Africa often seems to be stuck in an endless cycle of dictators, rancid revolutionaries and false dawns. But genuine champions of change exist, some great others quite ordinary people.
The whereabouts of Blaise Compaoré, ex-president of Burkina Faso, remain unknown a full three months after his flight from his palace. It was nearly 27 years to the day when he deposed Captain Thomas Sankara in a coup d’état.
In 2014, ignoring civil unrest, Compaoré sought to extend his tenure by another five years via what would have been the second constitutional amendment for the purpose. Benevolent observers might call his behaviour bukalu, akin to the Yiddish chutzpah – somewhere in between courage and audacity. Others would point at his government’s inability to provide basic services, to pay a living wage to civil servants and to address hunger and disease. Compaoré is not alone in extending presidential term limits. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda disposed of them altogether when he amended the Ugandan constitution. Yet both these men deposed their predecessors on the grounds of incompetence, repression and corruption.
Burkina Faso’s latest coup had been simmering for over a decade. Between April and June 2011 marauding soldiers sporadically mutinied over unpaid housing allowances and other hardships. Merchants held public demonstrations in the same month and were met with tear gas. Aggrieved students burned down the ruling party headquarters. They went on strike again in May in support of teachers demanding improved working conditions. In May 2012 large public protests against unaffordable price rises of staple foods and fuel followed. Until October 28, 2014 Compaoré was still tear-gassing and shooting protesters. Only after parliament had been burned down on the 31st, did he agree to step down.
After that there have been two more regime changes. On the morning of November 1, 2014 General H. Traoré declared himself in-charge. That same afternoon Lt. Colonel Isaac Zida, the interim leader, announced the invalidity of Traoré’s claim to power. An attempted coup the next day, 2 November by a female opposition politician was foiled. Once again the elites scrambled for power, a story the continent knows only too well. It seems we are stuck in an endless cycle of dictators, revolutionaries and false dawns.
How are these events received in the diaspora I wonder? In the early 1980s, the Africa Centre in London was the hub for the local Africans, usually students like myself. It was ideal with its location in Covent Garden where the galleried hall and wooden floors allowed us to feel we were not slumming, while the need for fresh paint, working door-handles, taps and other minor maintenance issues were in keeping with the politics of struggle we liked to think we espoused. African Dawn, a group of modern day griots performed their resistance poetry there. The five men – three from Zimbabwe, one from Ghana and one from Senegal – and the Kenyan woman played the marimba (amadinda, wooden xylophone), lukeme (entongooli, thumb piano), ndingidi (lyre), all types of drums and the electric guitar.
Ben Okri dropped in once, just after he had published ‘Incidents at the Shrine’. Although he was approachable, it was too noisy for conversation. African Dawn also performed Ngugi waThiongo’s ‘The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’. From the piece I learned that the Mau Mau were not commanded by Jomo Kenyatta although he is still credited for leading the fight for Kenya’s independence. Our efforts even went mainstream, with ‘Woza! Albert’, a South African play that came to the West End via the Edinburgh Festival.
A few years later Miriam Makeba played at an East London community hall. Her eyes were the same as on her albums from the 1960s, large and penetrating. Mozambique had become independent and she sang ‘A Luta Continua’, the old freedom song she used to perform for Frelimo. I think it was Makeba, but it could have been a character from ‘Woza! Albert’ who asked, “Hapa matota?” or “Where are the men”: where are the people who are going to change things?
Despite what melancholic lyrics may suggest, they exist – the men and women who want to change things. In the months leading up to the 2006 elections in Uganda, there were demonstrations outside the Central Police Station and the High Court where an opposition presidential candidate, Dr Kiiza Besigye, was first detained and then brought to trial. The big open air Nakasero Market is located a mere 200 metres from there. On one of the trail days, I found the market deserted. Everyone was at court, I was told. The vendors only came back at lunchtime. As I learnt over the coming days, their commitment was striking: day after day the market vendors attended court in solidarity with Dr Besigye. By contrast, office-workers stayed at their desks. You do not win government contracts by demonstrating in the streets.
It is not only anonymous groups of men who are trying to change things. Back in his time, Steven Bantu Biko, like the market vendors of Kampala, was one of the men willing to give something up for the common good. A medical student in apartheid South Africa he founded a students’ union, and the Black Consciousness movement. Blessed with discernment, Biko wanted his countrymen to be freed psychologically as well as physically from the damage done by years of subjugation and humiliation. He called it Black Consciousness, seeking to “infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life.” He was only 30 years old when he was murdered in prison in 1977.
Of the men, who want change, some also make it to State House. Unfortunately this often happens by force. When Captain Thomas Noël Sankara became president of Burkina Faso, he faced the same challenges as his contemporaries in Ghana and Uganda. They had all reached their positions by means of coups d’état; once at the top, they each found their country’s coffers depleted by their corrupt predecessors. The West was willing to help with the rehabilitation. The only condition: that the leaders sign up for IMF economic structural adjustment programmes. Should someone who actually needs micro-finance really borrow a large development loan without hope of ever paying it off? Was there really a choice?
For Sankara there was. He declined all offers. His disagreement with what he called “debt imperialism” became the centrepiece of many of his speeches. “We can produce enough food to feed ourselves….Malheureusment, for lack of organization we still need to beg for food aid. This type of assistance is counter-productive and has kept us thinking that we can only be beggars who need aid…I am asked ‘Where is imperialism?’ Just look at your plates, you see imported corn, rice or millet. C’est ça, c’est ça, l’ímperialism. Let’s not look any further [i">.” He may have seemed naïve but within the four years of his presidency, food production increased from 1,700 KG to 3,800 KG per hectare [ii">. The infant mortality rate, fell from 280 deaths to below 145 for every 1,000 live births. Sankara addressed the issue of sprawling slums by embarking on a massive house building and upgrading project. He was the first African president to launch a reforestation programme. In less than two years of Sankara’s presidency, school attendance jumped from about 10 to close to 25 percent, significantly reducing the 90 percent illiteracy rate when he assumed office [iii">. All of this without IMF help – or debt.
It is heartbreaking to watch the video footage [iv"> of Sankara appealing to his fellow presidents to repudiate unfair debt agreements with IMF and other foreign creditors at the Organization of African Unity Summit in 1987. He accused them of degrading their people. He says, only half-jokingly, that if they do not support him he is going to be assassinated: “I may not make it to the next meeting.”
Sankara saw that Burkina Faso would be isolated by the West if it stood alone on this point. But his fellow presidents, one assumes most with pan-Africanist pretensions, didn’t step in. At the Africa Centre his name did not come up much. We had nothing to offer, or we offered nothing by way of support. Sankara was shot the same year, dismembered and buried at dawn in what was widely believed to be a French-backed regime change. The closing footage of Sankara’s home shows an adobe building with wooden shutters. Inside are his prized possessions; his motorbike and his guitar [v">.
His widow Mariam Sankara describes him in terms reminiscent of Biko’s conscious black man, “Thomas knew how to show his people that they could become dignified and proud through will power, courage, honesty and work. What remains above all of my husband is his integrity.”
His successor Blaise Compaoré promised to “rectify” the revolution and promptly signed up for structural adjustment, bringing Burkina Faso into the dubious embrace of the IMF/World Bank. Ironically, a week after Compaoré’s flight from the Presidential Palace with Parliament in flames, Sankara’s recorded speeches were selling on the streets of Ouagadougu and his icon was held up at demonstrations.
On the face of it, General Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, seemed of similar mettle to Sankara. Anecdotes confirming his revolutionary credentials arrived thick and fast in the diaspora. It was said that at State functions he drank from plastic (or was it tin?) mugs rather than long-stemmed wine glasses. (It is possible he was merely adjusting from the bush war.) He too repudiated debt as a solution to all that ails Africa. But after an attempt to barter trade with neighbouring countries he gave in to the beckoning finger of the North.
Museveni’s IMF/World Bank prescribed Civil Service Reform Programme has possibly made the bureaucrats more corrupt than in 1986 when he seized power. His daughter was flown to Germany in a Lear jet to give birth to her child at a cost of GBP 70,000 if you believe the British media or GBP 20,000 if you believe Government. In either case, his official statement was clear, “When it comes to medical care for myself and my family there is no compromise [vi">.” The families of the 16 women a day who die in childbirth for lack of essential drugs, properly motivated (or simply paid) staff and lack of equipment held their peace.
Agricultural reform in Uganda was meant to be brought about by the National Agricultural Advisory Service (NAADS). It was funded to the tune of $100m over 8 years, with $50m repayable to the World Bank. The project review after eight years reported “no significant differences were found in yield growth between NAADS and non-NAADS sub counties for most crops….[vii">.”
A pattern emerges. Genuine agents of change die young. Either they do not make it to State House or they die while there (with the possible exception of Jerry Rawlings in Ghana). Such is the dynamic. The rest capitulate early while continuing to assume the demeanour of revolutionaries. They can do so because Western powers are willing to turn a blind eye to their increasing profligacy in return for their signatures on a succession of documents keeping their countries in debt bondage. They rule for decades, well into old age at which point they usurp the role of Elder Statesmen and receive credits due to others [viii">.
Museveni is more like Compaoré than Sankara; both are revolutionaries gone rancid, tampering with presidential term limits, obsessively nepotistic, with a legacy of luxurious edifices for their own delight, high maternal and neo-natal mortality rates, high unemployment, unstinting Western support including unlimited supplies of tear gas and total disrespect for the people they lead. Hapa matota?
[i">Thomas Sankara. The Upright Man, a film by Robin Shuffield, 2006.
[ii"> Jean Zeigler UN Rapporteur for Feeding Rights interviewed in Thomas Sankara. The Upright Man, a film by Robin Shuffield, 2006.
[iii"> Thomas Sankara And The Assassination Of Africa’s Memory By Chika Ezeanya, Sahara Reporters, Oct 15, 2013
[iv">Thomas Sankara. The Upright Man, a film by Robin Shuffield, 2006.
[vi"> The Telegraph, by Tim Butcher, Africa Correspondent 12:01AM BST 07 Oct 2003
[vii"> International Food Policy Research Institute review paper Discussion Paper 00724 October 2007
[viii"> for example in spite of spurious claims, Sankara’s government was the first on the Continent to acknowledge AIDS as a problem and to attempt to deal with it.`
* Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan writer. She read law at King’s College, London, and attained an MSc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank Polytechnic. This article was previously published by King’s Review under the heading, African dawn.
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