionary leader who served as president for nearly four years beginning in 1983. In 1987, Sankara was killed in a bloody coup that brought his one-time friend and brother-in-arms, Blaise Compaoré, to power. An autocrat who refashioned himself as a Western ally and regional peace negotiator, Compaoré ruled Burkina Faso for 27 years, during which time Smockey became a vocal government critic. At the 2010 ceremony in Ouagadougou for the Kora Awards honoring African musicians, Smockey pointedly dedicated his prize for Best African Hip-Hop Singer to Sankara’s memory. Compaoré, whom many Burkinabé hold personally responsible for Sankara’s death, was in attendance.[2]

In 2013, Smockey and a reggae musician, Karim Sama, known by his stage name, Sams K’Le Jah, helped start a civil society movement named Balai Citoyen, or Citizen Broom. Sams K’Le Jah had an antagonistic relationship to the Compaoré government as well. In 2011, the same year a wave of riots and military mutinies nearly forced Compaoré from office, he released a song that declared, “This president, he must go and he will go.” Sams K’Le Jah’s radio show was suspended, but, as Marie-Soleil Frère and Pierre Englebert note in an article published this year in African Affairs, by then he had cemented his status as “a symbol of youth resistance to the regime.”[3]

Balai Citoyen’s logo, a clenched fist emerging from a forearm made up of the individual strands of a broom, captures the spirit of the movement’s slogan: “Our strength is in our number.” At first, the group adopted the somewhat vague mission of “sweeping” away problems seen as endemic to the elites running Compaoré’s government: corruption, impunity and a broad disregard for human rights. But its activism became more focused in 2014 as Compaoré’s second term wound down.

A constitutional term limit prevented Compaoré from running again, but the president made little secret of his plans to change the rule. In October 2014, he scheduled a parliamentary vote that would have created a Senate, a body his critics suspected he would keep under his thumb and use to force through the necessary amendment. By that time Balai Citoyen’s “Hands Off My Constitution” campaign had been active for months, so the group was prepared to mobilize quickly. The days leading up to the scheduled Oct. 30 vote saw the largest demonstrations in Burkina Faso’s post-independence history, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to Ouagadougou’s streets. They eventually overwhelmed the security forces, ransacked the parliament on Oct. 30 and prevented the vote from taking place. Compaoré resigned the next day, paving the way for a transitional government tasked with steering the country toward open, democratic elections.

Many media accounts gave Balai Citoyen the lion’s share of the credit for the uprising’s success, and few would dispute that the group played an important role. “It’s true that in recent years we’ve seen the arrival of a new generation of youth ready to take part in the affairs of the country,” said Siaka Coulibaly, a veteran civil society activist. “They came with a different approach from the older generation. The older generation accepted more violations, they made more compromises. The youth were radical. And it was the arrival of these youth that allowed for changes in the political landscape of Burkina Faso.”

Yet many longtime observers of Burkinabé politics are also quick to argue that Balai Citoyen’s role in Compaoré’s ouster has been exaggerated. Lila Chouli, a scholar of social movements in Burkina Faso, said the international press, taken in by the charisma of Smockey and Sams K’Le Jah, falsely portrayed them as having largely engineered the uprising themselves. To the contrary, she believes the musicians were effective spokespeople for a population that was steadfast in its opposition to an extension of Compaoré’s reign. “It’s because Burkinabé had resolved not to let Blaise Compaoré run that a movement like Balai Citoyen was effective,” she said, “not because Balai Citoyen succeeded in awakening the masses, as we have heard many times.” Chouli and others see the mobilization that toppled Compaoré as the result of decades of work that, while buoyed by the efforts of Balai Citoyen, was primarily carried out by older organizations and opposition political parties.

The debate over Balai Citoyen’s strength has implications beyond Burkina Faso. After all, Compaoré is not the only African leader who has recently shown disdain for term limits. In April, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for an unconstitutional third term, claiming his first didn’t count because he was elected by parliament, not ordinary voters. More than 240 people have been killed in the country since then, according to the United Nations, and many fear the crisis could worsen. In October, the Republic of Congo held a referendum to change the constitution so that President Denis Sassou Nguesso could run for a third term. (Without the referendum, an existing term limit and age restriction would have barred him.) The opposition boycotted after security forces killed multiple civilians during anti-referendum demonstrations, and the measure passed easily.

In Rwanda, meanwhile, the government is in the process of changing the constitution so that President Paul Kagame can run for a third term in 2017. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, many suspect the government plans to delay a vote scheduled for next year to keep Joseph Kabila in power beyond the expiration of his second — and, in theory, final — term.

Balai Citoyen has voiced solidarity with and offered assistance to pro-democracy groups in some of these countries. In March, a member of Balai Citoyen was detained in Kinshasa during a raid on a conference organized in support of a like-minded Congolese organization known as Filimbi. (The raid was seen as part of a wider, often violent crackdown on those objecting to the extension of Kabila’s time in office.) “Those who are organizing to protect themselves against the dictates and chimerical progress offered by our oppressors must have our support,” Smockey told me in September.

But observers who believe Balai Citoyen’s contributions to Burkina Faso’s uprising were overstated say Smockey is similarly overstating his group’s ability to effect change in other countries. Moreover, not everyone agrees that Balai Citoyen offers a model that should be replicated. To the contrary, more than a few activists and politicians say several of Balai Citoyen’s decisions over the course of the last year — especially at the beginning of the transition as the interim government was taking shape — directly contributed to the September coup that nearly undid Burkina Faso’s transition entirely.

‘I thought they were going to kill us’

The coup began with the interruption of a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace. According to Augustin Loada, minister of public works in the transitional government, seven or eight junior officers from the presidential guard burst into the meeting room on the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 16, brandishing Kalashnikov rifles and ordering the officials — including the interim president and prime minister — to follow them. For Loada, those first moments were the most terrifying. “I thought they were going to kill us,” he recalled. “They said, ‘You, get up and follow us. It’s over for you.’”

For two days, Loada was held in a room with the prime minister, Lt. Col. Yacouba Isaac Zida. The soldiers confiscated the officials’ phones. When Loada sent a text message from a second, hidden phone, they came in and took that one, too, leaving the men completely cut off from the outside world. They had water but nothing to eat. Loada asked one of the soldiers for a Bible and began reading from the Book of Genesis. “I wanted to start from the beginning,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be there for six months or what.” He was released two days later.

Though Loada has collaborated with Balai Citoyen, he is more widely known in Burkinabé civil society circles as the former executive director of the Center for Democratic Governance, a role he served in for more than a decade before Balai Citoyen even existed. As such, he is among the group of people whom many local experts believe did far more than Balai Citoyen to create conditions conducive to a popular uprising. In order to understand the events of October 2014, these experts say, one must be familiar with the entirety of Burkina Faso’s post-independence history, going as far back as 1966, when protests against an austerity budget prompted the resignation of the first president, Maurice Yaméogo. In a paper published this year by the Review of African Political Economy, Chouli describes this episode as a “founding act” that informs the present day. “All governments that have followed have had to confront this history, including the regime of Blaise Compaoré,” Chouli writes.[4]

The first serious threat to Compaoré’s rule came more than a decade after he assumed office, with the 1998 killing of Norbert Zongo, a crusading journalist critical of the government. In the period prior to his death, Zongo wrote extensively about David Ouédraogo, a driver for Compaoré’s younger brother, François, who was widely believed to have been tortured to death by the presidential guard after having been accused of stealing money. An 11-member commission that included representatives from the government, the opposition and civil society concluded that the Zongo and Ouédraogo cases were linked, and that “people in the inner circle of the president were likely to have been involved in the killings.”[5] Even before then, a protest movement known as “Trop c’est trop,” or “Enough is Enough,” had formed to speak out against the culture of impunity that shielded Compaoré’s close allies from prosecution. Large-scale demonstrations lasted for well over a year.

Compaoré almost fell again in 2011, as protests swept the country following the death of Justin Zongo, a student who had been abused while in police custody. Unprecedented rioting was accompanied by “about eight waves” of military mutinies, including by the presidential guard.[6] Compaoré regained control of the situation only after firing his government and heads of security.

Those aware of these events were puzzled by the coverage of the 2014 uprising, which seemed to anoint Smockey, Sams’K le Jah and other Balai Citoyen leaders as the saviors of Burkina Faso. “It makes us smile, because we know that what happened in October 2014 was the culmination of many years of struggle,” said Chrysogone Zougmoré, president of the Burkinabé Movement for Human and People’s Rights (MBDHP). “It didn’t fall out of the sky on Oct. 30 and Oct. 31.” Like other civil society leaders, Zougmoré gives Balai Citoyen credit for its effective messaging, its deft use of social networks to organize rallies and its ability to connect with Burkinabé youth. But he and others said the crowds that forced Compaoré to resign would not have materialized without years of work by groups including the MBDHP, the Democratic Organization of the Youth, the Coalition Against the High Cost of Living and the Coalition Against Impunity. “There was a deeper work that was done in this country, and it’s this work that needs to be taken into consideration,” Zougmoré said. “Without it, Blaise never would have fallen.”

Beyond this criticism of how Balai Citoyen’s role is portrayed, there is the separate, sharper criticism of Balai Citoyen’s actions once it became clear Compaoré was finished. At the height of the uprising, Smockey and Sams’K le Jah appeared publicly with Zida, who had formerly served as second-in-command of the presidential guard. Amid confusion about what the country’s next steps should be, Zida briefly declared himself head of state. Under intense local and international pressure, he eventually accepted the role of prime minister. Regardless of his title, though, many saw Balai Citoyen’s endorsement of any high-level role for Zida in the new government as a clear contradiction of its reform message. This same man, after all, had served in the most controversial wing of the security forces under the autocrat everyone had just worked so hard to drive out. (Defending this move, Smockey has said it was important to incorporate the military into the transition to keep Burkina Faso secure.)

Both Zida and Balai Citoyen would eventually, in 2015, begin calling for the dissolution of the presidential guard. But other politicians and civil society activists say that, especially in light of the September coup, it is clear this should have been done right away. “We knew that these people were not ready to cooperate in a republic,” said Tahirou Barry, a politician and presidential candidate. “When you are not ready to submit to the laws of the republic you must be treated like an enemy of the people.”

The coming disillusionment

The elections organized to end Burkina Faso’s transition were initially scheduled for Oct. 11. Delayed by the coup, they were held instead on Nov. 29, a peaceful Sunday that capped the most open, democratic campaign in Burkina Faso’s history. Fourteen presidential candidates were on the ballot, while nearly 7,000 politicians contested for 127 parliamentary seats. Turnout was a healthy 60 percent.

The presidential race went to Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, who cleared the 50-percent hurdle required to avoid a runoff. A former pillar of the Compaoré regime, Kaboré is no stranger to Burkinabé voters, having previously served as prime minister and president of the National Assembly. For a while, he was considered a likely candidate to replace Compaoré if the ousted ruler had chosen to step down on his own terms. By early 2014, however, Compaoré appeared to be grooming his younger brother to be the next president, and Kaboré — angry about being sidelined — split off to form his own party, taking many other ex-Compaoré allies along with him and severely weakening the president just as he was looking to revise the constitution.

Because the split between Compaoré and Kaboré was rooted in personal, rather than politically substantive, differences, it remains to be seen just how committed to change this new president will be. In one of his first post-election interviews, Kaboré gave little indication of his priorities. “We need to organize ourselves to take in hand the whole country’s preoccupations because our first objective is not simply to revive the economy but at the same time to satisfy the fundamental needs of the whole population,” he told Reuters.[7] Analysts have expressed concern that Kaboré may simply try to recreate the Compaoré system with his new political party, meaning genuine reforms might be limited.

Regardless of his approach, the new president will have a hard time pleasing voters expecting the sweeping changes promised during the October 2014 uprising. “I think the disillusionment is going to be inevitable,” said Cynthia Ohayon, West Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group. “There is no way they can deliver because the expectations are so high — for change, for justice, for the fight against corruption. At the same time the state coffers are pretty much empty.”

The patience of voters, then, could prove decisive for the new government’s chances of success. Should old frustrations re-emerge soon after Kaboré’s inauguration, Balai Citoyen and like-minded organizations will have to decide whether it’s better to urge their supporters to give the new government time, or to take to the streets to voice their displeasure — an approach that, depending on just how bad the situation gets, could risk further instability. Put another way, the question currently facing Smockey and his allies is this: At what point, if ever, is it OK to start working with an imperfect system rather than trying to topple it, and what would that collaboration look like?

Smockey recording in his studio.
Smockey recording in his studio.

For the moment, Smockey seems content to wait and see what the government does, noting that voters agreed to give Kaboré a five-year term. But he also stressed the need for Balai Citoyen’s members, along with the opposition, to remain vigilant. “It falls to civil society to keep watch and prepare the way for real change,” he said, responding to the election results. “We have at least five years for that.”

[1] Daniel Eizenga, Research Associate, Sahel Research Group (interview).

[2] Frère, Marie-Soleil and Pierre Englebert. “Briefing: Burkina Faso – The Fall of Blaise Compaoré.” African Affairs. March 8, 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Chouli, Lila. “The Popular Uprising in Burkina Faso and the Transition.” Review of African Political Economy. April 1, 2015.

[5] Hagberg, Sten. “‘Enough is Enough’: An Ethnography of the Struggle Against Impunity in Burkina Faso.” The Journal of Modern African Studies. June 2002.

[6] Chouli.

[7] Reuters. “Burkina Faso president-elect pledges to go beyond reviving economy.” Dec. 2, 2015.