NewsWest AfricaWhen the streets shout


Posted on Friday, 16 October 2015 13:59

When the streets shout

For the second time in a year, the people of Burkina Faso have taken to the streets to defend democracy and to face down its usurpers.


A year ago, they chased long-time leader Blaise Compaoré from the presidency after he tried to inveigle another term. It was the mass mobilisation on the streets of Ouagadougou and other towns that led the confrontation.

As growth falters and economic worsen conditions a political reckoning has started

The military, nursing long-held grudges against Compaoré, whose 1987 coup resulted in the murder of nationalist hero Thomas Sankara, sided with the people.

Faced with that alliance, Compaoré's presidential guard told their chief to run for his life while they tried to cut a deal.

The resulting deal, a transitional government under Michel Kafando to organise free elections, was never to the taste of the presidential guard.

And as elections approached in October and the moneybag friends of Compaoré had been barred from contesting, the presidential guard moved again.

They arrested Kafando and announced that General Gilbert Diendéré, Compaoré's spymaster, would run the transition. Again, the elite soldiers underestimated the people. Again, the people took to the streets and won the backing of the regular army. Four days after his September coup, Diendéré was apologising on state television.

We are still far from the endgame in Burkina, but les événements are resonating across Africa. The Burkinabè protests send a message to other leaders – in the Republic of Congo, the DRC and Rwanda – who are planning a third term.

But this wave of protest movements, which has sprung up in Kenya, South Africa, Tunisia, Tanzania, Ghana and many more countries, is about far more than election rules or term limits.

It is a much wider blast at the dominant political and economic system that is failing to deliver. So, when the protestors rail against presidential perfidies or lousy public services, they quickly move onto a broader agenda: unemployment, insecurity, soaring food and housing costs, and poor schools and clinics.

A quarter of a century ago, when their parents took to the streets, the cry was for the end of single-party dictatorships and their replacement by multiparty democracies. But in many cases these governments have not lived up to the billing.

Malawi's eminent political scientist Thandika Mkandawire calls them "choiceless democracies". Indeed, their political and economic structures remain resolutely undemocratised.

At the head of these new protest movements are many of those suffering under the brunt of the head-long growth of Africa's new cities, which is happening without economic modernisation or industrialisation.

The market-based economic reforms introduced under choiceless democracies won backing from a globalised and professionalised African elite who were meant to wrest power from the state and its praetorian guards.

The economic reforms and supersonic commodity demand from Asia fuelled the growth boom of the past decade. But as that growth falters and social conditions worsen, a political reckoning has started in Africa's cities.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


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