Rappers and Politicians: Burkina Faso Edition

At times, hip hop and politics have gone hand in glove. In certain ways, American rappers in the 1980s and 1990s (and to a lesser extent the 2000s and the 2010s) were (literally and symbolically) heirs to black political leaders of the 1960s. Tupac Shakur was the son of Black Panthers and he caused almost as much political controversy in his time as they did in theirs. The album cover for KRS-ONE’s 1988 By All Means Necessary recreates a famous photograph of Malcolm X. Many rappers, especially in the early 1990s, were influenced by the Five Percent Nation, founded in 1964 by a one-time student of Malcolm X. The list of linkages between the political activism of the 1960s and the musical florescence of the 1980s and 1990s goes on and on.

What of African hip hop? An interesting case presents itself in Ismael Sankara, who may (French) or may not (French) be the son of Captain Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso. The elder Sankara, who took power in a 1983 coup, ruled until his death in a 1987 coup by his one-time companion (and current Burkinabe President) Blaise Compaore. Captain Sankara is famous for his outspoken Marxism and the dramatic changes he introduced in Burkina Faso (which he renamed from Upper Volta). These changes included refusing foreign aid, nationalizing key resources, promoting women’s rights, and pursuing rapid development through expansion of infrastructure and other programs.

Ismael, if one accepts that he is Capt. Sankara’s son (some members of the extended Sankara family reject the claim), was born in 1987, six months before his father’s death. He grew up with his mother mostly in Miami, where he became involved in music. As captured in a short documentary about him entitled “The Rhythm of My Life,” on a 2010 trip to Gabon he made contacts who helped him record an album that is due to appear shortly. Several videos from the album have already circulated, including a song entitled “Real Africans,” embedded below.

How does Ismael deal with his father’s legacy? In “The Rhythm of My Life,” he states that his father “knew that this vision wouldn’t last long,” but frequently said that “music is the future.”

Ismael has not, from what I can tell, specifically addressed or criticized the existing political situation in Burkina Faso. At one point (either 2008 or 2010, according to different sources), Ismael performed in Burkina Faso with Sean Paul, and accepted an invitation to dine with President Compaore. There seems to be no open enmity between the two men.

The video for “Real Africans” is worth contemplating for what it says about more subtle forms of the elder Sankara’s legacy, as well as for its depiction of Africa. The video makes no reference to Capt. Sankara, except perhaps for Ismael’s invocation of his “royal bloodline,” but the video is reminiscent of Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock”: in both cases, the viewer sees the musician totally at home, a leader, in his and his father’s land, a man of and yet adored by the people. In Ismael’s case this is underscored by the chorus’ repeated line, “I never left but they sayin that I’m back again.” The video was not, however, filmed in Burkina Faso, but rather in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire; to have filmed the video in a city like Ouagadougou would have, I believe, seemed like an overt act of political dissent against Compaore.

Lyrically, “Real Africans” portrays Africa in mostly grim terms. Violence, political repression, corruption, conflict, and poverty are recurring themes, as Ismael speaks of “child rebels with automatics and dark minds.” The visual tone of the video is somewhat less grim: amid a montage of scenes from dirt streets, the people often look happy. There are, of course, other ways to present Africa, so it is interesting that Ismael has chosen this mixture. How he defines the “real” is also significant given that he is a rapper from the diaspora making an overt claim to belonging.

Africa has produced dozens of excellent rappers, both on the continent and in the diaspora. Many of them address political themes and some have been active in politics, notably in Senegal. But Ismael Sankara, if his lineage is genuine, presents a special connection between music and politics. It will be interesting, when the full album comes out, to see whether it sheds more light on how he deals with his father’s legacy and with Africa’s present.

On US Bases in Africa

The Washington Post‘s Craig Whitlock published an article yesterday entitled “U.S. expands secret intelligence operations in Africa.” The piece is a sequel of sorts to one he and Greg Miller wrote some nine months ago, entitled “U.S. assembling secret drone bases in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, officials say.” As with that last article, there is a mix of old and new information; while the 2011 article focused on East Africa, and was particularly noteworthy for passages on Ethiopia, the new article is noteworthy especially for passages on Burkina Faso and Mauritania – although as the article points out, US forces and contractors have been operating in those countries for half a decade or more.

The following passage not only highlights the length of the US military’s tenure in Burkina Faso, it also hints at the political complexities, both within the US government and between the US government and its partners, of having such a presence:

The U.S. military began building its presence in Burkina Faso in 2007, when it signed a deal that enabled the Pentagon to establish a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment in Ouagadougou. At the time, the U.S. military said the arrangement would support “medical evacuation and logistics requirements” but provided no other details.

By the end of 2009, about 65 U.S. military personnel and contractors were working in Burkina Faso, more than in all but three other African countries, according to a U.S. Embassy cable from Ouagadougou. In the cable, diplomats complained to the State Department that the onslaught of U.S. troops and support staff had “completely overwhelmed” the embassy.

In addition to Pilatus PC-12 flights for Creek Sand, the U.S. military personnel in Ouagadougou ran a regional intelligence “fusion cell” code-named Aztec Archer, according to the cable.

Burkina Faso, a predominantly Muslim country whose name means “the land of upright men,” does not have a history of radicalism. U.S. military officials saw it as an attractive base because of its strategic location bordering the Sahel, the arid region south of the Sahara where al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate is active.

Unlike many other governments in the region, the one in Burkina Faso was relatively stable. The U.S. military operated Creek Sand spy flights from Nouakchott, Mauritania, until 2008, when a military coup forced Washington to suspend relations and end the surveillance, according to former U.S. officials and diplomatic cables.

The article is very much worth reading in full.

In my view having bases in a country involves the US in (or exposes the US to, if you prefer) local politics, one way or another. US military involvement in local politics, including in Africa, is nothing new. But it is worth pointing out, time and again, that most of the key partner countries for the military in Africa are run by presidents/prime-ministers-for-life: Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi (in power since 1995), Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore (in power since 1987), Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (in power since 1986), Djibouti’s Ismael Omar Guellah (in power since 1999), etc. The contradictions between such partnerships and stated US ideals of democracy promotion are now so familiar as to be hardly worth mentioning. A more pragmatic point may be that the stability won through decades of rule by one person or clique can often prove quite brittle when put to the test. Sub-Saharan African leaders who faced strong protest movements in 2011 (or in years previous) tended, unlike their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, to survive those tests (this includes Compaore), but sub-Saharan African protest movements have at least shown the potential for serious tension to break out in places where the Pentagon might not have expected it to. The example of how the 2008 coup in Mauritania disrupted US operations there merits reflection.

I have not seen much of a reaction to the Washington Post story in different African countries’ online press so far, save this article on a Malian site (French). The Nigerian papers often track US news quite closely, so we will see if they pick up this story in the coming days.

Conditions Facing Malian Refugees in Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso

In April, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins san frontieres estimated the number of people displaced by the fighting in northern Mali at 260,000 – roughly half of them inside Mali, and roughly half in Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger. A May estimate from the same  group put the number of refugees outside Mali at 160,000, while another estimate from the United Nations has   the numbers at 64,000 refugees in Mauritania, 61,000 in Burkina Faso, 41,000 in Niger, and 30,000 in Algeria.

Despite the efforts of governments and relief agencies, the refugee crisis poses severe problems for a region already wracked by drought. Coming rains, ironically, may cause difficulties in sheltering refugees. Climate Wire warns of a potential “breaking point,” when food-stressed local communities would begin to oppose giving resources to refugees. The situation is a humanitarian crisis.

Here are some excerpts from news reports on how refugees are faring in Mali’s neighbors.

Mauritania:

Malians sheltered at Camp Mbere [estimated refugee population: 75,000] in northeast Mauritania face food shortages and other troubling realities as more and more displaced victims arrive.

Abou Bakr Ould Sidi and his family were among the first Touaregs to escape fighting between rebels and the army in northern Mali in January.

“Camp Mbere’s guests, displaced by war in northern Mali, are suffering poor conditions and challenges on a daily basis,” Ould Sidi told Magharebia. An allotment of 5 bags of oil, sugar, 4 kg of rice and a few bags of peanuts per person per week was not enough to prevent malnutrition, he added.

UNHCR, the Mauritanian Commissariat of Food Security and the International Fund for Food Security are all working to address these problems.

More on Mbere, with photographs, here.

Burkina Faso:

More than 60,000 refugees have fled Mali’s troubled north to Burkina Faso, where nearly three million people are already facing dangerous food shortages after poor rains and a failed harvest this year. The compound crises are straining relief efforts for the refugees, as well as local communities.

In northern Burkina Faso, near the Malian border, thousands of refugees have settled here in Mentao Camp, including Basséta Waleta Sidi and her family.

“We fled the violence and the killing in Mali. We are safe now, but the future is uncertain,” said Sidi.

Aid organizations are supplying food and medical attention. But Sidi, who has one child and is seven months pregnant with another, is worried about malnutrition.

“All we eat here is rice and oil, which we are not used to,” added Sidi. “And the amount is not enough, even for one child.”

Many refugee children in Burkina Faso also lack access to schools. For more on Burkina Faso, see this important but somewhat dated article from March.

Niger:

Already hard hit by a poor growing season in 2011-2012, with rain at the wrong time and in all the wrong places, the population of North Tillabéry in Niger now has to share its meagre resources with the many refugees arriving from Mali.

According to the authorities in Niger, more than 30,000 Malians from the Ménaka area and an estimated 8,000 Niger nationals living in Mali have found refuge in Niger since the beginning of the year, fleeing the fighting between government forces and armed groups.

Amanita Walid, from Ménaka, arrived in Niger with nothing but the clothes on her back. Members of her family and other people she knew ended up scattered across several sites. Despite the difficulties, she had a genuine sense of security: “The real change when we arrived here was not hearing any more gunfire.”

The group Plan International has produced a video on Malian refugees in Niger. I leave you with that:

Burkina Faso: Amid Police Firings, Eyes on Last Year’s Riots – and on 2015 [UPDATED]

Last spring, Burkina Faso experienced weeks of protests by trade unions and students, with an overlapping series of mutinies by soldiers and police. For a time it looked as though President Blaise Compaore, who has ruled the country since 1987, might be losing his grip on power. In June, a combination of personnel changes, policy reforms, and crackdowns on mutineers brought the nation’s intersecting uprisings to a close. But nearly a year later, Burkina Faso and its rulers are still sorting through the fallout of last year’s explosion – and looking ahead to 2015, the year of the next scheduled presidential elections.

The 2011 uprisings were back in the news last week when the government announced the firing of over 100 policemen accused of joining the mutinies. A list of the fired officers (French) shows that most came from units in Ouagadougou, the political capital, and Bobo-Dioulasso, the economic capital. Both cities were centers of protest last year. Given earlier disciplinary firings of mutinous soldiers, the firing of mutinous police came as no surprise (French).

The firings suggest that last year’s uprisings are still on the government’s mind, but also that the government is feeling relatively strong. International actors seem to share that view of the Compaore regime’s strength. The US State Department‘s conclusion regarding the 2011 uprisings is, “As of late July, the government’s actions had produced greater calm and stability.” The IMF’s December review of loan programs to Burkina Faso makes no mention of the uprisings, but generally depicts the country as stable and making progress on the IMF’s desired reforms. The IMF does say, however, “In view of the Burkinabè economy’s vulnerability to exogenous shocks that affect the most vulnerable in the population, the authorities need to place special emphasis on the preparation of a social safety net.” This is noteworthy because two frequently cited drivers of the uprisings were the post-electoral crisis in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire and increases in the price of basic foods.

The Africa Report adds more perspective on the regime’s new strategy and how it has been received internationally:

The new government has increased its actions, most notably by reducing prices of fast-moving consumer goods and agricultural input products, promoting civil servants or suspending unpaid penalties for delayed electricity bills.

In pole position is Luc Adolphe Tiao, who has embarked on a campaign to seduce Burkinabes and economic partners. The former journalist and diplomat has a somewhat pedagogical approach to his duties.

[...]

They also seem to desire an improvement in governance, social dialogue and the economic environment, in line with the recommendations of the World Bank.

[...]

Moreover, while meeting in Paris in the beginning of February, international partners gave their support to the Burkinabe government’s social and economic programmes, with a total budget of US$14.3bn for the period 2011-2015.

Their ambition is to reach a two-digit GDP growth, the only lever to real sustainable poverty reduction.

Many observers, then, agree that calm has been restored for the present. But those same observers are questioning whether stability can hold. The Africa Report wonders whether population growth will overwhelm economic growth. Morale among soldiers and police may have taken a hit from firings. And the shocks – particularly rapid increases in food prices - that contributed to crisis not only last year, but also in previous episodes, could return.

Some uncertainty about Burkina Faso’s political future centers on the president and his intentions. In Jeune Afrique (French), Marwane Ben Yahmed writes that Compaore is facing pressures (including from abroad) to step down when his term ends in 2015, but also getting encouragement (especially from his circle) to remain. Ben Yahmed writes (my translation) that Compaore already knows what he intends to do, but that “he cannot commit himself to leave, at the risk of undermining his authority and launching a premature war of succession, just as he could not, evidently, announce that he will cling to power.” The guessing game about the president’s intensions, which could run for over two years, will ensure that a hint of tension remains in Burkina Faso’s politics for some time to come.

UPDATE: IRIN tackles the same topic. Definitely worth a read.

A Flurry of Meetings on Sahel Security

Tomorrow and Thursday, security experts from Sahelian countries will meet in Algiers to discuss anti-terrorism efforts in the region. This meeting is the latest in an ongoing series dedicated to deepening regional cooperation:

This is a technical meeting which will be attended by experts in the framework of the activities of the Global Forum on Anti-terrorism. The first meeting had officially been held on 22nd and 23rd September, 2011 in New York.

Since 2010, four Sahelian countries, including Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, cooperate militarily as part of a Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff based in Tamanrasset, in the extreme south of Algeria.

Moreover, Algeria held on 7th and 8th September a conference on the partnership, security and development in the Sahel, which had established the foundations for partnership development and security between countries of the Sahel and the West.

Other recent meetings in the region with relevance for security issues include talks between North African and European commanders in Nouakchott in late September; a parley on Sunday between northern Malian politicians and Tuareg fighters; and a visit Monday by Nigerien Prime Minister Rafini Briji to Burkina Faso. Last but not least, Magharebia reports on a meeting of Sahelian ministers and Obama administration officials in Washington, DC, last week. More here (French).

The pace of these meetings reflects the deep concern, both regional and international, over issues such as loose weapons, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, drug smuggling, kidnapping, and rebellions caused by fighters returning from Libya. As talks continue, new military aid to Sahelian governments is arriving.

New resources and shared interests may push Sahelian countries toward tighter cooperation. But talks and money are not the only necessary ingredients in this endeavor, and there are obstacles to cooperation as well. The challenges each country in the region faces differ, and lingering political tensions and mistrust may continue to limit or slow the development of cooperative frameworks.

Burkina Faso, Chad, and Sudan Recognize Libya’s Transitional National Council

Yesterday, news that Burkina Faso had offered sanctuary to Libya’s Colonel Moammar Qadhafi got some attention. Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore has a long and close relationship with the Colonel, so the exile offer wasn’t a big surprise. Also unsurprising, but perhaps more significant, was the news that Burkina Faso and Chad have recognized the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) in Libya.

As recipients of Gaddafi’s largesse during his decades in power, the governments in Ouagadougou and N’Djamena had previously been hesitant about taking sides the conflict.

Libya’s rebels have often accused neighbouring Chad of backing Gaddafi by sending mercenaries to put down the uprising, a charge denied by N’Djamena.

But a council delegation was in Chad on Wednesday when Moussa Dago, secretary general for Chad’s foreign affairs ministry, recognised its authority and called on it to protect Chadian interests in the country.

Chad had been moving in that direction for months.

Burkina Faso and Chad join Sudan, which according to a few sources (English and Arabic) has also recognized the TNC. These shifts mean that most of the Sahel has decided to back the TNC either officially or unofficially. From what I can tell, Mali and Niger are still hesitating, a hesitation that becomes more conspicuous as the pool of TNC supporters grows. Barring a wild military reversal, I imagine that Mali and Niger will eventually recognize the TNC, but it is interesting to think about whether the order of who recognizes the TNC says anything about who is most nervous about a post-Qadhafi future. Perhaps Mali and Niger are now watching Burkina Faso and evaluating the success of Compaore’s attempt to preserve an old friendship, while still acknowledging a new reality.

Climate Change, the Sahel, and Predictions of a Troubled Future

A new report, “Mapping Hotspots of Climate Change and Food Insecurity in the Global Tropics,” contains some grim news for the Sahel. Greg Mills and Terence McNamee of the Brenthurst Foundation write in the Independent Online about the report’s implications for Mali. Noting that the report “predicts that global climate change will curb agricultural output in Mali more than any other country, except its West African neighbours Niger and Burkina Faso,” Mills and McNamee outline the interlocking challenges Mali faces. These include security problems (such as AQIM), rapid population growth, weak employment prospects for youth, and entrenched poverty. The authors see potential for economic growth in mining and cotton, but they recommend serious political and economic reform, such as passage of the new family code. They argue that the next president, to be elected in 2012, will have to make tough choices that could strain the consensus-based fabric of Malian democracy:

Stability in Mali has been achieved in part through a strong tradition of inclusiveness and building broad consensus, ensuring that no groups are excluded. Yet this otherwise positive trait makes it almost impossible for the government to make hard decisions in the national interest, the kind of decisions that are to the short-term detriment of some but in the long run help the country’s development.

[...]

If the government avoids the hard choices, its much-admired democracy is sure to falter under the weight of young Malians’ unfulfilled expectations.

The thrust of Mills and McNamee’s suggested reforms makes me uneasy – will further privatization of key industries really benefit Mali, and is it really to Mali’s advantage if politicians force through unpopular reforms? – but their point about Mali’s challenges is irrefutable. Moreover, their argument that “there is nothing Mali can realistically do to mitigate climate change either, but it can adapt to it” sounds ugly, but is correct to the extent that Mali cannot force more powerful countries to stop polluting. Government policy (or even regional initiatives like a proposed “great green wall“) can only do so much to mitigate the effects of climate change, and in some cases these policies carry significant downsides, even in ecological terms. Mali is in a bad spot.

The regional implications are equally frightening. Mali’s problems, as Mills and McNamee say in the beginning, are also Burkina Faso’s and Niger’s. The political landscape varies from place to place, but both countries have their own serious problems: Niger faces an influx of refugees from Libya, recurring droughts, and the challenge of AQIM, while Burkina Faso saw weeks of protests and mutinies this spring. Niger and Burkina Faso also, like Mali, have rapidly growing populations and weak economies. As the physical temperature of these countries rises, the political temperature seems likely to rise as well. Leaders in all three countries, already in complicated positions, will face even tougher choices going forward.