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Is Balkanisation the Solution to Somalia’s Governance Woes?

7 min read.

Thirty years after the civil war of 1991, Somalia has still not been able to develop a functional governance structure that delivers services to the people. Federalism has also not delivered political stability. Is it time for Somalia to break up into independent clan-based states?

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Is Balkanisation the Solution to Somalia’s Governance Woes?

When former prime minister Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo was elected president of the Federal Government of Somalia in 2017, many lauded his victory. Unlike his predecessors, Farmaajo was viewed as a leader who would unite the country because he had a nationalistic mindset and was someone who was not influenced by clan interests. Many believed that, unlike his predecessor, Hassan Sheikh, whose tenure was marred by corruption allegations and in-fighting, he would bring together a country that has remained fragmented along clan lines and endured internal conflicts for decades. He was also perceived to be someone who would address corruption that has been endemic in every Somali government since the days of President Siad Barre.

Sadly, Farmaajo’s tenure did not result in significant transformation of Somali governance structures or politics. On the contrary, his open hostility towards leaders of federal states – notably Jubbaland, where he is said to have interfered in elections by imposing his own candidate – and claims that corruption in his government had increased, not decreased, left many wondering if he had perhaps been over-rated. Now opposition groups have said that they will not recognise him as the head of state as he has failed to organise the much anticipated one-person-one-vote election that was due this month, which would have either extended or ended his term. This apparent power vacuum has caused some jitters in the international community, whose backing Farmaajo has enjoyed.

However, it would be naïve to assume that Farmaajo’s exit is a critical destabilising factor in Somalia, because, frankly, the president in present-day Somalia is merely a figurehead; he does not wield real power. The government in Mogadishu has had little control over the rest of the country, where clan-based fiefdoms and federal states do pretty much what they want, with little reference go Mogadishu. National security is largely in the hands of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, not the Somalia National Army.

The concept of a state that delivers services to citizens has also remained a mirage for most Somalis who are governed either by customary law known as xeer or the Sharia.  Some have even argued that with its strict codes and hold over populations through systems of “tax collection” or “protection fees” combined with service delivery, Al Shabaab actually offers a semblance of “governance” in the areas it controls – even if these taxes are collected through extortion or threats of violence.

In much of Somalia, services, such as health and education, are largely provided by foreign faith-based foundations, non-governmental organisations or the private sector, not the state. Many hospitals and schools are funded by foreign (mostly Arab) governments or religious institutions. This means that the state remains largely absent in people’s lives. And because NGOs and foundations can only do so much, much of the country remains unserviced, with the result that Somalia continues to remain one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, with high levels of illiteracy (estimates indicate that the literacy rate is as low as 20 per cent). State institutions, such as the Central Bank and revenue collection authorities, are also either non-existent or dysfunctional.

Efforts by the United Nations and the international community to bring a semblance of governance by supporting governments that are heavily funded by Western and Arab countries have not helped to establish the institutions necessary for the government to run efficiently.  On the contrary, some might argue that that foreign aid has been counter-productive as it has entrenched corruption in government (as much of the aid is stolen by corrupt officials) and slowed down Somalia’s recovery.

Foreign governments have also been blamed for destabilising Somalia. The US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006, which succeeded in ousting the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) – which had successfully brought about a semblance of governance in Somalia through a coalition of Muslim clerics and businessmen –  spawned radical groups like Al Shabaab, which have wreaked havoc in Somalia ever since.  Kenya’s misguided “incursion” into Somalia in 2011, had a similar effect: Al Shabaab unleashed its terror on Kenyan soil, and Kenya lost its standing as a neutral country that does not intervene militarily in neighbouring countries. Certain Arab countries, notably Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have also been accused of interfering in Somalia’s elections by sponsoring favoured candidates.

All of Somalia’s governments since 2004, when a transitional government was established, have thus failed to re-build state institutions that were destroyed during the civil war or to deliver services to the Somali people. In its entire eight-year tenure, from October 2004 to August 2012, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) did not have the capacity to become a fully functioning government, with a fully-fledged revenue collecting authority and robust ministries.  Ministers had no portfolios and ministries had skeletal staff. The national army was weak and under-funded, and since 2007, the government has relied almost exclusively on African Union soldiers for security, though some donors, notably Turkey, have attempted to revive the Somalia National Army.

Somalia’s first post-transition government was elected in 2012 under a United Nations-brokered constitution. Hassan Sheikh was elected as president with much enthusiasm and in the belief that things would be different under a government that had the goodwill of the people. In his first year in office, President Hassan Sheikh was named by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus called his election “a seismic event” that “electrified Somalis and both surprised and relieved the international community”. However, it would not be long before his government would also be marred by corruption allegations.

What governance model should Somalia adopt? 

There has been some debate about which type of governance model is most suitable for a country that is not just divided along clan/regional lines, but where lack of functioning secular institutions threaten nation-building.

Federalism, that is, regional autonomy within a single political system, has been proposed by the international community as the most suitable system for Somalia as it caters for deep clan divisions by allocating the major clans semi-autonomous regional territories.  The 4.5 formula for government representation proposed by the constitution based on the four largest clans (Darod, Hawiye, Dir and Rahanweyne) and 0.5 positions for minorities does acknowledge the reality of a clan-based society, but as Somalia’s recent history has shown, clan can be, and has been, manipulated for personal gain by politicians.  As dominant clans seek to gain power in a federated Somalia, there is also the danger that the new federal states will mimic the corruption and dysfunction that has prevailed at the centre, which will lead to more competition for territories among rival clans and, therefore, to more conflict.

Several experts have also proposed a building block approach, whereby the country is divided into six local administrative structures that would eventually resemble a patchwork of semi-autonomous territories defined in whole or in part by clan affiliation.. In one such proposal, the Isaaq clan would dominate Somaliland in the northwest; the Majerteen in present-day Puntland would dominate the northeast; the heterogeneous Jubbaland and Gedo regions bordering Kenya would have a mixture of clans (though there are now fears that the Ogaden, who are politically influential along the Kenya border, would eventually control the region); a Hawiye-dominated polity would dominate central Somalia; the Digil-Mirifle would centre around Bay and Bakol; and Mogadishu would remain a cosmopolitan administrative centre.

Somaliland offers important lessons on the governance models that could work in a strife-torn society divided along clan lines and where radical Islamist factions have taken root. Since it declared independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland has remained relatively peaceful and has had its own government and institutions that have worked quite well and brought a semblance of normality in this troubled region.

After Siad Barre ordered an attack on Hargeisa following opposition to his rule there, Somaliland decided to forge its own path and disassociate from the dysfunction that marked both the latter part of Barre’s regime and the warlordism that replaced it during the civil war. It then adopted a unique hybrid system of governance, which incorporates elements of traditional customary law, Sharia law and modern secular institutions, including a parliament, a judiciary, an army and a police force.  The Guurti, the upper house of Somaliland’s legislature, comprises traditional clan elders, religious leaders and ordinary citizens from various professions who are selected by their respective clans. The Guurti wields enormous decision-making powers and is considered one of the stabilising factors in Somaliland’s inclusive governance model. Michael Walls, the author of A Somali Nation-State: History, Culture and Somaliland’s Political Transition, has described Somaliland’s governance model as “the first indigenous modern African form of government” that fuses traditional forms of organisation with those of representative democracy.

However, Somaliland’s governance model is far from perfect: the consensual clan-based politics has hindered issue-based politics, eroded individual rights and led to the perception that some clans, such as the dominant Isaaq clan, are favoured over others. Tensions across its eastern border with Puntland also threaten its future stability.

In addition, because it is still not recognised internationally as a sovereign state, Somaliland is denied many of the opportunities that come with statehood. It cannot easily enter into bilateral agreements with other countries, get multinational companies to invest there or obtain loans from international financial institutions, though in recent years it has been able to overcome some of these obstacles.

Somaliland is also not recognised by the Federal Government of Somalia, which believes that Somaliland will eventually relent and unite with Somalia, which seems highly unrealistic at this time.  This is one reason why the Somali government gets so upset when Kenyan leaders engage with Somaliland leaders, as happened recently when Mogadishu withdrew its ambassador from Nairobi after President Uhuru Kenyatta met with the Somaliland leader Musa Bihi Abdi at State House. Raila Odinga’s recent call to the international community to recognise Somaliland as an independent state has been welcomed by Somalilanders, but is viewed with suspicion by the federal government in Mogadishu

Nonetheless, there has been some debate about whether Somaliland’s hybrid governance model, which incorporates both customary and Western-style democracy, is perhaps the best governance model for Somalia. Is the current Western- and internationally-supported political dispensation in Somalia that has emerged after three decades of anarchy a “fake democracy”?  Can Somalia be salvaged through more home-grown solutions, like the one in Somaliland? Should Somalia break up into small autonomous states that are better able to govern themselves?

Balkanisation is usually a deprecated political term referring to, according to Wikipedia, the “disorderly or unpredictable fragmentation, or sub-fragmentation, of a larger region or state into smaller regions or states, which may be hostile or uncooperative with one another”. While usually associated with increasing instability and conflict, balkanisation could nonetheless still be the only solution for a country that has been unable to unite or to offer hope to its disillusioned citizens for more than three decades.

As Guled Ahmed of the Middle East Institute notes, “the 1995 Dayton accords, which ended the Bosnian war, paved the way for ethnic balkanisation of former Yugoslavia into six countries. This resulted in peace and stability and prosperity. So if Eastern European countries can separate along ethnicism, why not balkanise Somalia with multi-ethnicism just like the former Yugoslavia to achieve peace and stability and fair elections based on one person one vote?”, he said.

Ahmed told me that balkanisation would also eliminate Al Shabaab (which has been fighting the government in Mogadishu for the last 14 years) as the independent states created would be more vigilant about who controls their territories and also because people will have more ownership of their government. Somali refugees languishing in Kenya, Ethiopia and elsewhere might also be tempted to finally return home.

Balkanisation can, however, be messy – and bloody. But Somalia need not go down that route. A negotiated separation could still be arrived at peacefully with the blessing of the international community. If the international community is serious about peace and stability in Somalia, it should pave the way for these discussions. Sometimes divorce is preferable to an acrimonious marriage.

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Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Manifesto for Human Life

On the anniversary of COVID-19, we must build a world centered on human life — a planet of care, equality, and popular sovereignty.

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Manifesto for Human Life

The crisis of Covid-19 has exposed the myth of “global health.” There is no global public health system, and there never was. The pandemic has stripped the mask of multilateralism from the pharmaceutical-philanthropic complex, revealing a system that serves rich countries before the rest, and puts private profits before public health. We should not celebrate the anniversary of the pandemic by reviving the myth of “global health.” We should build a system that actually delivers it.

The foundations of this powerful myth were crushed at the very outset of the pandemic. The Trump administration walked out of the World Health Organization, and its allies stirred racist, orientalist, and xenophobic sentiment instead of prepraing for the spread of the virus. Within months, a handful of rich countries had stockpiled every existing vaccine candidate, hoarding more than half the world’s supply. Meanwhile, they voted to uphold intellectual property rules that would deny them to the rest.

The institutional architecture of the so-called global health system caved immediately to these nationalist interests, from global health organizations — two-thirds of which are headquartered in the US, UK, and Switzerland — to international financial institutions, mobilized to protect creditors’ right to collect interest over debtors’ right to survival.

Even the philanthropists — who have worked assiduously to construct the myth of global health — played their part in this process, urging the privatization of vaccine technology instead of sharing it with the world.

Now, these institutions mark the anniversary of pandemic declaration with debates about the future of global health — finance reforms, governance mechanisms, innovation costs, and so on. But we cannot save a system that does not exist.

Instead, we must revisit the question at the very heart of the health debate: How can we protect human life? How can we resist a health apartheid that protects the lives of the rich and discards those of the poor? How can we build a system that prioritizes the love and care that we need to keep each other alive?

Convening scholars, activists, and practitioners from around the world, the Covid-19 Response group of the Progressive International has proposed some principles in a new ‘Manifesto for Life.’

First, a People’s Vaccine for Covid-19.

As long as the virus spreads, it can mutate and move. No one country can end the pandemic alone; Covid-19 anywhere is a threat to public health everywhere. A system truly premised on global health would guarantee open access to all know-how for the COVID-19 vaccine and the creation of production facilities across the globe.

Second, a World Health Organization that can work for world health.

The interests of its rich countries, private funders, and bad ideas of big financial institutions hinder the World Health Oorganisation. It is time to free the WHO from these constraints. This does not mean building a supranational authority unaccountable to the governments it serves; on the contrary, it means delivering on the WHO’s core promise of multilateral governance. A WHO focused on world health would focus on building the regional and national public health systems that enhance the principle of self-determination, rather than riding roughshod over it.

Third, private capital must be made to submit to public health.

The plain objective of “Big Pharma” is to profit from people falling ill. The right to life is made into a commodity and sold as a luxury to a limited few. To enshrine a global right to life, we must begin from the principle of free and universal healthcare, shifting from a private locus of provision over to a public.

Fourth, human life is not a bargaining chip.

We are asked to believe in a “global health” system that considers public health a source of geopolitical leverage. The pandemic has made clear that seeing health through the lens of “national security” leads to policing over provision, aggression over cooperation. A true global health system will end medical sanctions and the deployment of security forces in response to public health emergencies.

Finally, pride of place for our carers.

‘Essential’ workers have been hailed as heroes but dehumanized in practice: underpaid and overworked, often without any rights as workers or recourse to social support. Carer unions will be key to any public health policies. Workers must be trained, protected, paid, and their right to provide or withdraw labour respected.

One year into the pandemic, it is easy to feel that everything has changed. But it hasn’t, and it must. We continue to live by the laws of a “global health” system that does not exist, preventing us from building one that does.

There are only two choices. One path leads us backwards to a planet of neglect, where the rich shield themselves with the bodies of the poor. This is a familiar story. The other leads to life. On the anniversary of Covid-19, this is the path that we choose.

Signatories:

Noam Chomsky
Áurea Carolina de Freitas e Silva
Vanessa Nakate
Nnimmo Bassey
Elizabeth Victoria Gomez Alcorta

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What #LindaKatiba Is, and Why It Matters

The BBI project is a return to autocratic rule, to an imperial president who is not accountable to parliament and to a parasitic model of government.

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What #LindaKatiba Is, and Why It Matters

Linda Katiba is a citizen’s voluntary initiative that is determined to resist the government-led move to unconstitutionally cannibalise and overthrow the will of the people of Kenya encapsulated in the 2010 constitution. It is a collective movement of Kenyans who believe that our constitution holds great promise for the Kenyan people and when fully implemented will bring about the transformative changes envisioned by its framers and the Kenyans who voted for it.  Linda Katiba is therefore an effort to help citizens sift through the falsehoods being peddled by the proponents of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and make informed decisions.

The most powerful feature of the 2010 constitution is that it places citizens (Wanjiku) at the centre of governance, providing them with the tools and the power to demand participation, inclusion, accountability, and transparency in governance processes. Where this is not complied with, the constitution further provides for interventions such as through the courts and people power.

This shift of power is what has put the political class in a direct collision course with the citizens amidst the recent misguided calls for constitutional reforms by a section of the political class. It is the reason why we must constantly remind ourselves that this constitution was negotiated by Kenyans over two decades with the objective of transforming Kenya by constitutionally overthrowing the old order that represented a parasitic model of government, where the political elite and top civil servants, despite earning hefty salaries, allowances and other perks (including multiple top of the range motor vehicles) on the peoples sweat, continuously ignored and failed to prioritise the critical needs of the people.

At its core, the BBI initiative is about defending this untenable parasitic model and that is why it is being led and defended not just by a section of the political elite, but also by top civil servants who by law are prohibited from participating in active politics. This nostalgia for a powerful past is probably the reason why BBI is being forced down our throats through bribery, threats and all manner of intimidation.

It is a life and death matter for a sizeable number of the political elite to defend undeserved and unearned privilege at the expense of underprivileged Kenyans whose right of access to critical government services such as health, education, water and sanitation, to housing and adequate food as guaranteed by Article 43 of the constitution has all but been ignored. The right to and provision of these basic needs is among the key reasons why protecting the tenets of the 2010 constitution matters.

Aware that Kenyans hold devolution dear, the political elite are using the promises of more money to the counties—a whopping 35 per cent compared to the current 15 per cent—as the bait to lure citizens to support the BBI project. This promise is coming from an administration that has for the last nine years been reluctant to disburse in a timely manner the 15 per cent, the minimum provided for by the constitution.  Given that the constitution does not set a ceiling for the maximum amount that the National government may allocate to the counties, nothing is preventing the current administration and the BBI brothers, who jointly wield a majority in parliament, from implementing the budget increase coming June budget. There cannot be a better way for the BBI brothers to demonstrate good faith than to allocate the 35 per cent in this last year of Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency. I suspect that this administration will not actualise this promise because they know it is mission impossible in the prevailing economic situation.

Our country is reeling under a debt burden that is almost at ten trillion shillings, a debt that we are experiencing difficulties servicing, forcing the government to seek a six-month moratorium from its creditors. Much of our revenue is going towards servicing the debt leaving us with little or no money for development and recurrent expenditure including salaries. This is the context in which the BBI proponents are saying to us that we should prioritise the expansion of parliament and the executive over our health needs, our livelihoods and our children’s education. Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the BBI project prioritises political deal making over the lives of Kenyans. The government is telling us that it will take us up to three years for only 30 per cent of the population to access COVID-19 vaccines.

We are not helpless. We need to make our voices count. We must rise up and tell the BBI brothers that our lives matter, that our needs matter and that they must be prioritised above all else.

From where I stand, the BBI project is a return to autocratic rule, to an imperial president who is not accountable to parliament. It is a gateway to a bloated parliament and an expanded executive. It is a return to political intolerance spearheaded by the state. We are back to labelling people with divergent opinions as “enemies of state”. Teargassing of perceived opponents of BBI is now the preferred weapon of the state. The political environment is toxic and does not favour rational discussion of the BBI project by citizens. Moreover, the Jubilee administration is split down the middle, with divisions even within the presidency. It is time to tell the BBI brothers: “prophet heal thyself”. Let them heal the divisions within their ranks which are threatening to burn the country. Let the BBI project cease fomenting intolerance.

Sold by its proponents as a people’s initiative, the BBI project has illegally spent and continues to spend scarce taxpayer’s money. No disclosures are made on what the money has so far been spent and how much more is expected to be splashed in these times of scarcity and a looming food crisis. MCAs countrywide have given the BBI project a nod in exchange for car grants. There has been little or with no public participation and nor has the public been provided with copies of the proposed constitutional amendments.

As citizens, we must not give up. It is time for Kenyans of goodwill to reclaim their voices individually and collectively and speak truth to power. We must refuse to be intimidated or silenced by a political elite and senior civil servants who number less than four thousand while over twenty million Kenyan voters are waiting to be informed and persuaded. All we need is the courage of our convictions to galvanise the country by word of mouth to say no to enslavement through the BBI project.

Let us be reminded that the independence constitution was eroded bit by bit until it became unrecognisable thus necessitating a fresh start. We should be wary of opening the door to a similar cannibalisation of our constitution even before we have implemented it.

To President Uhuru, you have time to stop this. Do not let your legacy be that of the president who destroyed our democratic gains. Live up to your oath of office to uphold and defend the constitution.

This is what is at the heart of the Linda Katiba resistance and defense of the constitution. It matters because it is easier to defend our democratic gains than to lose them and attempt to reclaim them later with no guarantee that it will be possible. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Let us all join hands to Linda Katiba.

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Burkina Faso: The Age of Revolution Is Back and a Student Movement Is Leading It

Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. Now, a student movement could slowly transform society.

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Burkina Faso: The Age of Revolution Is Back and a Student Movement Is Leading It

“Nan lara an sara! Nan lara an sara!”: A crowd of roughly 300 students throngs the “freedom square” and chants defiantly, clenched fists in the air. The scene is the campus of Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo, in Ouagadougou. The students are members of Deux Heures pour Nous, Deux Heures pour Kamita (Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita; referred to here as DHK). “Kamita” is an Afrocentric term, designating the continent. The group is a throwback: A radical student organization dedicated to ideology and analysis, that intends to break from the complacency that has taken hold on African campuses in recent years.

As the meeting builds, a young man roars in the middle of the circle, a megaphone in his right hand, his left hand following the rhythm of the crowd: “nan lara!” (if we lie down!). The crowd responds “an sara!” (we are dead!). After several minutes of call and response, the young man opens the meeting. “Comrades, welcome! Thank you for dedicating two hours today for our beloved Kamita. Today, we seek wisdom from one another in addressing the topic before us: the presence of French military on the free and independent land of Burkina Faso.” He proceeds to lay out the agenda of the day, and the modalities for taking the floor.

Meetings like this one, which I attended in August 2019, take place every day, from 1 to 3 pm, on the campus. They have continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic which compelled attendees to wear facemasks; I have kept in touch with members and interviewed leaders as well as occasional attendees. The meetings are arranged in an open space and amplified with loudspeakers. No position is invalid. No topic is taboo. The group emphasizes innovative radical thinking about democracy, social change, and liberation. But weak arguments are booed, while carefully crafted ones are applauded—especially when they are considered ideologically sound, in the tradition of Frantz Fanon or Thomas Sankara.

Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. As older student organizations become ossified and discredited, emerging ones seek credibility by leaning toward pan-African ideologies. The country and its politics offer a particularly fertile scene for the youth to develop ideological and political organizations that aim to transform society. Slogans such as “Plus rien se sera comme avant!” (Nothing will be as before!) and “Nan lara an sara!” signal such a desire for change and willingness to act. DHK represents a new militancy, with power and potential—but also contradictions and challenges.

DHK formed in 2013, a time when social discontent was growing in Burkina Faso. Workers’ strikes paralyzed many sectors, including higher education. Civil society groups and opposition parties were engaged in a power struggle against then-President Blaise Compaoré, who was attempting to pass a constitutional amendment to extend his rule. The academic community was caught in this malaise. It was in this context that students at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University chose to experiment with a new form of participatory democracy by creating a performative venue on campus.

Over the years, DHK has become prominent among the burgeoning youth movements in Burkina Faso. Beyond the boastful, intellectual verbiage and rhetorical skills that its members show, the organization has built a reputation as a leftist movement that focuses on social justice, political emancipation, and environmental stewardship—both at the national and international levels. In February 2019, for instance, the organization sent a delegate to Venezuela “to support the people of Venezuela in their struggle against imperialism,” a post on its Facebook page reads.

Developing and sustaining a pan-African ideology on a campus where student conferences and intellectual exchange outside the curriculum are almost non-existent is a challenging task. Yet DHK has managed to establish a respected forum where uncensored conversations take place every day, gathering up to several hundred attendees. Every week, a series of discussion topics is chosen and published on Facebook. Often, they respond to the news of the day. At other times, the reflection is oriented toward historical events. There are guest speakers, such as Kemi Seba, the Franco-Beninese activist, or Yacouba Sawadogo, a Burkinabe farmer known as “the man who stopped the desert” for successfully bringing to life a 40-hectare forest on a barren land.

The daily gatherings constitute moments of deliberation, healing, strategizing, and planning. On the day that I attended, social media abounded with polemical information about the alleged opening of a new French military base in Djibo, a small northern town 45 kilometers from the border with Mali. The meeting was an opportunity to condemn the base and discuss the role of France’s counterterrorism activities in the region. Participants equated France’s current presence with its 19th-century pacification doctrine that justified colonialism. “We are inviting France to the school of civilization. We invite her to finally learn to be a nation that respects the sovereignty of other nations,” one man said.

Sometimes, the organization brings speakers who do not have formal education, such as farmers and small craft traders, challenging the perception of what constitutes knowledge in a university setting. This initiative is “an uninhibited approach to learning by uninhibited students who have conscience that development is homemade,” Bayala Lianhoue Imhotep, secretary general of DHK, told me. “No one has the monopoly of imagination. Our farmers are an inexhaustible source of knowledge if we cared to listen to them.”

At first, campus authorities rejected DHK for its radical positions concerning the university and student life. They sought to shut it down and push it off campus. Now, civil society movements beyond campus including Balai Citoyen seek them out. They constitute a force that can mobilize adherents, an antidote to the general fatigue among youth following the 2014 popular revolution.

DHK represents in many ways a revival.

Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo has a tradition of being a center of social movements, with student strikes that often led to a general paralysis of the capital city. The roots of Burkinabè student militancy go back to student unions in the 1950s in Dakar and in France, where Burkinabè and other francophone Africans went to study. Those unions were an avant-garde in political mobilization, a breeding ground of activists in the late colonial period and after independence.

In the early post-independence era, student activism aligned ideologically with the emerging political tendencies in the country. In 1966 the Voltaic Student Union supported the popular insurrection that ousted President Maurice Yameogo. The successive military regimes did not favor the emergence of a strong student unionism. However, during the Sankara years (1984-1987), college students mobilized to support the revolution. In the following two decades, student activism became progressively belligerent toward the Compaore regime. In the 1990s when the Structural Adjustment Programs compelled the government to adopt a much more democratic attitude, granting civil liberties, student militancy reclaimed a momentum. While student militancy never ceased to exist, it suffered in its vivacity since internal divisions and state repression weakened toward the end of the 1990s.

Recent renewal of political consciousness among Burkinabè youth took form through events such as the assassination of the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998, long worker strikes in 2011 and 2015, student protests leading to violent confrontations with police, and the closing of the university for over three months in 2008 and 2011. Other contributing factors were changes in Franco-African political dynamics following French intervention in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-11 to topple President Laurent Gbagbo, along with a persistent perception that the international community is hypocritical. Along the way, the memory of Thomas Sankara and his political discourse have re-emerged in popular music and activist rallies.

What is the potential of this revival? On one hand, student militancy today has inherited unresolved structural problems and grievances from their predecessors: deficient infrastructures, mismanaged academic calendar, deteriorated social services, etc. On the other hand, however, the ideological foundation behind student militancy is much more profound. Student activists are not only seeking to resolve their immediate needs, but they question the root causes of their predicament. While their struggle is locally rooted, it is open to other currents from the South. They often extrapolate their perception of inequalities at home with the struggles of other peoples elsewhere such as in Palestine, Venezuela, and Taiwan. They adhere to an Afro-centric understanding of history in their attempt to take control of their destinies as young Burkinabè.

For groups such as DHK, the traditional student associations and unions have become irrelevant, not because they lack grievances to address, but because they do not propose any sound ideology to solve them. DHK positions itself as an anti-imperialist movement, but also one that is opened to the struggles of other contemporary Black liberation movements. At the August 2019 meeting where attendees discussed French counterterrorism in the Sahel, some participants pointed out that the French could easily rid the Sahel of its insurgent groups if France really wanted to—peddling some conspiracy theories that were already circulating in the social media.

DHK is a promising unconventional revival activist group that promotes intellectual and democratic debates. Since its creation seven years ago, it has grown in membership and its ability to mobilize for action. At times however, it can be provocative in its ideas and approach when it connects with controversial figures such as Kemi Seba or when it takes side in some global issues without expertise in their historical complexity such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, this revival is taking place under the radar of most scholars and media attention, who often gloss over it as “growing anti-French sentiment.”

In Ouagadougou, university student militancy is the last stronghold of students’ civil discourse. It is one that still grapples with its own issues, but nonetheless is ideologically promising. As foggy and muddy as some of their thoughts and ideas may be, the youth of DHK are informed by their quotidian reality. It is an ideology rooted in a Sankarist ideology that is daring and even risky at times. But this discourse still represents the clearer demarcation line between civil discourse and what is perceived as growing radical or fundamental discourse in Burkina Faso. Unlike the growing non-state armed movements that are terrorizing the country, student ideological militancy is disruptive, but it is still organized within the limits of free speech and freedom of association guaranteed by the constitution.

Today, the days of grand pan-African reveries espoused by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara seem far behind. The dominant neoliberal economic systems that African nations have adopted and the persistence of neocolonial meddling in the post-colony blunted Afrocentric idealism. Even in academic research, we talk about it in the past and we do not envision it in the present. Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita gives us a compelling case study to rethink that position.


This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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