Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Burkina Faso: Liberation not looting

Firoze Manji argues that the recent uprising in Burkina Faso throws light on the debate around development, and calls for our solidarity, not charity

March 23, 2015
7 min read

Burkina Faso enjoyed some unusual international press attention last October, following the ousting of the country’s president Blaise Campaoré by mass uprisings. As Burkina’s national assembly was due to debate extending Campaoré’s presidential term, protesters took to the streets and set fire to the assembly building.

The protests broke out shortly after the 27th anniversary of the assassination of Thomas Sankara (known as Africa’s Che Guevara) and his comrades at the hands of Campaoré on 15 October 1987.

A section of the armed forces has now taken control within the vacuum, but without a clear social programme. Elections will be held next November. Campaoré has been banned from participating and he has fled to Côte d’Ivoire with the aid of the French. But the popular movements that took to the streets have been neither defeated nor diverted, and recent protests forced a further resignation, this time from the interim government.

burkina-fasoAnti-government protesters gather in the Place de la Nation in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, in October 2014

This latest turn in Burkina Faso’s history provides an illustration of two deeply contrasting forms of ‘development’. One is inspired and driven by the desire for self-determination and development of the country’s productive forces, which implies liberation, emancipation, hope and human progress. But in practice, the country’s development has fallen short of these fine goals, particularly since the emergence of neoliberalism, actually leading to the opposite: a surrender to the looting requirements of parasitic neoliberal capital.

The République de Haute-Volta (Upper Volta), as it was once known, was once part of the French Union; it was given ‘independence’ from France in 1960. At that time the tiny impoverished country was grossly underdeveloped and unable to feed its population. It had an illiteracy rate of 90 per cent, the world’s highest infant mortality rate (280 deaths for every 1,000 births), inadequate basic social services, one doctor per 50,000 people, and an average yearly income of $150 per person.

Extraordinary revolution

Following a series of coups that eventually led Thomas Sankara and his comrades to power in 1983, an extraordinary revolution was unleashed in the country involving the mobilisation of the Burkinabé citizenry. In the space of just four years, Burkina Faso became self-sufficient in food, its infant mortality rate halved, school attendance doubled, 10 million trees were planted to halt desertification and wheat production doubled.

Land and mineral resources were nationalised, railways and infrastructure constructed, and 2.5 million children were immunised against meningitis, yellow fever and measles. Nearly 350 medical dispensaries and schools were constructed across the country by communities.

Female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy were outlawed. Indeed, there have been few African leaders who have been so committed to the emancipation of women as Sankara. ‘We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion,’ he said. ‘It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph.’

Burkina Faso was marked by the almost complete absence of foreign aid agencies and development NGOs. Sankara did not ask for aid – on the contrary, he shunned it. Moreover, he argued that the large foreign debt his country was paying was odious and therefore should be repudiated.

He told the UN: ‘The debt cannot be repaid, first because if we don’t repay, lenders will not die. That is for sure. But if we repay, we are going to die. That is also for sure. Those who led us to indebting ourselves had gambled as if in a casino. As long as they had gains, there was no debate. But now that they suffer losses, they demand repayment. And we talk about crisis. No, Mr President, they played, they lost – that’s the rule of the game, and life goes on.’

This meant that cotton production was no longer directed to export to earn dollars to service debt but instead was used to support a thriving Burkinabé textile industry. The renaming of the country as Burkina Faso (‘the land of the upright people’) was symbolic of the transformation from ‘a land of beggars’, so beloved of the development industry, to the land of dignified human beings who determine their own history.

Sankara’s assassination at the hands of Blaise Campaoré brought about a reversal of all the gains of that short period. It enabled neoliberal capitalism to reassert its hegemony over the country. Under Campaoré, the country quickly returned to the conditions of the former République de Haute-Volta.

Cotton was once again grown for export, comprising 30 per cent of Burkina Faso’s per capita GDP of $1,500 (one of the lowest in the world). Today, it is classified as a highly indebted poor country, with more than 80 per cent of its population living on less than $2 a day, and nearly 50 per cent on less than $1 a day. Infant mortality rates have been increasing. Literacy levels have fallen back to around 12 per cent, with less than 10 per cent of primary scholars reaching secondary school.

In contrast to the program of ‘land to the peasant’ initiated under Sankara, Campaoré’s policies gave land to the elite. Corruption became an integral part of the economy, with millions syphoned off from aid and handouts from mining companies. In return a number of transnational mining corporations have been allowed to excavate gold and other minerals, with almost no benefit to the population at large. Privatisation of water and other utilities has been the order of the day. And the regime has not been averse to using violence and assassinations to deal with its opponents.

The fundamental changes undertaken by Campaoré were to enable capital to transform the economy from being independent, productive and serving the needs of the population, to one in which accumulation took place primarily through the extraction of rent and the amputation of natural resources.

Parasitic NGOs

In this context the NGOs have also come in, taking on parasitic form, living off this ‘rentier economy’ as ‘white saviours’, diverting attention from the looting of wealth to defining the problem as one of ‘poverty’, not power. Growth in the presence of the transnational development NGOs and an exponential proliferation of their local Burkinabé counterparts (all dependent on foreign aid and numbering in the hundreds) has been a feature of the Campaoré regime.

Oxfam Québec’s involvement in Burkina Faso, for example, escalated after Campaoré took power in 1987. More recently, Plan Canada received millions of dollars from the Canadian government to enable it to collaborate with the transnational gold mining corporation, Iamgold, to provide services around the gold mines of Burkina Faso that would make the corporation appear less pernicious in its exploitation of the land and its people.

What we see here is an increasingly common example of the transition of development NGOs to becoming the handmaidens of neoliberal development and in particular of transnational corporations. They have evolved into an integral part of neocolonial rule, providing services to native populations that the state will not. In so doing, they are complicit in a form of violence, serving to dominate the mental universe of the African and ‘the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world’, as Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o puts it.

With the fall of Campaoré, it is unclear what is likely to happen next in Burkina Faso. Thomas Sankara’s name is once again on people’s lips, a confirmation that you can kill a person but you can’t kill an idea. What these movements will need is support to rekindle the ideas behind the Sankara revolution. For that, they need not aid, nor development, but solidarity.

Firoze Manji is the director of the Pan-African Baraza in Nairobi and the founder of Pambazuka News

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


70