OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – On Nov. 1, 2014, the day after Blaise Compaoré resigned as Burkina Faso’s president and fled the capital in a convoy, abruptly ending his nearly three-decade hold on power, a 40-year-old man named Prosper looked on as an opposition lawmaker exulted over the autocrat’s hasty departure while giving a radio interview at his office. Just before 2 p.m., a young man, clearly agitated, rushed over and interrupted the interview to make an announcement. Security forces, this man said, had abandoned their posts in front of a villa owned by Compaoré’s younger brother, François, a highly loathed figure widely assumed to have been at the center of some of the regime’s most notorious political killings. Looters were now making their way inside.
The villa, which sits behind a high wall on Charles de Gaulle Avenue, across the street from the University of Ouagadougou, had loomed large in the popular imagination for years. Taller than the trees that surround it, the wide house with curved front balconies symbolized the high life enjoyed by the president’s inner circle — as well as their remove from the problems facing ordinary citizens in one of the world’s poorest countries. Rumors were rife that François, once considered a potential successor to his brother, used the home to perform human sacrifices and other rites intended to stave off threats to the family dynasty. The street lamp out front, Prosper told me, was believed to contain a recording device so officials could eavesdrop on anyone speaking ill of the regime as they passed by.
As it became clear that last year’s uprising would not be stopped, the villa was also the site of one of the security forces’ last, desperate efforts to contain it. On Oct. 30, the day before Compaoré fled, members of the Presidential Security Regiment fired on a group of demonstrators as they approached, killing four of them.
This time, however, the mob met no resistance. The crowd at the lawmaker’s office ran over to join them. Prosper, who up until that day had been supporting himself by selling furniture on the side of the road, was shocked by the luxury items being carried out: fine suits and other articles of clothing, bottles of Johnnie Walker King George V whiskey, cartons of Nicolas Feuillatte champagne. For a full 10 minutes, he stood some distance from the entrance, transfixed by the scene. “This house really traumatized, even terrorized the population,” he said. “People were afraid of this house. So to see people taking whatever they wanted from this house… I was completely surprised.” Gathering his courage, he passed through the front gate himself.
The first thing he saw was among the most maddening. Just past the gate, off to the left, stood a kennel for the Compaoré family’s dogs. Made of thick concrete, it was sturdier than many people’s homes, with a floor plan that appeared to include two bedrooms as well as a sizeable salon for the pets. On one wall was the outline of an air-conditioning unit that had already been claimed by the looters.
The examples of ostentation did not stop there. On the ground floor, Prosper saw more cartons of whiskey and champagne stacked alongside boxes of hats, pens and fabric featuring slogans for Compaoré’s political party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress. Up the stairs, looters marvelled at the marble walls of François’s bedroom, while others used stones to smash the glass walls surrounding a swimming pool. At one point, word spread among those gathered at the edge of the pool that gold might be resting at the bottom. Some men used a pipe to drain the water while others, too impatient to wait, jumped in. “There was nothing,” Prosper said, smiling. “That was a false alarm.”
The crowd did find, or at least claimed to find, items that seemed to validate François’s fearsome reputation. Opposite the champagne and whiskey were shelves of boxes the demonstrators said contained documents pertaining to the killings of David Ouédraogo, François’s former driver, and Norbert Zongo, a journalist who was murdered in 1998 while investigating Ouédraogo’s death. Many Burkinabé long ago placed the blame for these crimes squarely at François’s feet, though he was never charged. Elsewhere, looters discovered rooms containing clothing they suspected belonged to François’s victims. And in the basement, they found an enclosure underneath the staircase where François allegedly conducted human sacrifices; five skulls, Prosper told me, were hidden nearby.
Whether these discoveries actually are what the looters say they are remains to be determined. In response to a France 24 report airing some of the allegations, François’s family said in a statement that the basement was used as a study space, and that the “evidence” presented was in fact material from children’s art projects.[i] Yet Prosper and others who combed through the house after the fall of the regime quickly concluded that it should remain open to the public — that citizens from across the country should be able to come and view the evidence themselves. Within a few weeks, they formed the Association des vendeurs de documents et images, choosing Prosper as president. Today, the 30-member group gives guided tours of François’s home while selling photocopies of the documents and photos found inside. To Prosper, the villa offers proof of the regime’s crimes and, just as importantly, the wealth Burkina Faso is capable of providing for its people. If “Chez François” once embodied the hoarding of the national riches from the masses, its new incarnation as a kind of museum represents an effort by the masses to take those riches back.
‘Time to take our future in our hands’
Blaise Compaoré came to power under sinister circumstances. In 1987, he led a coup that resulted in the death of then-President Thomas Sankara, a progressive and widely admired leader who, unlike Compaoré, exhibited little interest in enriching himself or his relatives. “I’ve taught those close to me that they should in no way try to profit from the fact that one of their relatives now happens to be president,” Sankara once said. “Whatever they may earn, let them earn it because they’ve worked for it, not because they’re members of the president’s family.”[ii] The fact that Compaoré was once a friend and protégé of Sankara’s heightened the sense of tragedy surrounding Sankara’s killing, and the dead president’s reputation has only grown throughout Africa and beyond in the nearly three decades since.
Despite his lack of popular legitimacy, Compaoré demonstrated remarkable staying power. Amid growing disaffection with his government, over the years he mastered a crisis-response strategy that involved granting just enough concessions to remain in office — a strategy that enabled him to survive large-scale protests following Zongo’s killing as well as a series of protests, strikes and military mutinies in 2011 that temporarily forced him to flee the presidential palace. As he approached the end of his second term in 2015, though, his attempt to revise the constitution so that he could run yet again would prove, in the words of one analyst, to be “one game too many.”[iii]
In October, Compaoré secured enough votes in the National Assembly to push through a revision to Article 37 of the constitution, which limits presidents to two terms. He scheduled a vote on the revision for Oct. 30 and, attempting to avoid protests, closed all schools and universities that week.[iv] Opposition and civil society groups, however, outmanoeuvred him. On Oct. 28, they staged the largest demonstration in the country’s post-independence history, drawing hundreds of thousands of people into Ouagadougou’s streets (the opposition put the total at over 1 million).
Prosper was among the demonstrators. He recalls that security forces fired tear gas to try to disperse them. Some news outlets reported the use of water cannon. Nevertheless, the crowd’s energy and spirit didn’t flag. Prosper described an almost euphoric collection of men, women and children united in their yearning for change, chanting anti-Compaoré slogans — one of which compared the president to Ebola and urged the country to “disinfect” — and singing the national anthem written by Sankara, which includes the line, “Fatherland or death, we will overcome.” These words made everyone fearless, Prosper said. “When you sing that,” he said, “you don’t sense anymore that death exists.”
Plans went ahead for the vote anyway. By Oct. 29, lawmakers who had agreed to support the term-limits revision were being escorted to the Hotel Azalaï, located next to the National Assembly, so they could enter the parliamentary session unimpeded. In his neighborbood about 2 kilometers away, Prosper saw state vehicles with tinted windows cruising the streets in what he interpreted as a clear attempt to intimidate demonstrators, some of whom were already gathering at main intersections in the city center.
On the morning of Oct. 30, Prosper and four other men from his neighborhood set out on foot to join them. When they stopped at a kiosk for a Nescafe, a government worker volunteered to pay and offered words of encouragement, a sign to Prosper that even people who had done well under Compaoré were itching for his ouster. By the time they arrived in central Ouagadougou, the streets were filled with demonstrators heading toward the National Assembly to prevent the vote from taking place. Their revolutionary fervor could be read on the signs hoisted over their heads: “Sankara’s children have grown up,” read one, while another addressed the dead president directly: “Sankara,” it read, “look at your sons.”
At the height of the confrontation, security forces fired into the air to push the crowd back. The men in uniform eventually retreated, however, allowing demonstrators into the National Assembly and, later, the state radio station — both of which were ransacked. Elsewhere, some soldiers did fire on and kill civilians, including the four who died outside Chez François that day, but in the end the army leadership opted not to turn against the masses. “Excellency, with all of the due respect I must give you, we can’t do anything against the crowd that is outside,” General Gilbert Diendéré, Compaoré’s chief of staff, reportedly told the president that afternoon. “It’s finished.”[v] In a statement that night, Compaoré, perhaps thinking he could once again stay on if he conceded just enough, dissolved the government and vowed to step down at the end of his term. The gesture was insufficient. The next day, as demonstrations continued, Compaoré signed a resignation decree and fled. A transitional government took over, and new elections are now scheduled for Oct. 11.
Many observers expressed surprise at the swiftness of Compaoré’s fall. But those who played instrumental roles in the uprising, no doubt emboldened by their achievement, today describe it as inevitable. In mid-2013, Serge Martin Bambara, a rapper known popularly as Smockey, joined with reggae artist Karim Sama (Sams’K le Jah) to form Balai Citoyen (“Citizen Broom” in French), a grassroots organization that, within the space of a year, did more to promote youth engagement in politics than opposition parties ever had. As Marie-Soleil Frère and Pierre Englebert note in a recently published briefing on the uprising, the group posed a new and confounding challenge to the government: Because they were not politicians, they couldn’t be manipulated “through patronage and intimidation.”
Bambara told me that anyone who had bothered to take note of the profound frustration of the population, and their consequent potential for collective action, would have seen Compaoré’s departure coming. “The majority of the diplomats said they were surprised, and we understand, because they didn’t lift a finger to stop what was going on,” he said in an interview at his studio. “They were far from the reality that everyone was experiencing. All these embassies, these institutions for human rights or whatever… they didn’t have direct contact with the suffering of the population.”
Prosper’s own story highlights the lack of opportunity to which Bambara referred. Born into a family of eight children, he stopped attending school when he was 12 because his father could not afford the fees. He had dreams of playing soccer professionally, and he experienced some success in the local leagues. But he often had to train on hard dirt and concrete rather than grass, and the repeated injuries to his legs and arms eventually made it impossible to continue. After quitting, he cut hair for a while before settling into the work he was doing at the time of the uprising: hawking chairs and sofas at a busy Ouagadougou intersection. The pay was minimal, but Prosper considered himself lucky to have any employment at all. Many people he knows have never found regular work. That kind of precariousness, he said, fuels a desperation that can pose a real threat to those in power. “We suffered like that for 27 years,” he said. “We were like prisoners. It was time to take our future in our hands.”
The most offensive aspect of the Compaoré regime, Prosper said, was the way insiders embraced material luxuries while appearing to remain oblivious to the struggles of ordinary citizens. On a recent evening at the cramped apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Prosper screened a DVD looted from Chez François that, to his mind, made this point perfectly: a recording of the baptismal ceremony for one of François’s sons. The event, held in Ziniaré, the Compaoré family’s home village, was attended by the president as well as many heavies in the CDP, all of whom Prosper easily identified as the DVD showed them entering the church. “That’s a former prime minister,” he said, pointing at the television. “There’s an old president of the National Assembly. Him, too, he’s an old prime minister.”
Prosper had clearly watched the DVD several times, and he laughed at some his favorite parts: when Blaise Compaoré appeared not to know the words to a hymn, for example, and later when the camera zoomed in on the president’s face at a point when he looked especially uncomfortable. “When you are in church, God knows what you have done,” Prosper said, smiling. “That’s what’s in his head.”
Yet Prosper’s face darkened as he watched scenes from the reception: the president arriving in a shiny black car; the outdoor tables filled with men in suits and women in colorful dresses; the silver platters filled with food; a drinks station manned by bartenders offering multiple kinds of champagne. When the camera panned over the outdoor swimming pool, Prosper tut-tutted loudly. “These people,” he said, shaking his head. “They love a party.”
The people’s house
Chez François is just one of several Ouagadougou villas belonging to members of the Compaoré clan and other government officials to have been vandalized and looted by demonstrators last year.
Yet the imposing structure on Charles de Gaulle Avenue remains the only one that hasn’t been blocked off by the authorities. Though Prosper and other members of the Association des vendeurs de documents et images claim the security forces at first tried to drive them from the premises, today they operate under no apparent threat of state interference. Prosper said the authorities were simply forced to acknowledge that, from now on, “This house belongs to the people.”
What the people ultimately choose to do with the house is an open question. Prosper, a dyed-in-the-wool Sankarist, would love to see it officially transformed into a museum honoring the dead president’s memory. Bambara, the rapper and Balai Citoyen leader, said he would support this, though he also suggested that the building could serve as a municipal library or cultural space. As with many of the questions facing Burkina Faso as the country navigates an unusual transitional period, the answer may be some time off.
Today, on the ground in front of the entrance, the Association des vendeurs de documents et images has laid out posters featuring photos from the uprising. They include graphic shots of gunned-down demonstrators along with more light-hearted, photoshopped images. One depicts ex-President Compaoré selling petrol on the side of the road, daydreaming of the presidential palace. Another shows him leading a donkey ridden by his wife to Côte d’Ivoire, where the couple eventually relocated.
Prosper says the villa receives about 100 visitors each day — more on weekends and holidays. While some opt not to enter, having been put off by reports that skulls and other macabre items were discovered by the first band of looters, many spring for the guided tour that starts with the three-room doghouse and ends up on the roof.
Association members have attempted to tidy the place, sweeping broken glass and rubble into corners. Meanwhile, graffiti artists, both Burkinabé and European, have made their mark on many interior walls. The most impressive piece on the ground floor shows the ghostly, red-and-black faces of Blaise and François Compaoré being sucked into the ground, François’s smile revealing a set of crooked teeth as he goes down. On an adjacent wall, someone has written, “François, the devil awaits you in hell.” Throughout the house, several messages refer to François Compaoré as a crocodile — a reference, Prosper explains, to “his taste for human flesh.” A message in the stairwell declares, “The crocodile has fled.” One wall of the emptied swimming pool reads, “The river of the crocodile is empty.”
Not all the messages are hostile. Upstairs, a yellow, cartoon image shows a soldier using a mortar and pestle to make “tô,” a millet-based staple food. The large, black lettering to the right of the soldier reads, “Make tô, not war.” Other messages are equally hopeful. The slogan “Let there be light” is written in English in several places. And on a wall near the spot where Prosper claims the five human skulls were found, someone has used charcoal to scrawl, “Justice, where are you? Your people are thirsty for you.”
Bambara describes what’s happened at Chez François as a form of “reappropriation” — a seizure by the people of what had rightfully been theirs all along. Yet he also knows that the significance of the house goes far beyond money and assets. The appeals for “light” and “justice” written on the walls of the villa, much like the documents of “evidence” being hawked by Prosper and his colleagues to visitors and passersby, point to a desire on the part of many Burkinabé for some kind of public reckoning after decades of misrule. The new government expected to be installed later this year, therefore, will be under significant pressure not only to deliver material benefits to the people, but also to hold to account those who kept them down for so long.
There are certain crimes that pretty much everyone believes should be investigated. At the top of this list are the deaths of Ouédraogo, François’s former driver, and Zongo, the slain journalist. In a January report on the transition, the International Crisis Group said the transitional government — and presumably the one that follows it — should do whatever possible to work toward naming and indicting the perpetrators in those cases.
However, after nearly 30 years under the rule of one man, it is simply not possible to do away with the old system wholesale. In the same January report, ICG noted that “the imprint left by Blaise Compaoré and his system is such that it will be very difficult to establish a new order without appealing to the men who worked with him.” The group also described as “highly likely” the possibility that a Compaoré loyalist would become president, calling into question whether the population’s dreams of radical change will ultimately be realized.[vi]
Amid this uncertainty, for now Prosper seems content simply giving tours at Chez François and relishing the fact that yesterday’s government is, at least for the moment, gone. On a recent tour, in front of the rubble where the former dog house once stood, a visitor asked somewhat incredulously if dogs had actually slept there, indoors and in air-conditioned rooms. Prosper responded that they had. He then smiled and added: “That’s finished. There are no more dogs that will be sleeping here. We’ve put an end to that.”
[ii] Harsch, Ernest. Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary. Ohio University Press, 2014.
[iii] Lewis, David. “‘One game too far’: the downfall of Burkina Faso’s president.” Reuters. Nov. 2, 2014.
[iv] Frère, Marie-Soleil Frère and Pierre Englebert. “Briefing: Burkina Faso — The Fall of Blaise Compaoré.” African Affairs. March 8, 2015.
[v] International Crisis Group. “Burkina Faso: neuf mois pour achever la transition.” January 29, 2015.