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Burkina Faso: Illustrating the machination of politics through tiny insidious strokes

Editorial cartoons do not change a society overnight, but they contribute to its evolution by reminding leaders that they are not monarchs. They also can help to defuse situations, notably ethnic or religious tensions, by putting into perspective the possible consequences.

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As Africans, we are very familiar with our own history, which is characterized by many instances during which national democratic revolutions were subverted and aborted through military coups and the establishment of dictatorial governments, among other means. In all cases where national democratic revolutions were compromised, state power was used not to advance the interest of the people, but to advance those of the ruling elite, which would ally itself with foreign interests.

Burkina Faso, ‘The Country of the Honorable People’

Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in Africa, ranking 183 out of 186 countries on UNDP’s Human Development Index (2013) and showing little improvement in recent years. 44.6 percent of the population live below the poverty level, on less than US$ 1.25 per day (Human Development Report 2013 and 2014). Rampant corruption remains widespread, despite a number of public and private anticorruption initiatives, and the national courts have been unwilling or unable to adequately prosecute many senior officials charged with corruption. The country was ranked 85 out of 175 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index.

One year after the uprising that brought an end to the 27-year rule of former president, Blaise Compaore, Burkina Faso still finds itself in politically turbulent times. Tensions once again broke into the open when on 16 September 2015 the much-feared Regiment of Presidential Security – a military unit formed under Compaore – stormed into a cabinet meeting to arrest Burkina Faso’s interim President Michael Kafondo and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida. However, less than a week later, Kafando was peacefully returned to power after emergency talks with the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), led by Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari. The much awaited presidential and legislative elections that were supposed to take place on 11 October were postponed to 29 November 2015.

Freedom of Expression

Although media outlets are generally able to cover the actions of the military and the transitional government, the press has for a long time not had an easy existence in Burkina Faso. According to the Freedom in the World 2014 report by Freedom House, many media outlets in Burkina Faso practice self-censorship and journalists occasionally face libel prosecutions, death threats, harassment and intimidation.

It was, for example, only in November 2014 that interim Prime Minister Zida announced his intention to reopen a probe into the 1998 murder of journalist Norbert Zongo, who had been killed while investigating the death of an employee of Compaoré’s brother. A few months earlier, the African Court on Human and People’s Rights had ruled that the failure of Compaoré’s government to seek accountability in Zongo’s death had left a negative impact on media freedom. In the case of the editor of the private weekly L’Ouragan, Lohé Issa Konaté, who had been sentenced to 12 months in prison in 2012 over articles alleging corruption in the state prosecutor’s office, the African court found that imprisonment on charges of defamation was a violation of the right to freedom of expression, and that the enforcement of criminal defamation laws should be limited.

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Damien Glez

It is against this backdrop that French-Burkinabe, Damien Glez, uses satire to expose issues such as corruption and tyranny that are otherwise often overlooked in a society that only recently re-opened the possibility of democratic rule. Glez is the managing editor of Journal du Jeudi, a weekly satirical journal and perhaps the most influential political cartoonist in Burkina Faso. TIA’s Nancy Onyango caught up with the award-winning cartoonist to chat about his craft and the impact of satire on society.

NAO: What motivated you to become a political cartoonist?

DG: My solitary and taciturn temperament led me to experiment with drawing from a very young age. Later in my teenage years my awareness of political debates made me integrate caricature and current events.

Do you see yourself as an artist, activist, journalist, or something else?

A cartoonist is a hybrid being, midway between a journalist, artist and humorist. This bestows upon him a unique place in the press. I don’t see my role as that of an activist per se – even if some my caricatures are used by activists during demonstrations. But, as assistant editorial director at Journal du Jeudi, my quotidian life is that of a journalist.

What do you think makes cartoons such a powerful medium to work with?

Cartoons, compared to editorial writing, have the advantage of functioning at several semantic levels, laden with meaning and containing graphic depictions of irrefutable truths which can’t be easily put into words. It is for this reason that it is at times easier to draw things rather than to write them down. A cartoon does not just serve to illustrate an article; it has a language of its own. In politically turbulent situations such as in Burkina Faso cartoonists, because of their status as entertainers, also can express things that a normal journalist may not be able to.

Has the climate for journalism and freedom of the press improved in Burkina Faso since the popular uprising in 2014?

Much hasn’t changed since then. I have to say that it wasn’t impossible to work under Blaise Compaoré, even if at times there were summons and lawsuits. During the recent rampage caused by an attempted coup on 16 September 2015, local radio stations got damaged. Our newspaper, however, succeeded to get published and our cartoons were available on the internet. In a country where democracy is still so young, the political environment is at times unpredictable but this is an inherent part of the job – and an interesting period to witness as a cartoonist.

What effects do you think your cartoons in Journal du Jeudi have on Burkinabes?

Editorial cartoons do not change a society overnight, but they contribute to its evolution by reminding leaders that they are not monarchs. They also can help to defuse situations, notably ethnic or religious tensions, by putting into perspective the possible consequences. In a country like Burkina Faso, where a great number of the population is uneducated, illiterate cartoons are an important medium to work with.

But overall I believe the work of a cartoonist is a modest job. A recent documentary screened at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival presents us as “Foot soldiers of Democracy”, struggling for liberty through tiny insidious strokes.

Let us talk about some of your recent cartoons. Kindly explain what inspired the following series in your newspaper for our Anglophone readers:

Your cartoon with the Burkinabe president in France, below

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Burkina Faso (former Upper Volta) is a former French colony and one president’s visit to the other is always interesting. There exists a technique which consists in opposing two different realities to achieve a comic effect. Here at the bottom, the Burkinabe president points out the fact that the recent electoral code forbids big shots of the last election from presenting themselves for re-election, while François Holland watches the former president, Nicholas Sarkozy, preparing his candidature. At the level of form, there is a comparison between the Eiffel Tower and the Monument des Martyrs in Burkina Faso where people recently paid homage.

Your cartoon with 4 guys, below:

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It is not easy to literally translate the wordplay on the rhyme, as well as on words which are typically Burkinan (“djafoulent”). This cartoon highlights the two-sided strategy used by the powers that be to coerce representatives of the old regime; the legislative strategy (the president of the CNT, provisionary parliament, holds up a notice board which blocks the former minister of Foreign Affairs under Blaise Compaoré and a possible presidential candidate) and the security strategy (the Minister of Security arrests the former Minister of Energy under Compaoré).

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Above: The two people accused of the attempted putsch of 16 September. They both imagine themselves ruling Burkina Faso.

11949428_439584456226929_4511310511646954948_nAbove: The president of the constitutional court is tasked with winnowing the candidates for the next elections, but the conditions set by the transition authorities risk making all the candidates unfit.