President Blaise Compaoré addressed the nation this afternoon, hoping to calm with stoic platitudes the countless Burkinabés troubled by the country’s recent unrest. Words like “dignité,” “discipline,” “courage” and “les principes sacrés” were much invoked by the president, though he seemed to side-step, with presidential aplomb, the many questions that have surrounded nearly six weeks of turbulence in an otherwise stable and peaceful nation.
The military has been on the rampage for much of the past week – looting shops around the central market, assaulting civilians, raping women, and serenading the sleeping city each night with the rampant sound of gunfire. The president alluded to the military’s misdeeds in his address – expressing his “condoléances,” “compassion” and “profonde solidarité” with the families of the victims – but there was still little indication of why, a week after five soldiers convicted on sexual assault charges were released from prison, their colleagues across the country were still in a state of permanent protest. The president pledged to meet with disgruntled factions of the military tomorrow. But what would they discuss? What was really going on?
Last night’s unrest, which I largely slept through, was the worst yet. Gunshots riddled the houses of the mayor of Ouagadougou, the army’s chief of staff, and, ironically, the Minister of Security. The mayor, Simon Compaoré – the third highest-ranking official in the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress – was hospitalized with injuries suffered during the attack; his house was reportedly ransacked. This evening, a 9pm curfew was announced across the country, as more shots rang out over Ouaga, and the city braced for another night of uncertainty.
On Tuesday soldiers fired a rocket at a courthouse in Fada N’Gourma, 130 miles east of Ouagadougou; they’d sealed off the city with tanks. Today, during the president’s address, shots were being fired in Bobo Dioulasso, the country’s second city.
I’ve felt hamstrung here with my inadequate French, unable to pick out the signals from the white noise of conversation that hums all around me. What are people talking about in the taxis, at the maquis? Life, I suspect, carries on in spite of such uncertainties, but surely there are rumors, theories, heated debates being spun over lukewarm bottles of Castel and Flag. Man is a political beast, but African man is a political beast with lots of time on his hands. What elaborate intrigues might I discover, what deep ore of discontent would I mine, if only I could get past my Il faut chauds and Hotel Independance, s’il vous plaîts?
Tonight I had planned to see a concert at the national stadium – the closing act of this month’s reggae festival, headlined by the Jamaican singer Max Romeo. I had admittedly been drawn less by the prospect of a night of low-rent rasta small-talk – respect! – than the potential for some worthy first-hand reportage. Not normally the ambulance-chasing type, I’ve felt compelled, this past week in Ouagadougou, to hover on the fringes, to draw as close as I can to the heat of conflict without getting burned. I am not a brave man, by any stretch, but if there’s any value in what I do (a question I ask myself daily), it should at least be on display, in whatever small measure, this week in Burkina Faso.
The streets were busy with evening traffic: a pack of children chasing after a soccer ball; neatly dressed men sitting at a sidewalk maquis, nursing their beers. In the distance, the stadium lights glowed like something extraterrestrial – an unnatural brightness when half of the city seems perennially plunged in darkness. I stopped to greet my friend, Jean Christophe – one of the neighborhood’s worthiest fresh-air inspectors, keeping tabs on Gounghin’s goings-on from his narrow, splintered bench. I told him I was on my way to the stadium for a concert, and he invited me to pass by the house afterward. “Vingt-deux heures, vingt-trois heures, je suis ici,” he said. In all likelihood he would be sitting outside all night.
It was just after eight by the time I reached the stadium. A cocoon of light hung over the field; the parking lot and the streets outside were dark. Rolling blackouts have been crippling Ouagadougou for weeks, and it was hard to say how much of the city’s juice was being squeezed by the sound system of Msr. Max Romeo. The show was already well behind schedule – they had only just finished the sound check – so I bought a Nescafe from a man selling drinks on the side of the road. A few other men were sitting around a picnic table, quietly sipping their drinks. Motorbikes buzzed by, bicycles steered by grave, stiff-backed men.
At half-past eight a few small crowds began filing out of the parking lot; so, too, did a line of cars. It seemed odd for a concert that was about to start – everyone was moving in the wrong direction. I had the feeling, as I so often do in Africa, that news was happening, with or without me. Almost on cue, the man sitting beside me gestured to the stadium. There was no concert, he said, because of the “couvre-feu” – the curfew, which had either just been announced, or had been announced hours ago, days ago: one of those timeless species of knowledge that is so startling to the white man but seems ingrained in African bones.
It was approaching nine, and suddenly the couvre-feu was like an electric charge in the air. There was a briskness, an urgency, to everybody’s movements on the street. Motorbikes hurtled through the darkness; young men jogged past, gripping their cellphones to their chests. Behind me, the drink-seller had already cleared away the glasses, Thermoses and cans of Nescafe, and was hastily soaping down the table.
The road had quickly emptied – no coincidence, since the Gounghin military camp is just near the stadium. Where a cheerful maquis had, just minutes before, been arranged with small tables and plastic chairs on the side of the road, there were now just barren patches of dirt. The hang-abouts who had congregated on the corners had vanished. A man stood in the doorway of his shop, the gate padlocked, his eyes warily watching the road.
There was a strange, nervous energy on the streets as I double-timed it back to my hotel. Everyone had gathered in small groups – men outside a kiosque, women and their countless broods by a neighbor’s doorway – as if reluctant to give up the shared pleasures of the evening until the bullets started to fly. I asked a couple of young guys outside a maquis why they didn’t seem worried about the couvre-feu, but they gestured casually over their shoulders: their houses were just here, they would be behind closed doors at the first sign of trouble.
This was the waiting game being played in Gounghin, as the first gunshots began popping somewhere in the direction of the centreville. The whole quartier was out on the street, watching, waiting. At any moment, I expected a military convoy truck to come barreling down the road, guns trained on bystanders. Everyone called out to me, concerned for my well-being, wondering why I hadn’t hurried home already. If they see a white man, someone explained, they’ll start to shoot. Pop pop pop pop. He fired his imaginary gun into the air. At the auberge the night watchman was happy to see me, hustling me inside before throwing the bolt on the door.