OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Monique Yéli Kam’s war room is not a typical campaign headquarters for a national presidential candidate. A dusty white marquis stands next to stacked blue chairs fanning out to a balcony that leads to a room where teenage boys jostle to play a soccer video game. Upstairs in her apartment, PassBlue spoke with Kam, a businessperson-turned-politician who is the only woman running against 12 men in Burkina Faso’s presidential election scheduled for Nov. 22.
After visiting 12 towns in two days and accompanied by armed escorts to protect her from potential attacks by armed groups, Kam, a 47-year-old mother of five with a master’s degree in marketing, peels off her shoes and pauses from her schedule that begins at 4 A.M. and ends at midnight. She spoke with PassBlue in Ouagadougou, the capital, on Nov. 18 about the security crisis in Burkina Faso, a Sahelian country in West Africa contending with deadly attacks from jihadists; the role of women in African politics generally; and the need for Burkina Faso’s leaders to come to the table and talk about peace.
The Francophone country of nearly 20 million people last held a presidential election in 2015, a year after a people’s coup forced the president at the time, Blaise Compaoré, to resign and flee to neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, after serving 27 years as Burkina’s leader. In November 2015, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré won the presidency in a crowded field that included two women candidates. He was sworn into office a month later for a five-year term. The election this year will unfold amid continuing volatility, and about 417,000 people from 22 municipalities have been unable to register to vote because of displacement and insecurity.
The interview, done in French, has been edited and condensed.
PassBlue: What is it like being the only woman candidate in the Burkina Faso presidential election this year?
Kam: It’s difficult but women have to participate. Imagine an election without women? The voters are mostly women and youths, and if a woman didn’t run it wouldn’t be respectable for our country. It’s necessary to have at least one women in these elections. Before I decided to run as a candidate, I was a member of different political parties for some 10 years, but I couldn’t really move up the chain.
PassBlue: How would you describe the state of Burkina Faso at the moment?
Kam: No citizen should be indifferent to our current situation. The state of our country is disastrous, economically and socially. We see high levels of unemployment of young people, and there is the ongoing insecurity. There is also the problem of access to health care, to water and quality education, and even adults don’t have secure employment. The government’s promise to develop the country hasn’t delivered results, and the everyday lives of citizens have not changed. The people are poor, and this is the reason there are strikes and marches and insecurity. The underlying causes of insecurity in the regions most affected are poverty.
PassBlue: With the continuing insecurity and Burkina Faso’s history of military rule under former President Compaoré, do you think being a woman works against you?
Kam: The security crisis is having a heavy human toll — there are people who are displaced, children who are out of schools and widows. Women are more sensitive to these kinds of hardships, and today my candidature would offer an opportunity for a woman to bring peace. Look at [former president] Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia and [former president] Catherine Samba-Panza in the Central African Republic. Each time our states have faced a crisis, particularly in Africa, a woman has found a solution. In African countries that have faced crisis, and even in the US, the candidature of a woman has brought hope. We hope what happened in these countries is possible in Burkina Faso.
The Burkinabé men don’t want to compete with women; that is why they are trying to hold them back. In our tradition, they don’t want to be challenged by women. If a woman comes into power, the conflict will be over. The people in power went to school with one another and are from the same background from those who were governing in the past. The country needs someone who is neutral, and I am that person. I am a new class that will carry the hope of this country and bring peace.
PassBlue: Did you follow the US presidential election results this month? What are your thoughts about it?
Kam: Donald Trump was looking for a second term, like most presidents. He finished his mandate without achieving results, yet at the same time there was economic progress, but people chose Joe Biden. It shows us that power belongs to the people, and people will give that power to a person they believe can bring change. There is also the vice-president elect, who is a woman [Kamala Harris]. The American people have accepted the leadership and have given their trust to a woman who is black. This same historical change can happen here in Burkina Faso — a woman can become head of state.
PassBlue: Are people happy to see a woman candidate in Burkina Faso, or are they shocked?
Kam: In general, they respond well. Women are enthusiastic and mobilize, and men also come and meet us with words of encouragement. People have acknowledged the need for change and have promised to vote for us. Sometimes there are older people, the Papas, who refuse to accept female candidates and say that a woman couldn’t manage being head of state. There are people who believe that if a woman leads, it means that men have failed or that men haven’t taken good care of the house. And I ask them to look around them, at the unemployment, the insecurity, and they say that it’s true but ask, “We know that there is a problem, but you, woman, are you able to change it?”
PassBlue: Do you think you can win the presidency?
Kam: Yes. I am running in these elections to win.
PassBlue: Have you told President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, who is also running, this?
Kam: I know I will win. I say, “Women will take power,” every day during the campaign. Women have power and this year we have decided to take it from the men.
The problem that I am unhappy about is that 15 communes [muncipalities] won’t be able to vote. These communes are the most touched by insecurity and they are the ones who need to vote the most. They are the communes where people have been displaced, and the toll is heavy and the schools are closed. The elections would give them the chance to decide who is going to solve these problems, and these are the communes that are going to be excluded. Our party will fight for peace, and my term will place an emphasis on peace and we will defend peace.
PassBlue: How will you and your party, Mouvement pour le Renaissance du Burkina Faso (Burkina Faso Renaissance Movement), fight for peace?
Kam: To promote peace, we have two strategies. The first strategy will be to give the soldiers more equipment and to train the FDS [French acronym for Burkina Faso’s security forces] to better defend themselves, so that they succeed on the battlefront. And secondly, there is a more profound solution that will come through education for citizens, the generation of wealth and the establishment of factories in most affected regions. We will reinforce security, so the displaced can return and schools can be reopened.
We will negotiate peace by creating a room of wise people. In this room, there will be 130 members — traditional and religious leaders and former heads of state. They will work in collaboration with the ministry of defense to commence dialogue, to know who is attacking us and why are they attacking us. No wars can end without dialogue. We’ve had time to fight, now we have to negotiate and have a dialogue. We have to put in mind that the integrity of our country is grand, and we will not give any small portion of it away.
PassBlue: Are you open to negotiations with armed groups?
PassBlue: Are you concerned about the Nov. 22 election and the legitimacy of the outcome?
Kam: Today in Burkina Faso, there is liberty of expression, it’s not possible for them to steal the vote. It will be very difficult if someone tries. For Burkinabés, there is freedom of speech, we have certain liberties, and violence and brutality won’t work. Look at the number of candidates, the elections will be competitive. We believe the results will have integrity.
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Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist who reports throughout Africa and is now based in the Sahel region, reporting on the security and humanitarian crisis there. She holds an honor’s degree in political theory and a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In February 2021, she won an award from the International Center for Journalists for her article on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19, published in PassBlue and The Daily Beast.