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September 21 2015

Artists and Human Rights Defenders Targeted in Burkina Faso

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Artists and human rights defenders targeted in Burkina Faso


With elections due in October, Burkina Faso awoke on Wednesday 16 September to a coup by members of the RSP military forces, otherwise known as the “Presidential Guard”, and led by former president Blaise Compaore's chief-of-staff, Gen. Gilbert Diendere.

A notable feature of the coup is that artists and human rights defenders have come under threat according to an Amnesty International Burkina Faso official and independent reports. A recording studio burnt down following Presidential Guard rocketfire in Oaugadougou on the first day of the coup.  The attack on the Abazon recording studio follows police harrassment and damage to property at the home of popular rapper Smockey the same day. Smockey, owner of the Abazon studio, and prominent leader in the Balai Citoyene movement, was threatened and warned to cease his outspoken activism. Other artists have gone into hiding following reports that they were being sought by the RSP.


There is speculation that the targeting of artists is a response to the active role artists played in the Balai Citoyen movement, a largely youth-based organisation who in 2014 vigorously opposed President Blaise Compaore’s attempts to manipulate the constitution in order to run for a 3rd term of office. Public demonstrations and the torching of Parliament buildings culminated with Compaore fleeing the country to Ivory Coast, when he remains in exile.


Earlier this year, the Abazon studio was the location for the recording of the Right to Life song by eleven leading musicians from eight African countries. This recording was part of the Artwatch Africa Ambassadors project of the pan-African arts organization Arterial Network, and aimed at raising awareness about artist rights and creative expression. Ironically, today marks the Nigerian launch of the song at the legendary Freedom Park in Lagos as part of the Afropolitan Vibes concert, and featuring two of the Artwatch Africa Ambassador participants, Ade Bantu and Didier Awadi.



Members of Balai Citoyen (The Citizens’ Broom) were also arrested in March 2015 in Kinshasa where they were participating in youth mobilisation meetings ahead of DRC elections. A total of 44 persons, predominantly from arts organisations, were detained in the DRC incident. Participating  activists from Burkina Faso and Y’en a marre movement in Senegal were subsequently deported, while a local lawyer remains in prison. Government officials  said in a news report that the youth were « plotting terrorist activities ».



A similar pattern was evident in Burundi when President Pierre Nkurunziza’s attempts to extend his term of office precipitated widespread protests and violence. A subsequent crackdown on dissidents in Burundi has resulted in reggae artist Noel Urbain Barikumwe from the popular band Lions Story applying for political asylum in the United Kingdom. Seven other members of the same band fled to Uganda. Like many other artists across Africa, the Lion’s Story’s songs about democracy, corruption and political violence, draw antagonistic response from authorities. Lion’s Story’s studio was closed, and many of its concerts were abruptly cancelled.



Meanwhile in Angola, in the capital city of Luanda, thirteen young Angolans were arrested in June as they gathered for their regular book club reading. Blogger Maka Angola reported that the activists were attending a workshop series that was based on reading and discussing books focusing on non-violent resistance and peaceful strategies to protest dictatorship. According to attorney general General João Maria de Sousa, “These acts constitute crimes against the security of the state, as a crime of rebellion.” Angola’s youth movement has been active in protests against the rule of the president, who has been in office for 35 years. 


Censorship and harassment


Increasingly across the continent governments and local authorities show scant respect for freedom of expression, even when such laws are enshrined in their constitutions. Social comment and especially critique of government is interpreted as revolutionary, or, as in the DRC instance, “terrorist activities”. The fact that artists often have public platforms and reach wide-ranging audiences is perceived as a threat. For those artists who choose to engage with social and political issues the risk of censure or arrest makes it difficult for them to give development to their creative expression, and to contribute to intellectual debate on such issues. Speaking out on behalf of others sometimes jeopardises their own safety. Repressive environments result in self-censorship which further deprives citizens of valuable perspectives and engagement on topical matters.


With 70% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population under the age of 30, youth culture and activism is becoming a prominent feature of social and political life across the continent, with increasingly assertive demands for the diverse voices of youth to be heard. Affirming the need for recognition of the role of artists and human rights defenders in public life, during one of his interviews earlier this year, Smockey said : "… be it Blaise or another, I'll be there to defend the rights of the people.”


Contacts :

Arterial Network

37 Barrack Street

Harrington House

8001 Cape Town

South Africa

Tel : +27 21 461 2023

Email :

Facebook : Artwatch Africa / Arterial Network


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