Burkina Faso’s longtime president Blaise Compaore has been overthrown. Just days ago, he had casually instructed his compliant parliament to move to amend the constitution so he could head toward a fourth decade in power. But as deputies prepared to vote the measure through yesterday, the population of the capital turned out en masse to burn down the parliament, and went on to sack the prime minister’s office, the national television and radio offices, and the homes of various authorities for good measure. Compaore ceded power to what will hopefully prove to be a brief transitional government this morning.
Protestors dead or injured, others knocked unconscious. But in spite of it all, the people of Burkina Faso have accomplished something that not a single political analyst would have predicted. The parliament building, the offices of the national television and radio, the headquarters of the ruling party, and the homes of powerful figures have all been pillaged and burnt to the ground. Ouagadougou since Oct. 30, 2014 is a city in full revolution.
Police barricades, tear gas, water cannons, warning shots, and even attacks with live ammunition: none of it could stop the determination of the people of the capital who flooded the streets in huge numbers to demand that parliamentary deputies simply revoke the bill that was intended to amend our constitution’s 37th article. Since last night, security forces have been overwhelmingly deployed in front of the parliament.
It is now 8 o’clock in the morning, and the crowd gathered in United Nations Plaza has already succeeded in overrunning three successive police barricades. The final barricade has been erected right in the plaza. For more than an hour, the demonstrators have held their ground before powerful assaults by police and gendarmes. Some demonstrators fall severely injured, some collapse unconscious. But the crowd advances implacably. “Kill us if that is what you want, but today is today and we are going to the Parliament,” they chant.
8.30 am now, in front of the parliament. The opposition deputies arrive and take their seats inside the auditorium. There are no more seats for the press. Out in the courtyard, people are having difficulty breathing because of all the tear gas. A deputy wonders out loud, “how can we vote on a law in these conditions?” The voices of the demonstrators are growing louder as they approach the auditorium.
From inside the parliament’s courtyard we can see the police and gendarmes beginning to retreat.
Policemen gesture at the journalists to leave, since the security men themselves are going to abandon their posts. We catch sight of former deputy Emile Pare. He tells members of the press that he has come to watch the parliamentary debate; he compliments the [restrained and law abiding]‘republican spirit’ of the security forces.
9.10 am: Out in United Nations Plaza, the demonstrators have made up their minds. They succeed in knocking down the final barricade. Inside the parliament it is a rout. The soldiers, who had been standing post near the prime minister, turn their wrath on the crowd. Automatic weapon fire rings out. A woman screams: “They are shooting live bullets into the crowd,” before herself fainting.
Journalists take to their heels . But a gendarme tries to reassure them. “No, don’t run away. These are just warning shots,” he says. “We are not going to fire on the crowd.” But, warning shots or not, the crowd storms the parliament.
9.20 am, As the first demonstrators make their entrance in the auditorium, some of the opposition deputies try to appeal for calm. But it is wasted effort. The crowd is not listening to anyone. It breaks and it burns. Whatever is not broken or burned is pillaged. It is at this point that a helicopter touches down in front of the main entrance to the prime minister’s office. The crowd heads toward it. But too late. The prime minister has already flown the coop.
The crowd surges in another direction, heading now for the national television offices near the prime minister’s office. They set it afire. It is the same spectacle here. They break. They burn, they pillage. Some demand to be put on air. But unfortunately there are no more technicians in the building. They decide to leave. In the crowd there are chants of “on to Kosyam, free Kosyam!” [The presidential palace.]
The streets are already in celebration. The demonstrators are crying victory. Some of them head for the hotel Azalai, where the ruling party deputies have been staying. They pillage and smash. Valuable items are carried away. Those officials who have still remained downtown take refuge in the Gendarmerie’s Paspanga camp.
It is noon, and the crowd now decides to head for the presidential palace. “Don’t go there, they’ll kill you there,” someone in the crowd shouts. “We don’t care. Today, it’s liberty or death,” calls another.
“DEPUTIES: END THE DEEP REVULSION COMMON PEOPLE HAVE FOR YOU!”
The day before, as the parliament prepared to vote, had written an editorial trying to remind deputies that this would perhaps be the only important vote they would ever take:
Up to now, a parliamentary deputy’s life in Burkina Faso has been a leisure position, which consisted mainly of collecting bonuses for showing up at assembly sessions, amassing staggering salaries and benefits, taking out numerous loans, cashing in on parliamentary travel, piling up various freebies, and an endless list of other ways of living out of the common taxpayer’s pockets. Things have changed, however.
This Thursday, October 30 of 2014 will go down in the history of Burkina as the fateful day, the final chapter in a process that has had the whole country holding its breath for months on end.
How the deputies vote today will determine their place in history, because how they vote will determine whether the country descends into violence or not. Rumors are running wild, of enormous bribes being paid to make the vote go [as the president wants]. The rumors of corruption explain why many deputies have been sequestered in a fine hotel [the Azalai], far from their families, for their own protection. But to protect them from whom, if there is nothing behind the rumors?
The vote today must be between the deputies and their own consciences. The choice they make today cannot be dictated by their pecuniary interests, nor by partisan interests at the expense of the good of the nation as a whole.
No need to tell them that it is the people who elected them who must not be betrayed.
Finally, the deputies must try to put an end to the deep revulsion the common people feel toward the job they have been doing, since they perceive them mainly as mere loudspeakers for the president.
“WHAT WILL THE HUNDRED DABBLING LITTLE DEPUTIES DO TODAY?”
In , the same day, Hyacinthe Sanou dreamed of a parliament that might unexpectedly slip its leash and shock the country by rejecting the President’s demands:
And what if we dreamed a little?
What if we dreamed-
that with the public outrage that has seized the streets since Tuesday,
that with the statue of Blaise Compaore that was pulled down in Bobo-Dioulasso (a foreshadowing?),
that with the urban revolt that is, little by little, taking over the city,
that in one last shudder of pride and political ethics, the hundred dabbling little deputies dispatched on a mission to amend the constitution might in the end somehow decide instead to put an end to the monarchical ambitions of president Blaise Compaore?
What if we dreamed that even more shockingly, this personage himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit of good democratic governance, might then take a step back, instead of charging straight ahead into the wall as he has always done, to put it in his own words?
Yes, these are only dreams, but they are perhaps the only hopes we have left as this D-Day that is Oct. 30 approaches, this day when the destiny of our country will be decided at this final fork in the road that is the repeal of article 37 of the constitution.
Dreams that could well descend into nightmare this morning at 10 am, when the historic vote is scheduled.
Those in power have gone so far already that we have to wonder if it is even possible to back down anymore. They have already sequestered the deputies who are in favor of the vote in a hotel near the parliament’s chambers, to ready them for a vote that will be seen by many as a simple theft of the country’s future.
What world are we living in? When deputies have to go into hiding to be able to vote in a law, the chasm between them and those they are supposed to represent truly comes into view.
Hyacinthe Sanou Translated from French by International Boulevard
31 Oct 2014