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.

Africa News Roundup: Boko Haram Suicide Bombing, the MNLA and Compaore, Sudan-South Sudan Talks, Locusts, and More

Yesterday there was a suicide bombing at the police headquarter in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Officials suspect the rebel movement Boko Haram.

According to AFP, members of the northern Malian rebel group MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad) met with Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore and his foreign minister today. Compaore is the mediator appointed by the Economic Community of West African States.

The latest round of talks between Sudan and South Sudan ended without progress, but the two parties are set to try again on June 21.

Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, AFP reports, could reduce water levels in Lake Turkana, with terrible consequences for “The fishermen and herders eking out an existence on the shores of the majestic lake.”

If you have not already heard about the plague of locusts that may descend on the Sahel, read here. A key excerpt on how politics has affected the situation:

Locusts are usually managed by spraying chemicals that stop the swarms from spreading. Algeria and Libya ordinarily attack the swarms, preventing them from hitting Mali or Niger.

But in the last year, as Libya was wracked by fighting between rival militias in the aftermath of the ouster of Moammar Kadafi and Algeria suffered insecurity along its border, local teams and international experts have been blocked from stopping the swarms, the U.N.  Food and Agriculture Organization  said.

VOA on new businesses and signs of revitalization in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Turkey and Ethiopia:

Saygin Group of Turkey said its Ethiopian subsidiary may generate $100 million in revenue a year from textile manufacturing, amid plans by the Horn of Africa country to boost the industry’s exports to 10 times that amount.

What else is happening today?

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.

Uganda and North Africa

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has, it seems, been paying attention to the “Arab spring” since it began. During the Ugandan presidential elections in February, in which Museveni won a fourth official term, government authorities banned the use of certain words in text messaging. These included “Egypt”, “bullet,” “people power,” “Tunisia”, “Mubarak”, “dictator”, “teargas”, “army”, “police”, “gun”, “Ben Ali” and “UPDF,” the last term being the acronym of the Ugandan armed forces.

Not too long afterward, NATION intervened in Libya, and Museveni was upset. In late March, he wrote a widely circulated article for Foreign Policy in which he cited double standards in the West’s treatment of Libya (versus, for example, Bahrain), lamented what he saw as the bypassing of the African Union in the decisionmaking process, and expressed concern about the potentially long-lasting, negative consequences of the intervention. Whether one agrees with Museveni or not (and I do on some issues), the point is that Museveni seems to fear how the “Arab spring” might reshape African politics.

During the spring, Uganda saw the “Walk to Work” movement, in which opposition leader Kizza Besigye mobilized hundreds to protest high food and fuel prices. These protests were primarily related to domestic troubles, rather than foreign influences, but the harshness of the government crackdown hinted that “the nearby Arab Spring revolutions can’t be far from Museveni’s mind.”

This week, Ugandan activists made explicit reference to the North African revolutions:

Pressure group Activists 4 Change wants to hold a rally in the capital Kampala on Friday to “celebrate people power in North Africa” following the overthrow of the leaders of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

The group has emailed invitations accompanied by a flyer featuring photos of the toppled rulers crossed out — with Uganda’s long-serving President Yoweri Museveni lined up as the next to go.

Police banned the rally. If activists push forward, as they have in the past, there could be bloodshed again.

Talk of an “African spring” has largely crested and fallen. President Blaise Compaore retained power in Burkina Faso, the sub-Saharan African country which experienced perhaps the most serious protests this year. Gabon’s President Ali Bongo withstood major protests there. Museveni is unlikely to fall any time soon. And leaders who look vulnerable, like Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade, are not under threat so much because of contagion from North Africa, but because pent-up local grievances are coming to the fore amid (pre-)electoral campaigning.

Still, the “Arab spring” has changed the way activists in countries like Uganda frame their demands and view heads of state. And it has changed how heads of state view their own position. Going forward, both sides will likely continue to mull over the lessons of the North African revolutions, with each side trying to stay once step ahead of the other on the organizational, technological, and political levels.

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.

Cameroon Looks Toward Elections as Incumbents in Africa Face Popular Anger

If I were an African incumbent facing re-election, I would feel pretty good about my chances: in the past year, presidents like Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, and Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan have won solid victories over divided oppositions. But I would not be eager to face the popular anger that has dogged incumbents this year. In Burkina Faso, civilian protests and soldiers’ mutinies shook Compaore’s regime from late February through early June. Museveni cruised to re-election in February only to see the world-famous “Walk to Work” movement spring up weeks later. Jonathan’s April electoral triumph was followed by riots in Northern Nigeria. In Senegal, incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade last week withdrew a set of proposed constitutional changes because of the backlash they generated.

Yaoundé

Yaoundé, Cameroon

Cameroonian President Paul Biya is a veteran politician. But at 78 years old, and with over twenty-eight years in power, he is the type of figure that protesters, especially in Senegal and Uganda, have been rejecting in 2011. That does not mean Biya will lose when Cameroon holds its presidential elections in October – after all, he has won three multi-party elections (1992, 1997, and 2004), including a close contest in 1992, and he maintained power through the mass protests of 2008, which concerned high costs of living as well as Biya’s decision to remove constitutional term limits on his tenure. Biya is still the favorite to win. But if the current wave of dissatisfaction with (in particular West) African incumbents lasts through the fall, Biya’s victory might come at the price of serious popular anger.

US officials recognize this potential. While calls from Washington for African countries to hold free and fair elections are pretty standard, I find it noteworthy that Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson has taken pains, over three months before Cameroon holds its elections, to raise concerns:

Carson met with Cameroon president Paul Biya and the country’s prime minister during a visit and urged the leaders to hold a free and fair election, a statement from the U.S. Embassy said.

[…]

“He (Carson) said…that any intimidation of presidential candidates and leaders of civil society by governmental authorities in the run up to the elections will be viewed by the international community as having a negative impact on the credibility of the electoral process,” [the statement] said.

With political tensions swirling, Cameroon’s external borrowing increasing, and inflation mounting across much of Africa, Cameroon has many of the ingredients that produced protests elsewhere. That possibility has clearly already occurred to officials in Washington, and likely it is a topic of discussion in Yaounde as well.

Sahelian Leaders Look to a Post-Qadhafi Libya

During his long rule Colonel Moammar Qadhafi has exercised substantial influence over Africa. The Colonel has aided client regimes, helped bring rulers to power or ruin, and intervened in conflicts as participant or peacemaker. As this map shows, his influence has been particularly pronounced in Sahelian countries like Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad.

The civil war in Libya has dramatically affected the Sahel: Niger and other countries are absorbing thousands of refugees, Sahelians are being accused of serving as pro-Qadhafi mercenaries, Libyan weapons have reportedly traveled south, and money flows have been disrupted or altered. Perhaps reflecting the interlinked fates of Libya and the Sahel, the latter has been well represented in the African Union’s peace efforts, providing two of the five members of the AU’s committee on Libya (they are President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania, who chairs the committee, and President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali). This AU group, at least initially, tried to broker a peace that would have allowed Qadhafi to remain in power.

Given all that, it is significant to see several Sahelian leaders begin to speak about – and act to bring about – a post-Qadhafi Libya. Senegal appears to have led the trend, with President Abdoulaye Wade establishing relations with the Libyan rebels in mid-May. Last week, Wade met with rebel leaders in Benghazi and said that Qadhafi should step down. Gambia also recognizes the rebels. Wade’s call for a transition was seconded last week by Mauritania’s Abdel Aziz, who said that Qadhafi’s “departure has become necessary.” With this, Abdel Aziz seemed to speak for the African Union as a whole. Another Sahelian leader, Chad’s President Idriss Deby, soon added his voice to the chorus. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chadian Foreign Minister Moussa Faki met on the sidelines of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) forum in Zambia last week, and afterwards Clinton announced that “the Chadian government does not support Gadhafi.”

To say there is an emerging Sahelian consensus against Qadhafi would be going too far. I have not seen a statement from Mali’s Toure calling for Qadhafi’s resignation, nor to my knowledge has newly elected Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou gone beyond calling for a solution to the crisis (without stating a preference on who rules Libya). President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, according to one source, has continued to proclaim solidarity with Qadhafi. And further east, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir has not demanded Qadhafi’s ouster either. So if the baseline position among Sahelian leaders three or four months ago was support for Qadhafi, or neutrality, many of them have not moved. But the movement that has occurred in the region has been toward breaking with the Colonel.

AFP has discussed the Senegalese and Mauritanian statements in the context of a larger African shift away from Qadhafi. Attention to the Sahelian context is also important, though, as Qadhafi’s departure could affect the Sahel more than any other region in Africa. The calculated risks that Wade, Abdel Aziz, and Deby are taking indicate that the political landscape in the Sahel has already shifted even though Qadhafi still clings to power. These decisions also suggest some confidence on the part of Sahelian leaders that siding with Qadhafi’s foes is a better bet than staying neutral, or continuing to support the Colonel on the chance that he might weather the storm. If and when Qadhafi does go, the relationships forged in this time of crisis, both between the Sahelian countries and the rebels as well as among the Sahelian countries themselves, will influence the direction of regional relations in the future.