On Friday, the people of Burkino Faso took to the streets to call for the resignation of President Blaise Compaoré, but the story of Burkino Faso does not start there.
You won’t see his face on t-shirts, red lighters or located on a poster in the corner of a student’s room but Thomas Sankara was once famous for wearing a red beret. While his likeness is not a commodity, Sankara would do what Che never did and become President. Sankara’s revolution, in 1983, would be the “heir to all the revolutions of the world”.
Sankara, a Pan-Africanist and Marxist revolutionary with a charismatic smile, would bring in sweeping changes. He championed women’s rights; making their liberation a “basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution”. He opposed female genital mutilation – a practice still not eradicated. He embraced the anti-imperialism of Che Guevera, Fidel Castro and shunned foreign aid saying, simply, “he who feeds you, controls you”. Healthcare and education were prioritised. Symbolically, under Sankara, the French Colony Upper Volta became Burkina Faso: “land of the incorruptible”.
In keeping with its new name, the State’s headman shunned the extravagant cocoons so often constructed by once-revolutionary leaders. His salary was reportedly £450 a month and the cars he and his ministers drove were probably worse than the average Brits’ first car.
For all this, Burkina Faso was no utopian land swaddled in some sort of revolutionary bliss, but Sankara was seen by many as one of the “boldest and most principled” leaders in African history
And then it all came to a crashing halt.
Four years after the so-called ‘African Che’ had come to power he was assassinated in a coup d’etat. The assassination was organised by his colleagues. One name stood out from the rest: Blaise Compaoré
Compaoré would remain President for 27 years. In that time, he eradicated many of the Marxist policies that Sankara had initiated. Nearly half the population now lives on less than a dollar a day, the traditional poverty line. The Guardian called Compaoré was “a regional troublemaker”: a “West-African Macbeth”. Mark Schroeder of the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor told Al Jazeera that Burkina Faso had been ruled by a “soft military regime”. Compaoré’s regime seemingly overstepped the mark when it attempted to amend the constitution to allow for his continued hold on the Presidency and he was unable to quell the protests that followed. Compaoré stepped down after only two days.
The questions only intensified for the people of Burkina Faso in the immediate aftermath. Including Compaoré, the country has had three proclaimed leaders in the past 24 hours.
Following the resignation, General Honore Traore announced that he would fill the power vacuum. The General is linked closely with Compaoré and Schroeder has said that the move would be a “transition of personalities, not the regime”.
And now, a third option has emerged. Colonel Isaac Zida has staked his claim to the top role. Al Jazeera has reported that the Army has backed Zida. No comment has been forthcoming from Traore yet. For the time being, the people of Burkina Faso have some more clarity on their future.
The rhetoric from Col. Zida has been promising. He has expressed his hope to “prevent a state of anarchy that would be detrimental to the goal of democratic change”.
But for now, the choices are worrying. Two military men – one closer to the former President than the other. It leaves one wondering whether Burkina Faso can avoid a military power grab. Can it avoid a situation similar to General Sisi’s rise to power in Egypt?
Thirty years ago, Sankara rose to power through the military and went on to champion the people. The constitution allows 60 to 90 days before an election. Can this political movement, ignited by the people, remain in their hands in the interim?