Ironing out Burkina Faso’s problems

President Compaore. Photo by Damien Halleux Radermecker under a CC Licence

Burkina Faso’s parliament has just granted immunity from prosecution to President Blaise Compaore and all of the country’s other presidents since independence. Whatever threat there was of Compaore being held responsible for the assassination of his predecessor (and friend and colleague), Thomas Sankara, is now gone.

Thomas Sankara, who had himself risen to power through a coup d’etat in 1983 at the tender age of 33, was gunned down in 1987. The French secret service, the CIA, the government of neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, and/or then Liberian rebel Charles Taylor are believed to have been involved in the assassination plot, but as yet a definitive account does not exist. Western-friendly Compaore immediately assumed power and has been president of Burkina Faso ever since.

Sankara’s presidency lasted only four years, but what an eventful four years they were. The country was in a terrible state and he quickly set about making his revolutionary vision for the country a reality. He even changed its name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means ‘the land of upright men’.

Sankara lamented what he saw as neocolonialism, not least in the dependency of the country on foreign aid – in his words “he who feeds you, controls you”. Focusing on the promotion of local consumption of local production, he achieved food self-sufficiency for the country within three years. Burkina Faso’s economy was (and to a large degree, still is) dominated by cotton. As part of his bid to promote local industry, Sankara required civil servants to wear traditional tunics made locally from local cotton.

Sankara’s revolution was far-reaching in other areas. He was the first African leader to openly recognize the dangers of HIV/AIDS, and made major (often record-breaking) inroads in areas such as women’s rights, child immunization, the reversal of desertification, land rights and infrastructure development. He halted the practice of the president’s portrait being displayed in public and private establishments throughout the country, reduced the salaries of government officials (himself included) and took away their Mercedes and first class travelling privileges. Sankara travelled in a Renault 5 and took a monthly salary of 450 USD.

We should be careful, however, about being overly romantic about the Sankara years. He was impatient in achieving his vision, and did not tolerate opposition parties, unions or a free press. His authoritarian tendencies appeared to grow over the course of his rule, and this had serious implications for his domestic popularity. It was perhaps the example he set to the rest of the world, however, that was one of the greatest causes of his undoing.

Having deposed Sankara and having taken his place, Blaise Compaore set about reversing most of the policies of his predecessor, in what was known as la rectification’. He liberalized and privatized, and made Burkina Faso one of the first ‘beneficiaries’ of the debt relief and poverty reduction programs of the IMF and World Bank. Today it remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Burkina Faso’s cotton industry has been crippled by massive US government subsidies for cotton farmers there that serve to suppress the global price of cotton to levels so low that growing cotton even in impoverished Burkina Faso is barely viable. Subsidies for US cotton farmers alone add up to triple the amount the US allocates in aid to the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa.

But Compaore seems to be doing quite well under the circumstances. The winds of change that blew through north Africa and the Middle East in 2011 also blew through Burkina Faso, with protests over rising prices and unemployment, and mutiny by parts of the armed forces, but Compaore appears (for now) to have weathered the storm. He is also thought to have amassed considerable personal wealth, and now, with the new blanket amnesty, can look forward to a comfortable and safe retirement.

There is, of course, always a chance that the amnesty will be overturned by future regimes, and he is not protected from arrest and prosecution outside of Burkina Faso. Thus, there remains the possibility that, for example, his long-term collaboration with convicted war criminal Charles Taylor could lead to international prosecution. Burkina Faso was a hub for the illicit trade in arms and diamonds that helped facilitate west Africa’s bloody conflicts in and beyond the 1990s, and his prosecution was considered at the time of Taylor’s indictment. But in the case of this Western-backed government, such a turn of events appears somewhat unlikely.

For those who’s sense of justice is offended by this chapter in Burkina Faso’s history and wish to show their solidarity, there is a wide variety of Thomas Sankara t-shirts available online. With no apparent irony, many of these garments made from 100 percent cotton are proudly advertised as being “Made in the USA”.

Buyers of these t-shirts can thus advertise their admiration for a leader who had his own image removed from public display, and who struggled to protect and nurture the local cotton industry vital to his country’s well-being and growth, through the display of his image printed on material made from the heavily subsidised cotton that continues to threaten the survival of that very industry.

Between the blanket amnesty and the t-shirts, Thomas Sankara must surely be turning in his grave.

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