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Women Compete in Burkina Faso’s Presidential Contest, a First for the Nation


In Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso in West Africa, the mood was ebullient as people voted for a new president on Nov. 29, 2015. These voters leave a polling station at a school.

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — This small but determined West African country voted on Sunday in its first presidential election since its last president, Blaise Compaoré, was ousted in October 2014. He had ruled the country for 27 years and was finally pushed out by a grass-roots opposition movement.

Although the front-runner, Roch Marc Kaboré, appears destined to win, two women also campaigned for president: another big first for Burkina Faso, despite the hurdles these women leaped over to land on the candidate list. (Final results of the vote will likely be announced on Nov. 30.)

The excitement for the election exuded throughout the capital here, including among a group of young men selling photos of the former president and his unloved entourage at one of the Compaoré family’s former villas right in town. That mansion has been stripped almost bare, except for some marble tiles on the floors, hard to pull up. Anyone can stroll through the shell of the house, stepping on the weeds.

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Burkina Faso’s presidential election on Nov. 29 is the latest in a series of similar voting occurring across West Africa, a region struggling to achieve and maintain democracy. Presidential voting in Guinea, Ivory Coast and Nigeria this year went relatively well; Burkina’s was calm and organized. In Central Africa, however, it is a guess as to whether the Democratic Republic of the Congo can hold peaceful elections next year.

The two women in Burkina Faso who competed among the 14 presidential candidates, Françoise Toé and Saran Sérémé, had little chance of succeeding, yet their names on the ballot signaled major progress, said Aminata Kasse, the senior country director for the Burkina office of the National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C., an independent nonprofit group that promotes democratic organizations worldwide.

Burkina citizens in the capital expressed strong desires for change in a country that languished for decades under what one resident called the Compaoré oligarchy.

A landlocked nation of 17 million, Burkina Faso sits at the bottom rungs of human development and falls into the category of being blessed with such natural resources as gold but poor on passing on that wealth to ordinary people.

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Women face particular hardship: they have lower rates of education than men and many end up in menial jobs and early marriage. They die in droves, 300 for every 100,000 live births, from pregnancy-related causes.

All of which may reflect why at least a third of the country had registered to vote, according to numbers supplied by Tommaso Caprioglio, chief observer adjunct for the Electoral Observation Mission of the European Union in Burkina Faso. In previous presidential elections, far fewer people voted, aware that Compaoré would slide into re-election.

Saran Sérémé, the more popular of the two female presidential candidates.
Saran Sérémé, the more popular of the two female presidential candidates.

Forty-seven percent of women in the capital had registered to vote for this year’s election, Caprioglio said. In rural Burkina, about a quarter of women did, an American official said here. The election included voting for Parliament members, and more than 2,000 female candidates ran for 127 seats. The national gender quota law reserves 30 percent of Parliament seats for women, but that doesn’t assure that they fill those spots.

About 5,000 election observers fanned throughout the country to watch for voting irregularities, including 120 observers from the European Union.

Maria Compaoré, no relation to the ex-president, is a 45-year-old cleaning woman who lives in the capital and has had only seven years of education. She voted for Kaboré, the front-runner, because she thought he had the right background, having worked for Compaoré for decades, but possessed the sense, she said, to “know better” than to make the mistakes his old boss made, like amassing a fortune through blanket economic control.

Maria Compaoré and a fellow cleaning woman, Laurentine Kaboré, 38 (no relation to the candidate), had zero inclination to vote for the female candidates because they felt they were limited in their ability to “think” as leaders. (Laurentine Kaboré also went to school for just seven years.)

Both women said that the female candidates lacked expertise in bringing about such essentials as good health care, schooling, hospitals and even soil for growing more food for their families. During the interview with them, they alternately giggled and conveyed their passionate wish to leave Burkina for someplace better for themselves and their families.

The ability to improve life in Burkina Faso was certainly messaged by the candidate Kaboré, who promised “to help women,” for example, by setting up a bank for them, said Kasse, whose office is located on John F. Kennedy Avenue in downtown Ouagadougou.

Kasse, who was interviewed with a colleague, Dany Ayida, said that the female candidates were unable to analyze situations in a large way. “They did not show they were able to make a difference compared with the men,” Kasse said of all the candidates.

Yet both women, Kasse added, had conducted good campaigns, even without the resources the men could tap. In the men’s campaigns, the candidates represented women the way they should, “demonstrating their capacity to analyze and propose policies.”

Toé, an accountant with her own business, was new to politics and ran as an independent, but Sérémé has been a Parliament member twice, leads a political party and played an instrumental role during the transition period of the government after Compaoré fled.

To run an effective campaign, Kasse, who is from Senegal, said that the candidates needed to develop policy platforms, communicate well and participate in media interviews, among other steps to convey their views to Burkina society. For women to do so is new in the country.

The capital was calm as citizens cast their vote in Burkina’s first presidential election since its ex-president was pushed out in a popular revolt in 2014. Here, a polling station on Nov. 29, 2015.

Some political parties run by men garner support from outside sources, including from important people in countries nearby, putting them ahead of the pack. Toé had sought advise from the National Democratic Institute on how to run a campaign.

“To succeed in such a campaign, you need to count on the structure of a political party, and women unfortunately don’t have that luck,” Kasse said.

To move beyond that limitation, the Institute assists women in securing management roles in the their political parties. All parties have women in their ranks but not at the top, except for Sérémé, so they are not practiced in making political decisions.

Yet women participated in the country’s popular revolt in 2014, as did youths and opposition groups. Altogether, the protestors’ rallies grew in momentum over months, ultimately forcing their president out the day after some demonstrators burned the Parliament building. A set of women’s associations, which became known as the Spatulas, was led by Sérémé because she was well known and had her own party. Her prominence also helped her take part in structuring the transitional government.

The people’s revolt started when President Compaoré tried to change the Constitution so he could run for a fifth term (a new law forbids such attempts). He had come into power originally through a coup, wresting control from his ally, Thomas Sankara, a Marxist revolutionary turned president who was shot in 1987, and then through rigged elections.

After Burkina’s 2014 rebellion, more turbulence prevailed. In September 2015, a general of Compaoré’s presidential guard, still in place in the capital, staged a coup that failed within a week because of more street protests. The general, Gilbert Diendéré, now sits in jail as the country stalls on what to do with him, even though the government charged him with crimes against humanity. Apparently, he holds the key to crucial information that could implicate many people in the country and beyond for abusing power or worse crimes.

That past barely shadowed Election Day, when Burkina citizens, some dressed in Sunday church clothes, started voting at dawn to avoid the boiling sun. As Kasse said, the needs of the country — especially for women and youth — couldn’t be more urgent.


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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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Women Compete in Burkina Faso’s Presidential Contest, a First for the Nation
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