Burkina Faso: African workers fighting neoliberalism

Andy Wynne, a British socialist working in sub-Saharan Africa, currently in Nigeria, looks at the background to the recent ousting of Burkina Faso’s dictator Blaise Compaoré. This article was originally published on Pambazuka News.

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In the early 1980s, President Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso was a beacon of hope against the increased inequality and insecurity structural adjustment introduced across Africa. Not much has been heard about that West African nation since the assassination of Sankara in 1987. In the first half of 2011 Burkina Faso returned to the news as strikes (including a general strike on 8 Apri), mass action and even mutinies by the presidential guard came close to bringing the “Arab Spring” to sub-Saharan Africa and toppling of Blaise Compaoré. He has been president for 27 years after ordering the murder of Sankara and 12 of his comrades in a hail of bullets on 15 October 1987.

But this bloody dictator was finally removed  on 31 October after massive demonstrations and the burning of the parliament building. The military declared they were forming a new government, but the opposition planned another demonstration to reject a military take-over. In a statement the organisers said, “The victory born from this popular uprising belongs to the people, and the task of managing the transition falls by right to the people. In no case can it be confiscated by the army.” So the struggle continues!

The Sankara Revolution

Thomas Sankara’s strategy was defined in his ‘Political Orientation Speech’[1] . It was a defiant alternative to neo-liberal development strategies. In contrast, it aimed to eliminate corruption, avert famine, make education and health real priorities (with a nation-wide literacy campaign and vaccination of 2.5 million children). It launched the most ambitious program for social and economic change ever attempted in Africa[2] .

The strong commitment to women’s rights led to the outlawing of female genital mutilation, forced marriage and polygamy. Women were appointed to high government positions and actively recruited in to the military[3] . They were encouraged to work outside the home and girls were encouraged to stay at school even if they became pregnant[4] . The Sankara government was also the first African government to publicly recognize the challenge of HIV/AIDS[5] .

Sankara and his allies were committed to achieving their egalitarian ideals, but these were imposed rather than being won through collective action of the workers and mass of the poor people. Despite its many significant achievements, this was socialism from above, not the self-emancipation of the working class and popular masses. This approach was to lead to the regime coming into conflict with sections of the working class and its organisations.

When the school teachers went on strike, just over six months after Sankara came to power, nearly 1,500 were dismissed and they were not to return to their jobs until after his death[6] . A union front was set up in January 1985 against the decline in democratic and trade union freedoms. This was to stay active throughout the “revolutionary” Sankara, period even though the trade unions and independent organisations were considerably weakened as a result of repression (including dismissal of civil servants, arrests and torture, etc). The actions of the unions were considered subversive and could be punished with “military sanctions”[7] .

The Sankara government banned trade unions and a free press[8] as they were seen as coming in the way of their reforms. Corrupt officials, counter-revolutionaries and “lazy workers” were tried in peoples’ revolutionary tribunals. The public trials of former senior government officials was a positive development, but these trials were also used against genuine critics of the regime.

In the name of wanting to make a revolution for the mass of the poor people, Sankara did it without them or even against them. Sankara recognised this in his self-critical speech of 2 October 1987. But he and his allies did not have time to restore the links between the government and the mass independent working class organisations.

Sankara was assassinated with 12 of his comrades in a coup d’état led by his deputy, Blaise Compaoré. A week before his death, he had declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas”[9] . One of the main opposition parties in Burkina Faso remains his Sankarist Party and Sankara is commonly referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara”[10] . He remains an inspiration for many young people across the region[11] and proof that another world is possible for Africa.

Compaoré’s neoliberal agenda

In the beginning of the 1990s international geopolitics pushed the government of Compaoré to start the transition to multi-party democracy and a free market economy. Burkina Faso is now presented as one of the World Bank and IMF’s best pupils, but is still one of the poorest countries in the world (181 out of 187 countries in the 2013 UN Human Development Index) with 46 percent of the population struggling to exist beneath the poverty line.

Like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, this situation of neoliberal structural adjustment led to great inequality. One in ten Burkinabe now own half of the countries riches[12] . There has also been pillage of national resources by the ousted president’s clique (senior political officials and senior military figures). Partly as a result, there is high unemployment, especially for the two-thirds of the population that is under 25 years old

Blaise Compaoré was last re-elected in November 2010 by over 80 percent of the vote after a quarter century in power (but only received 1.7 million votes from an electorate of seven million). Less than three months later, in the first half of 2011, a powerful popular movement erupted with demonstrations and strikes (but also military mutinies). Strikes took place in many work places, for example, schools, at the Comoé Sugar Company and in the gold mines, where fantastic bravery was demonstrated against the police who were supporting the mine owners. The people turned to the police present saying:

There is no authority any more, so we will solve our problems with violence… What we ask you to do is to call Ouagadougou [the capital] and tell them to bring all the riot police. Because we have realized that the policy of the mining bosses is to use the riot police to suppress the local people. While the ministers in charge of the mines are happy to dine with the mining bosses, they never have as much as 30 minutes to talk to the local people. So let the riot police come. Some of us will fall. We want to see the police shoot at us. But we also have confidence in ourselves. We are sure we will eventually overcome Essakane mine.

Such strikes also demonstrated solidarity from beyond the working class. During a strike by workers at the Comoé Sugar Company, the largest private employer in the country, women, children, young people, other private sector workers and pensioners demonstrated their solidarity.

The authority of Compaoré was shaken as it rested on the army and especially the presidential guard – which mutinied on 14 April 2011. At this stage the government gave in to many popular demands (for example, the teachers), but once order was restored the regime returned to repression against the first group of workers to strike – workers in the Ministry of Finance.

Since 2008, gold has replaced cotton as the primary source of wealth. By 2012 Burkina Faso was the fourth largest producer of gold in the world. This is based on seven major gold mines, most of which are owned by foreign multinationals (Canadian, Russian, British etc) with the government owning around 10 percent of shares giving it the financial incentive to intervene on the side of the owners. The challenges the workers face include casualisation and discrimination in favour of expatriate workers. The mines have also had a detrimental impact on local communities with expropriation or low levels of compensation for peasant land, increasing scarcity of water, banning of informal gold mining, pollution and the disruption of local life.

In August 2012, a new conflict broke out at Taparko mines where 29 workers were dismissed for “inciting their colleagues to disobedience” after a union general assembly agreed to take a 30 minute break during their 10 hour shifts – as stipulated in their collective bargaining agreement. The workers were forcibly expelled with the help of the riot police and their leaders dismissed despite the local labour board refusing to accept the dismissals.

As in several other African countries (for example, Egypt and Senegal) one of the aspects of the protests is the uncertainty over the future of the president. Constitutionally his term in office was due to end in 2015. With Compaoré standing down there was rivalry over his succession (with two military leaders, for example, initially claiming to be leading the new regime). The mass protests that led to the end of his regime were ignited when parliament was due to vote on a proposal for Compaoré to be allowed a further term as president. However, the leader of the opposition has said, “I am not afraid or ashamed to say that I am a neoliberal… today, the world belongs to us neoliberals”. So even a change of president may not see a major change to the government’s economic policies.

Tolé Sgnon, secretary general of CGT-B, a major trade union centre, explained this problem saying: [13]

We can replace Blaise Compaoré with someone else who will choose the same neoliberal policies. In this sense, we need to develop critical thought towards the various political forces that are attempting to present themselves as alternatives to the current government but which, for the most part, share the basic fundamentals of the neoliberal policies of the existing government.

Even in Burkina Faso, where the majority of the people still live in rural areas, the organised working class usually form the core of social protests. In the first half of 2014, this included:

  • significantly increased allowances for public sector workers following a public sector and teachers strike in early February;
  • a three day sit in at the Ouagadougou municipality headquarters in early May and
  • a one day strike by public sector journalists in radio, TV and print in mid-July over pay and against government interference.

But the lack of an organised socialist opposition with a clear view of the need for the self-emancipation of the working class[14] means that these protests can often be contained within the limits of current society and so do not result is significant improvements for the working class or other poor people. A radical break from neoliberal economic policies will only take place once the sugar workers, gold miners, teachers and other members of the core working class are able to use the power they have clearly exercised to end their exploitation and alienation. But it needs the development of a clear socialist organisation with mass support to fuse the power of the small organised working class and the poor majority of the population.

END NOTES

[1] An English translation of this speech is available from:http://www.scribd.com/doc/96585260
[2] Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man by California Newsreel:http://newsreel.org/nav/title.asp?tc=CN0205
[3] California Newsreel
[4] Thomas Sankara, Wikipedia :http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Sankara#cite_note-UprightDVD-5
[5] Theramaili’s Blog
[6] California Newsreel
[7] Décret N°85-078, 1er/2/1985
[8] California Newsreel
[9] Burkina Faso Salutes “Africa’s Che” Thomas Sankara by Mathieu Bonkoungou, Reuters, Oct 17 2007
[10] California Newsreel
[11] Thomas Sankara, Wikipedia :http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Sankara#cite_note-UprightDVD-5
[12] Etude nationale prospective, « Burkina 2025 », rapport général, 2005.
[13] L’Observateur Paalga (2013) « Meeting contre la vie chère : ‘Réviser les salaires et non les articles’ », 22 July
[14] There is hardly any country in French Africa with a significant Marxist group, however there is a socialist bulletin produced for French speaking Africans –www.afriquesenlutte.org

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