In Burkina Faso, a mansion offers a glimpse into the revolution

by @rcoreyb May 7, 2015 5:00AM ET

In the wake of the government's ouster, citizens transformed the home of the deposed president's brother into a museum

Burkina Faso
Travel and Tourism
The swimming pool at the ransacked home of François Compaoré, brother of the deposed president. The graffiti translates as "the river of the crocodile is empty."
Ahmed Ouoba for Al Jazeera America

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Last October, at the height of an uprising that ended Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year rule in Burkina Faso, soldiers opened fire on demonstrators approaching the expansive residence of the president’s younger brother and adviser, François. According to Amnesty International, members of the Presidential Security Regiment gave no warning before shooting from moving vehicles at unarmed civilians, some of whom had their hands in the air.

François’s villa, situated on Charles de Gaulle Avenue across the street from the country’s biggest university, had been a forbidding presence for many in the capital even before this incident. Set back behind a high wall topped with bougainvillea, the blocky structure with its pillar-flanked entrance embodied the high life enjoyed by members of the president’s inner circle — as well as their remove from the problems facing ordinary citizens in one of the world’s poorest countries. Moreover, François had a reputation for ruthlessness, and rumors abounded that he used his home to perform human sacrifices and other rituals intended to stave off threats to the government.

So on Nov. 1, two days after the shootings and a day after President Compaoré resigned and fled the capital in a convoy, Prosper Simporé, a 40-year-old furniture salesman, was shocked by the scene that awaited him when he joined a crowd outside the villa’s front gate. The soldiers were gone by then, and looters were helping themselves to whatever they could find: suits and dresses, mattresses, bottles of expensive whiskey and cartons of Nicolas Feuillatte champagne. “This house really traumatized, even terrorized the population,” Simporé said. “So to see people taking whatever they wanted … I was completely surprised.” After standing transfixed for a full 10 minutes, he summoned his courage and entered the grounds himself.

The first thing he saw was maddening. Just past the gate, off to the left of the front walkway, was a kennel for the Compaoré family’s dogs. Made of thick concrete, it was sturdier than many people’s homes in Burkina Faso, with a floor plan that appeared to include two bedrooms as well as a sizeable salon. On one wall was the outline of an air-conditioning unit that had already been claimed by looters.

The extravagance did not stop there. On the ground floor of the villa, Simporé saw more cartons of whiskey and champagne stacked alongside boxes of hats, pens and fabric featuring slogans for Compaoré’s political party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress. Upstairs, looters marveled at the marble walls of François’s bedroom, while others used stones to smash the glass walls surrounding a swimming pool. At one point, word spread among those gathered at the edge of the pool that gold might be at the bottom. Some men used a pipe to drain the water while others, too impatient to wait, jumped in. “There was nothing,” Simporé said, smiling. “That was a false alarm.” 

Inside Campaoré's house.
Ahmed Ouoba for Al Jazeera America
The exterior of the house.
Ahmed Ouoba for Al Jazeera America

Demonstrators did find, or at least claimed to find, items they said corroborated François’s fearsome reputation. These included documents pertaining to the killing of David Ouédraogo, François’s former driver, and Norbert Zongo, a journalist murdered in 1998 while investigating Ouédraogo’s death. Many Burkinabé have long blamed François for these crimes, though he was never charged. Elsewhere, looters discovered rooms containing piles of clothing they alleged belonged to François’s victims. And in the basement, they found an enclosure underneath the staircase where they said François must have conducted human sacrifices: five skulls, Simporé said, were hidden nearby.

Whether these discoveries actually are what the looters say they are remains to be determined. In response to early media reports on the allegations, François’ family said in a statement that the villa “has never been a place of inhumane practices.” The basement was used as a study space, the statement said, adding that any “evidence” of human sacrifices was in fact material from children’s art projects. Yet Simporé and others who combed through the house that day quickly concluded it should remain open to the public — that citizens from across the country should be able to come and view the findings themselves. Within a few weeks, they formed the Association of Sellers of Documents and Images, choosing Simporé as president.

Today, the group totals about 30 members, most of them young men who had few prospects under Compaoré and leapt at the chance to work as guides to the home. The money they earn comes largely from the sale of photos and assorted documents related to the country’s recent political turbulence. This includes lists of people allegedly killed by the former president and his allies, summaries of the Zongo and Ouédraogo cases, a hastily written chronology of Compaoré’s fall, and photocopied newspaper clippings with the latest on the government transition.

The air of opportunistic hustle around the group and its members is mitigated somewhat by their humanitarian work: Torn sheets of paper taped near the front door document recent donations to Ouagadougou’s largest hospital and a charity for aging widows. A sense of higher purpose also comes through in the tours, which feature optimistic assessments of how life will improve under the new government — provided the lessons of the old regime are heeded. To Simporé, the villa offers proof of the Compaoré government’s failures and, just as importantly, the wealth Burkina Faso could offer its people if governed properly. If “Chez François” once embodied how national riches were hoarded from the masses, its new incarnation as a kind of museum represents an effort by the masses to take those riches back.

Graffiti on the walls of the courtyard around the house.
Ahmed Ouoba for Al Jazeera America

Blaise Compaoré came to power after a 1987 coup that resulted in the death of then-President Thomas Sankara, a progressive and widely admired leader who, unlike Compaoré, exhibited little interest in self-enrichment. The fact that Compaoré had been a friend and protégé of Sankara’s heightened the sense of tragedy around his killing, and the dead president’s reputation has only grown throughout Africa and beyond in the nearly three decades since.

Compaoré compounded his lack of popular legitimacy with policies that benefited his allies at the expense of seemingly everyone else. Rising inequality and impunity for the ruling elite alienated the government from a young population that, in the absence of connections, had little hope of finding high-paying work. Yet Compaoré demonstrated remarkable staying power. Over the years he mastered a crisis-response strategy that involved granting just enough concessions to remain in office. This enabled him to survive large-scale protests following Zongo’s killing as well as a series of demonstrations, strikes and military mutinies that forced him to temporarily flee the presidential palace five years ago.

In the months prior to the 2015 election, Compaoré’s attempt to revise the constitution so he could run again precipitated his undoing. Protests leading up to the vote drew hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of Ouagadougou. Simporé, who was among the demonstrators, described an almost euphoric collection of men and women chanting anti-Compaoré slogans that compared the president to Ebola. They also sang the national anthem, which was written by Sankara and includes the line, “Motherland or death, we will overcome.” These words made everyone fearless, Simporé said. “When you sing that,” he said, “you don’t sense anymore that death exists.”

Prostesters enter the parliament in Ouagadougou on October 30, 2014.
Issouf Sanogo / AFP / Getty Images

On the day of the planned Oct. 30 vote, there were some shootings, but soldiers eventually wilted before the crowds. Demonstrators entered the National Assembly and the state radio station, and the vote was never held. In a statement that night, Compaoré dissolved the parliament and said he would lead a transitional government, but the gesture was deemed insufficient and he was soon forced to flee. A transitional government took over in November, and new elections are now scheduled for Oct. 11 of this year.

Many observers were caught off guard by the swiftness of Compaoré’s fall. But those who played prominent roles in the uprising described it as the inevitable result of long-held frustration with semi-authoritarian rule and mounting economic pressure. Despite fairly steady overall economic growth, poverty was declining only slowly, and formal jobs, already in short supply, were becoming even more competitive. According to the African Development Bank, the number of people as old as 24 still looking for their first job is set to double — from 3 million to 6 million — between 2010 and 2030.

“The majority of the [foreign] diplomats said they were surprised, and we understand, because they didn’t lift a finger to stop what was going on,” said Serge Bambara, a rapper and protest leader more widely known by his stage name, Smockey. In 2013, Bambara helped establish Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom), a grassroots organization that proved instrumental in generating enthusiasm for the anti-Compaoré demonstrations. “They were far from the reality that everyone was experiencing. All these embassies, these institutions for human rights or whatever … they didn’t have direct contact with the suffering of the population.”

Simporé’s own story highlights this lack of opportunity. Born into a family of eight children, he stopped attending school when he was 12 because his father could not afford the fees. A string of odd jobs led him to the work he was doing at the time of the uprising: hawking chairs and sofas at a busy Ouagadougou intersection. The pay was minimal, but Simporé considered himself lucky to have any employment at all. “We suffered like that for 27 years,” he said. “We were like prisoners.”

Prosper Simporé.
Robbie Corey-Boulet

In this context, the most offensive aspect of the Compaoré regime, Simporé said, was the way insiders flaunted their luxurious lifestyles — a practice that seemed to worsen the longer Compaoré stayed in office. On a recent evening at the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Simporé screened a DVD looted from Chez François that he believed perfectly illustrated this point: a recording of the baptismal ceremony for one of François’s sons. The event, held in the Compaorés’ home town of Ziniaré, was attended by the president and many dignitaries, all of whom Simporé easily identified as the DVD showed them entering the church. “That’s a former prime minister,” he said, pointing at the television. “There’s an old president of the National Assembly.”

Simporé had clearly watched the DVD several times, and he laughed at his favorite parts: when Blaise Compaoré appeared not to know the words to a hymn, for example, and later as the camera zoomed in on the president’s face at a point when he looked especially uncomfortable. “When you are in church, God knows what you have done,” Simporé said, smiling. “That’s what’s in his head.”

Yet Simporé’s face darkened as he watched scenes from the reception that followed: the president arriving in a shiny black car; outdoor tables filled with men in suits and women in colorful dresses; silver platters of food; a drinks station offering multiple varieties of champagne. When the camera panned over the outdoor swimming pool, Simporé tut-tutted loudly. “These people,” he said, shaking his head. “They love a party.”

Though other villas belonging to former dignitaries were also ransacked during the uprising, Chez François is the only one in Ouagadougou that remains open to the public. Security forces under the transition at first tried to block it off to visitors, just as they did with the others, but Simporé said they eventually acknowledged that, from now on, “This house belongs to the people.”

As Simporé and his fellow members of the Association of Sellers of Documents and Images await a decision on whether the villa will be officially converted to a museum or put to some other use, they have attempted to spruce it up. On the ground in front of the gate, members have laid out posters featuring photos from the uprising, including graphic shots of gunned-down demonstrators and more light-hearted photoshopped images. One shows Blaise Compaoré leading a donkey ridden by his wife to Côte d’Ivoire, where the couple relocated.  (As Africa Confidential reported in April, the ex-president’s exile in Côte d’Ivoire has been mostly consumed with “sporting activities, bilateral meetings and heartfelt reflection on his country’s politics,” with no immediate threat of extradition.)

Inside the house, rubble has been swept into corners, and graffiti artists have decorated the walls. A piece on the ground floor shows the ghostly, red-and-black faces of Blaise and François Compaoré being sucked into hell, a smiling François revealing a set of crooked teeth. Throughout, messages refer to François as a crocodile — a nod, Simporé explained, to “his taste for human flesh.” One wall of the drained swimming pool reads, “The river of the crocodile is empty.”

A man looks at graffiti inside the house
Ahmed Ouoba for Al Jazeera America
A graffiti upstairs in the house shows a soldier making tô, a millet-based food.
Ahmed Ouoba for Al Jazeera America

Not all the messages are hostile. Upstairs, a cartoon soldier uses a mortar and pestle to make tô, a millet-based staple food. The black lettering to the right of the soldier reads, “Make tô, not war.” The slogan “Let there be light” appears in several places. And on a wall near the spot where Simporé claims skulls were found, someone scrawled in charcoal, “Justice, where are you? Your people are thirsty for you.”

Bambara, the rapper and protest leader, describes what’s happened at Chez François as a form of “re-appropriation” — a seizure by the people of what should have been theirs all along. But he also said the house’s significance extends beyond its monetary value. The appeals for “light” and “justice” on the walls, much like the “evidence” being hawked by Simporé and his colleagues, point to the desire of many Burkinabé for some kind of public reckoning after decades of misrule. The new government, therefore, will be under significant pressure not only to justly compensate the people, but also to hold to account those who kept them down for so long.

There are some signs this process has already begun. In early April, transitional authorities arrested a host of Compaoré allies, including three former ministers reportedly accused of corruption and embezzlement. Lawmakers also revised the electoral code to bar those who supported Compaoré’s bid for another term from running in the upcoming election.

But rights groups have warned against a witch-hunt. In a January report, the International Crisis Group noted, “the imprint left by Blaise Compaoré and his party is such that it will be very difficult to establish a new order without appealing to the men who worked with him.” The organization also considers it “highly likely” that someone from Compaoré’s system will become president, calling into question whether radical change will be realized anytime soon.

Amid this uncertainty, Simporé seems content for the moment giving tours to visitors and relishing the fact that yesterday’s government is gone. On a recent afternoon, during a tour that stopped in front of the now-crumbling kennel, a man asked incredulously if dogs had actually slept there, indoors and in the comfort of air-conditioning. Simporé said they had. Then he smiled and added: “That’s finished. There are no more dogs sleeping here. We’ve put an end to that.”