Emmaus International

Rasmane Zinaba, member of the national coordination committee of Balai Citoyen (The Citizen’s Broom) tells us about the history and current objectives of this grassroots social movement, created in Burkina Faso in 2013 amid a very difficult political situation.

Rasmare Zinaba © Emmaüs International

What led you to take part in this movement?

I’m a farmers’ son who became a pupil, and then a student. Since college, I have been involved in different associations. I discovered that in order to fight against certain things, it was necessary to get organised and find like-minded people. By joining forces, we would be stronger.

We must use our numbers, our strength, to be able to win our battles, as we say within Balai Citoyen. I got involved with student associations and then student unions at university. Later, in 2006-2007, I joined the alterglobalisation movement. This was my first experience of activism outside the student sphere.

What is at the core of what Balai Citoyen hopes to achieve?

At the core of our movement is the struggle for dignity and justice. Since the beginning, we have sought to take action against injustice, corruption, and poor governance.
After the alterglobalisation movement, Balai Citoyen gradually evolved into an umbrella organisation in which young people, women, and “cibals”, as the movement’s activists are called (“ci” for citizen and “bal” for balayeur, the French word for sweeper), decided to work together to satisfy their thirst justice.

How did Balai Citoyen come to be?

Balai Citoyen is not a student movement. It brings together the energies of different groups. These groups include artists, civil servants, people from the informal sector, mechanics and plumbers. Everyone who wants to see something else for Burkina Faso. Who wants to see something else for Africa.

All these people are thirsty for something. Their thirsts are different, depending on whether they are students or members of the informal sector; or whether they are farmers or manual labourers. Whatever their thirst, these people were brought together by their shared desire for justice, dignity and freedom, ideals that they all hold dear.

The question was: how could we make sure that all of their demands were heard and achieve results?  We needed to organise ourselves into a movement that wouldn’t be divided by type of activity or people. This was the starting point for launching the Balai Citoyen movement in 2013. It aspired to be a popular movement, in the sense that it would make the demands of all social classes heard and everyone would be able to find a place within it.

Our intention was not to find a slogan, but rather a symbol that would allow us to bring together the energies of all the different groups. And we found such a symbol in a household implement, the broom!

In Europe, the broom might not mean that much to many people as you tend to use a vacuum cleaner instead! In Africa, however, every house, shop and business has at least one broom and uses it often. The broom symbolises sweeping away filth. Cleaning it up in both the figurative and literal senses. Filth for us is not just dirt: it’s also the filth of corruption, indignity, injustice, impunity and so on.

We didn’t want our movement to be solely urban; we wanted it to have a place for and gain ground among rural communities. At the moment, it is difficult to say how many activists are involved in Balai Citoyen because we don’t have a membership card, as such. But we are sure that the movement’s ideals, strength, gains and victories have made it a true popular movement.

What gains has Balai Citoyen made?

Our first victory, which perhaps made the name of Balai Citoyen known, was the successful popular uprising in Burkina Faso against President Blaise Compaoré.

In 2013, the year the movement was born, after 27 years in power, Compaoré had decided to change Article 37 of the national constitution. This was the article limiting the number of terms that could be served consecutively to two.This democratic principle was, therefore, going to be violated, by a dictatorial regime acting to extend its grip on power. According to the constitution, a presidential term lasted for five years and could be renewed only once. The president hoped to remove this obstacle so that he could stand in the 2015 elections, for a third consecutive term. This would mean 15 years in charge, in addition to the 27 years he had already been in power, making a 42-year reign! He had been in power since 1987, following his coup d’état against Thomas Sankara, one of the friends with whom he had overthrown the previous government in 1983.

Thomas Sankara, killed in the 1987 coup, could be seen as the standard-bearer in the battle for dignity that the movement has been fighting since 2013. This was the political context in which the movement was born. We got involved with other social movements in Burkina Faso and opposition political parties, who were working together to block the president’s plans.

We were on the front lines of this battle, going into rural communities to mobilise the people and to spread the word that if we wanted democracy to come to Burkina Faso, if we wanted our freedoms to be respected, we needed to stand up and fight for political change.

This was one of our first victories. On 30th and 31st October 2014, after several months of mobilisation, our mass movement succeeded in bringing down President Compaoré. This is what made the name of Balai Citoyen known internationally. It’s an experience that we seek to share with other movements, such as “La Lucha” , “Y’en a marre” and “GnaGna” in Chad, and Noubouéké in Togo.

Faced with such a powerful foe, how were you able to mobilise people on such a large scale, despite their fear?

We had our work cut out for us. At the beginning, there weren’t 15,000 of us! There were about ten or twenty people, armed only with their courage, who wanted to find others with the same ideals.

The second important thing to mention is at grass-roots level, Balai Citoyen was different from other movements. Usually, the grass roots of a movement are trade union members, with their own methods, management system, influence, membership cards and everything that goes with that. I wouldn’t say that Balai Citoyen was anarchic, but we didn’t worry too much about building a hierarchy.Everyone had their role and everyone had their responsibilities. It was a horizontal movement.

The third thing to remember is that Balai Citoyen spoke to people, through its use of powerful symbols. When you talk about Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, it’s a topic that can bring together a lot of people! Balai Citoyen activists were already getting on the wrong side of the Compaoré administration by saying certain things that people wanted to hear.

The fourth important thing is that the methods used by Balai Citoyen to mobilise people or to organise events were not the usual methods. We would go to a market or other public place, set up a sound system and start teaching. When we say teaching, we mean choosing a topic, getting someone up on a vehicle with a microphone and talking about that topic in front of maybe 100 people. When you turn up at a market and tell people, if we let them change Article 37, we are letting them kill democracy in Burkina Faso, that speaks to people.

When you go to a CSPS (health and social care centre), and you start cleaning the centre with your brooms, you draw people to your cause. Not only do you clean the public place, but, once you have finished cleaning, you say, to the 20 or 50 people in front of you, this is what citizens must do, they must clean but also take care so that places don’t become dirty in the first place.

And when we say “so that they don’t become dirty”, we mean that the CSPS must be well-managed, the management must be answerable to the local community and people who use the centre must be treated like human beings. We would do the same in other places, such as markets.

After carrying out these actions, which are in the general interest, when you call on people to mobilise, you find that they have heard your message and they join you. Because for them, Balai Citoyen is not only a political movement, but also a movement that plays a social role.

What is the place of women in your movement?

That’s an important question, because since 2013 we have tried to mobilise as many women as possible, but we still have much work to do. Some of this is out of our control, but some is perhaps due to the fact that until recently our approach wasn’t to specifically seek out women. Our message is not one which is specifically aimed at women, older people or young people.

But this issue is still a major concern within Balai Citoyen. We now have a specific approach as far as gender is concerned. Today, we seek to raise awareness among women so that they can make their voices heard instead of male voices, or alongside male voices. There are more and more women within the movement.

Recently, in the north of the country, we organised a meeting at which members from several regions came together, a “cibal” camp. Four of the nine activities reports presented by local groups were presented by women.

When other women see that, they see that Balai Citoyen takes women into account and allows them to make their voices heard. But we can’t stop there. We need women to be able to take control of their own lives so that they can spread the word and allow other women to join us.

Incidentally, while we call male members “cibals” (“ci” for citizen and “bal” for balayeur, French for sweeper), we call female members “cibelles” (a play on French words si and belle, meaning so beautiful).

Your presence at the Forum of Alternatives shows that you are willing to build alliances. Could you tell us more?

Late president Thomas Sankara, who could be considered our leader, used to say that you can’t win a struggle without being organised. Indeed, you can’t win a struggle without building alliances. There can’t be a common struggle without knowing about the struggles led by others.

Being at the Emmaus International Forum of Alternatives, led by the most excluded, allows us to find out about the struggles led by others. In particular, the struggles led by other groups associated with Emmaus, such as the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) in Brazil. It allows us to find out about the struggles of our comrades in Bangladesh and in other parts of Africa, and above all to find our common ground, based on which we can build networks of contacts and develop new initiatives.

We can’t develop initiatives without real strategies for each country, each continent and at the international level. If this forum allows us to build a common mobilisation strategy, and if we succeed in planning concerted actions, to take place at a specific time, our voice will carry much further than if our organisations continue to tread the same ground.

We must aim to organise ourselves in this way, with this common strategy on specific issues. We know that in Brazil, the issues are not the same, and there aren’t the same systems of dependency, as in Africa or in Burkina Faso. Nonetheless, we all share the same struggle against injustice, dictatorial regimes, widespread corruption, and the lack of policies capable of bringing our mothers, our young, or our old out of poverty.

Based on this, we can develop strategies to counterbalance these problems and explore alternative solutions for our countries which work in practice and not just in theory.

In your opinion, what must be the cornerstone of struggles led by social movements?  

To get to the bottom of the problem today, it’s not enough to condemn the effects of current policies. There is an African proverb which says, “When you trip over a stone and fall, don’t look at where you landed, but look at the stone that you tripped over”.

Our struggle must not be to condemn the effects of poverty, but to condemn the causes. These are the policies that have led us to this appalling situation in both Europe and Africa, where, 20 or 30 years ago, the only solution they gave us was Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). Both austerity in Europe and SAPs are based on neoliberal ideology, which proposes deep cuts for the masses while those who are already rich become richer. This is how poverty is maintained. And often, by taking small steps to offset the effects of this poverty, organisations claim to be supporting or standing in solidarity with the most excluded.

But, in the same way in which we condemn the negative impact of transnational companies, multinational enterprises, or international institutions, I think that within our movements, we need to find a way of showing solidarity that brings about change, rather than a way that only appears to show solidarity, while giving hand-outs.

We must declare war on the causes of poverty. And if we declare war on the causes of poverty, we will already have started to fight the good fight!

Interview carried out in Geneva, 20th September 2018