Burkina Faso: A Delicate Atmosphere Around Inter-Religious Coexistence

From the beginning of Burkina Faso’s current wave of insecurity circa 2016, there have been concerns that the violence would undo the country’s longstanding patterns of inter-religious and specifically Muslim-Christian coexistence and harmony. In 2016, International Crisis Group opened a report on the topic by saying:

Burkina Faso’s great religious diversity and tolerance make it an exception in Africa’s sub-Saharan Sahel. Its model of religious coexistence remains solid but could be at risk of being eroded. For several years now, Muslim leaders have complained that Muslims are under-represented in the civil service and that the administration is not always even-handed in its treatment of Christianity and Islam. Meanwhile, the rising tide of religiously motivated violence in West Africa and the Sahel has created a new regional context. As Burkina is recovering from a period of instability following the October 2014 downfall of former President Blaise Compaoré, and faced with a security emergency and strong social pressures, the government could be tempted to ignore these developments.

For further context, Burkina Faso has a clear Muslim majority of perhaps 61%, according to this estimate, and a substantial Christian minority of around 30%.

Amid the ongoing insecurity, there have been tragic and frightening moments where it has seemed religious coexistence might begin to unravel. Specifically, there have been attacks on churches in the conflict zones in 2019 and 2020. Yet, even as exceedingly grim scenarios are coming to pass in terms of displacement, the tenacity of the insurgency, and escalating levels of violence, the country has – at least in my view – so far avoided the worst-case scenarios in terms of specifically Muslim-Christian violence.

That does not mean there are no tensions – including far outside the conflict zones. One news item that caught my eye recently was a visit on October 3 by the president of the National Assembly, Alassane Bala Sakandé, to the Pazani/Pazaani neighborhood of the capital Ouagadougou. He was there following the destruction of a mosque complex – the mosque itself, another building, and six classrooms – connected with a legal dispute over the land the complex was on. Sakandé called for “dialogue, peace, and tolerance.” The visit also got a fair amount of coverage in local and national media. I think all this points to how delicate the atmosphere is – in other circumstances, the destruction of the mosque might have rankled and caused a neighborhood-level conflict, but in the shadow of the insurgency, it takes on much greater potential significance. It’s good that Sankandé made such a public visit to the site.

See some pictures of the visit here:

A COVID-19 Spike in Burkina Faso?

I raised this question on Twitter the other day, because I continue to follow the COVID-19 numbers coming out of the Sahelien countries, and I’ve been struck by those out of Burkina Faso. (I mostly rely on the daily counts posted by the journalist Dieudonné Lankoande). After a period where new case counts were negligible, my impression was that numbers jumped a bit recently. Others weighed in to basically confirm that impression, with Louis Audet-Gosselin pointing to a recent pocked of cases discovered in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second most populous city and its key economic hub (see here for more).

A quick glance at Google’s figures reinforces the sense that compared to many of its neighbors, and especially its two Sahelian neighbors Mali and Niger, Burkina Faso’s official confirmed case count is relatively high.

CountryReported COVID Case Sept. 8-21Total Country Population (2018)
Burkina Faso44419.8 million
Mali15419 million
Niger1122.4 million
Cote d’Ivoire61925 million
Ghana1,22729.8 million
Togo1817.9 million
Benin8111.5 million

What these numbers mean is above my pay grade. There has been a wide-ranging debate about what seems to be a markedly low case rate in Africa. The Washington Post‘s Karen Attiah weighed in eloquently on that debate recently, noting Western media’s superficial coverage of the issue: “It’s almost as if they are disappointed that Africans aren’t dying en masse and countries are not collapsing.” And I have gone back, several times, to George Kibala Bauer’s post at Africa Is A Country, in which he argues, in part, “COVID-19 is a powerful reminder that we must reclaim African reality in all its forms in order to adequately define and respond to the challenges we face and imagine African futures, which transcend the Western gaze.”

How should one explain, moreover, substantial variation not just within Africa but within a single region or sub-region? Population size seems to matter but obviously does not tell the whole story. Does the explanation for the variation involve a lack of testing in some countries – more sophisticated testing infrastructure in Ghana than in, say, Niger? Or are the levels of actual outbreak markedly different, due to population density and movement, or levels of precaution and preparedness, or some other factor?

Those questions operate at the country level, too: the clusters in Burkina in recent days appear to have been in Bobo-Dioulasso and in the capital Ouagadougou, but also (to a lesser extent) in the western town of Houndé (map) and the southern town of Gaoua (map). These two towns are much smaller than Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, with roughly 50,000 people in Houndé and over 30,000 in Gaoua, according to the outdated estimates found on Wikipedia. That there would be more testing capacity in the major cities makes sense, and that there would be some testing in other parts of the country also makes sense – but does this mean that there are no outbreaks, or simply no testing, in the conflict zones in the north and east? Or are there cases there, in small or large numbers, that are escaping detection? Figures for excess deaths, meanwhile, might help settle these questions, but are not easily accessible from what I can tell.

A COVID-19 spike would be bad news, obviously, for Burkina Faso, with the country and its neighbors having eased key restrictions in July and August, with elections approaching in November, and with mass violence continuing in parts of the north and east.

Four Reasons Why Mali in 2020 Is Not Burkina Faso in 2014

There was a lively commentary posted yesterday (August 4) at the Malian news aggregator site Maliweb, by Diagne Fodé Roland. I’ll translate the title as “Mali in 2020 Is on the Path of Burkina in 2014.” The twin reference is to the anti-incumbent protests that have been unfolding in Mali since June of this year, and to the 2014 popular uprising (and military coup) that overthrew Burkina Faso’s longtime ruler Blaise Compaoré in 2014.

The Malian protests are led by a coalition of groups known as the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (French acronym M5-RFP). Their main demand (now perhaps not shared by all parts of the movement) has been the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK).

I was not previously familiar with the writing of Diagne (I believe this to be his surname), but given how widely he has been published in the Senegalese press, he may be Senegalese rather than Malian. He quotes heavily from another thinker, Issa N’Diaye, whose work is also new to me – Diagne quotes from N’Diaye’s provocatively titled book Silence, on démocratise !démocratie et fractures sociales au Mali (Silence, We’re Democratizing! Democracy and Social Fractures in Mali). The argument Diagne picks up on from Ndiaye is that after the popular uprising (and military coup) that overthrew Mali’s longtime military dictator Moussa Traoré in 1991, the new system of multiparty democracy was in reality a neocolonial “festival of bandits” where members of the old ruling party (UDPM) took over the new ruling party (ADEMA) and marginalized the original movers in the revolution. In this view, part of the Malian left was disempowered and the remainder was incorporated into a “neocolonial bourgeoisie in vassalage to the liberal plans of structural adjustment dictated by the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO.” In Diagne’s view, that history of what he sees as kleptocracy for elites and immiseration for ordinary Malians sets the stage for the current crisis.

Diagne’s points here are worth taking seriously, and his analysis is shared by not a few Malians. At the very least, the phrase “political class” has recurred throughout the crisis, and there is a palpable sense of fatigue and disgust with that class. The next part of Diagne’s historical narrative pertains to the northern rebellion of 2012 and the French intervention, which Diagne sees as a neo-imperialist maneuver. Diagne describes the insecurity in the country in highly conspiratorial terms, an analysis I do not share but which many Malians do seem to share. But to pursue that discussion would take us off track – I want to get back to the headline of Diagne’s piece.

Diagne does not develop, at all, the comparison between Mali and Burkina Faso – in fact, I wonder whether an editor slapped that headline on the piece. But the comparison is worth exploring, for at least two reasons:

  1. Burkina Faso’s transition is the most recent instance of a popular revolution in the Sahel, and
  2. The involvement of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in attempting to mediate Mali’s crisis invites a regional reading of the Malian situation. I have even seen the argument (I wish I had saved the link/post) that the real audience for ECOWAS’ missions to Mali is the domestic constituencies of those same ECOWAS heads of state, and that ECOWAS leaders are above all concerned that anti-incumbent protests not spread to their own countries. That’s a discussion worth pursuing in another post, I think.

I also won’t discuss the revolution in Burkina Faso exhaustively here – for that, I recommend Ernest Harsch’s Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution. Instead, I want to highlight four reasons why I think Mali 2020 and Burkina Faso 2014 are quite different from one another.

1. IBK is not Compaoré

Simply by virtue of math, I think one has to say that IBK in 2020 and Compaoré in 2014 belong to different categories. IBK is an embattled leader, a career member of the Malian “political class,” and now the symbol of that class, especially in the eyes of his opponents – yet he is also a term-limited incumbent in his second term, who came to power by the ballot box, and who has been in power for well under a decade (he took office in 2013). The elections IBK won in 2013 and 2018 were flawed (low turnout, and almost certainly some rigging), but they were not, in my view, the stage-managed elections of a “competitive authoritarian” dictatorship. All of this is a far cry from the career of Compaoré, who came to power in a bloody 1987 coup, was elected and re-elected president in grossly undemocratic elections in 1991 and 1998, skirted term limits on a technicality in 2005, and was preparing to flout term limits again in the lead-up to the 2015 election. IBK has not been president long enough to instill the kind of resentment that developed under Compaoré – no one protesting in the streets now in Bamako was born while IBK was president (I assume/hope), but plenty of protesters in Burkina Faso in 2014 had lived all their lives under Compaoré’s rule.

2. There are no Malian equivalents to the symbolism/martyrdom of Thomas Sankara or Norbert Zongo (yet)

The Burkinabè revolution was multi-causal and complex, but it’s worth mentioning two key figures who became symbols for the protesters there, and whom the protesters (and much of the wider society, it seems to me) consider martyrs of the Compaoré regime. The first is Compaoré’s immediate predecessor, the revolutionary dictator Thomas Sankara (in power 1983-1987), who is widely admired not just in Burkina Faso but across Africa and around the world (including by me, for what it’s worth) for his efforts to transform Burkina Faso’s society and economy and to make the country egalitarian and truly independent. Sankara’s murder during Compaoré’s 1987 coup is, for many Burkinabè citizens, a wound that refuses to heal, and during and after the protests there has been a powerful call for the country to reckon with that tragic history. The second figure is Norbert Zongo, a journalist murdered in 1998, likely at the hands of Compaoré’s regime and in connection with his investigation into the murder of a driver employed by Compaoré’s brother François, a story with wider implications for understanding corruption and impunity within the regime. These figures are not the only victims of the Compaoré regime, but their memories loomed large in the 2014 uprising.

I do not see any Malian equivalents to those figures, not at the same level of symbolism and resonance. This is not to say that there are not Malians dying in tragic and preventable ways; the insecurity in the center and the north of the country claims victims on a daily basis. There have even been deaths associated with the Malian security forces’ response to the M5-RFP’s protests. But I do not see a parallel to Sankara and Zongo in Mali in the sense of prominent, widely respected and even beloved figures whose deaths can be laid directly at the incumbent’s doorstep in some deeply personal way. Deep as the anger toward IBK may be among the M5-RFP’s supporters, I am not sure it matches the depth of the Burkinabè protesters’ anger and disgust toward Compaoré in 2014.

The most dangerous moment so far in the Malian government’s response to the M5-RFP, I would say, came over the weekend of July 10-12 when the security forces were detaining M5-RFP leaders and cracking down on protesters with excessive force. If the security forces inadvertently produce martyrs amid this crisis, the dynamic could shift substantially.

Another, related point is that there were dress rehearsals, of sorts, for the Burkinabè uprising of 2014 – notably, there were waves of protests in 2008 and 2011. One could argue that various episodes in Mali’s history (the 1991 revolution, or perhaps the 2009 protests against a controversial Family Code, or perhaps something else) were precedents for the current moment, but 1991 was a long time ago and previous mobilizations by clerics were issue-specific, or focused on figures below the level of the president. Mali in 2020 does not appear to be at the peak of a long-building wave.

3. The M5-RFP has little visible support outside Bamako

Another crucial difference between Burkina Faso in 2014 and Mali in 2020 is that the Burkinabè revolution had a broader geographical ambit. Certainly the M5-RFP is not completely lacking in support outside the capital, and certainly Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou was the heart of the 2014 revolution there – but numerous commentators have pointed out that the M5-RFP has not mobilized substantial protests in cities other than Bamako. Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso in 2014 (and in the earlier protest waves in 2008 and 2011), there was substantial mobilization in the economic hub Bobo-Dioulasso and elsewhere. If IBK outlasts the M5-RFP, as he is still fairly likely to do, a significant reason will be that the protests are not truly national in scope.

4. The Burkinabè revolution was relatively leaderless, whereas the M5-RFP is elite-led and therefore vulnerable

The whole idea of “leaderless movements” is partly a myth, of course, and there were organized groups that played substantial roles in the 2014 revolution in Burkina Faso – the most famous of them being Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom), founded by musicians in 2013. And the ground for the uprising was partly prepared through intra-elite splits, including the departure of several major figures from Compaoré’s camp in 2012 (among them current President Roch Kaboré). Yet amid the 2014 revolution in Burkina Faso, it was not so easy as it is in Mali in 2020 to pick out the handful of people who appear to be in charge. The M5-RFP is a formal coalition of three groups, which gives you a relatively small group of key leaders, such as Imam Mahmoud Dicko, his close associate Issa Kaou Djim, and the former ministers Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Mountaga Tall, and Choguel Maïga. It is not that these leaders merely snap their fingers and tens of thousands of people come out – obviously there must be a give-and-take between leaders and protesters as the leaders attempt to read the mood of their supporters. Yet the relatively small, elite character of the leadership leaves them vulnerable to divide-and-rule tactics by IBK’s team, and to infighting and strategic disagreements. With the M5-RFP’s most prominent leader, Dicko, now suggesting that IBK does not need to resign, after all, it appears more likely that the M5-RFP will split than that the M5-RFP will succeed in forcing IBK out of power. In Burkina Faso, in contrast, events moved so quickly in October 2014, and the protesters proved so difficult to placate or divide, that Compaoré was being forced out before he could devise a serious counter-strategy. The increasingly protracted negotiations in Mali have, in a way, favored the M5-RFP so long as they don’t budge; but it has also given IBK time to experiment, lean on his peers and supporters outside Mali, and wait for the M5-RFP to crack.