Halidou Ouédraogo

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Halidou Ouédraogo's work was prepared when Halidou Ouédraogo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994.


A long-time human rights advocate and supporter of an independent judicial system, Burkinab Halidou Ouédraogo is building grass-roots popular human rights movements in Africa at the national level and linking them through a pan-African human rights vision and association.

The New Idea

Halidou Ouédraogo is building, country by country, Africa's first popularly based human rights movement. Popular human rights organizations stewarding this movement are linked together in a pan-African human rights association. Halidou is convinced that if basic rights are to be respected in Africa, the monitoring of human rights and the protection of civil liberties must be the responsibility of ordinary African citizens and African human rights organizations, and not just that of institutions based outside the continent. Starting with his own country of Burkina Faso, Halidou established the Burkinab Movement for Human and Peoples' Rights to assert African responsibility for human rights through public education and the mobilization of pressure on human rights infringers. He has struck a deep chord in the contemporary African polity. In Burkina Faso, for example, where his program is most developed, sections of the Movement have been set up in each of the thirty regional departments. Founded in 1989, the Movement now has more than 50,000 dues-paying members actively engaged in defending the civil and human rights of their fellow citizens. But steady progress is also manifest in more than a dozen other African countries, where similar organizations have been spurred into formation by Halidou. Halidou's vision of human rights action is expressly linked to a wider vision of democracy and the necessity of active citizen participation in governance. By creating mechanisms to defend human rights in specific cases, Halidou is consciously evangelizing that the individual citizen who cares can make a difference in Africa. Conversely, as he often argues in his speeches, if honest individuals concerned for the values of democracy and human rights do not take action, then it is certain that the corruption, self-dealing and incompetence that all too often characterize African governance are sure to continue.

The Problem

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, has been a touchstone for all African political struggles against colonialism. Upon achieving independence, the new African states uniformly embraced the human rights conventions. Most African governments, recognizing that the guarantee of basic rights is an integral part of development, are also signatories to their own African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, signed under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity in 1981. This Charter embodies an "African concept of human rights" and is based on "the African philosophy of law" to meet the specific cultural values and needs of the continent.Regrettably, post-colonial African respect for human rights has been more rhetorical than actual. Despite a general trend in favor of strengthened democracy in the past few years, the continent is better known for its overabundance of dictatorial and corrupt regimes than it is for human rights and democracy; the broad political economy of Africa is better described as one of neo-colonial primary resource exploitation than one that traces the historical path of the western industrialized countries.The people of Burkina Faso, for example, have suffered their share of abuse, committed by a succession of military and unaccountable civilian regimes that have controlled the country since its independence in 1960. Human rights violations have included harassment, banishment, exclusions, torture and the unexplained disappearances of certain individuals considered troublesome to the regime in power. Even though there has been some softening of the current regime's hard-line approach (for example, with a well-publicized release of political prisoners), criticism of the government's human rights record-whether through the political opposition or nonpartisan citizen action-must be fairly low-key and carefully planned to avoid violent reprisal. Indeed, individuals can still "disappear" in Burkina without a trace. In spite of a democratic facade (the current President won an election in 1994 that was boycotted by opposition parties), true dialogue and popular participation in governance and policymaking are difficult to achieve.While governments in Africa have been a considerable obstacle to building democracy, the low levels of popular understanding of democratic citizenship and human rights are probably a deeper and more fundamental constraint. Literacy levels, especially in rural Africa, remain among the lowest in the world, often falling below 50 percent. The vast majority of people are unaware of their legal rights and, especially in rural areas, remain totally dependent on traditional, often conservative (authoritarian and patriarchal) customary law systems. Legal services are inaccessible and too expensive for the masses. Over the past decade, Africa has witnessed a growing and increasingly articulate popular resentment of authoritarianism and its attendant ills. Not yet coalesced into effective organizational forms, this popular sentiment represents the broad social base upon which democracy and respect for human rights may be constructed. The end of the Cold War and the neo-liberal economic reforms compelled by the forces ascendant in the globalizing world economy have also removed some of the traditional supports for corrupt African states, making them more vulnerable to grass-roots citizen assertions of democracy.

The Strategy

The basic functions of human rights organizations-now a leading landmark of the late twentieth century institutional landscape-are well understood: education (formal and informal) and mobilization (against actual human rights abuses). Halidou has a three-part strategy to build local/national human rights movements across Africa to perform these two vital functions of education and mobilization. First and foremost, Halidou's approach locates the struggle for human rights among ordinary citizens. The movements must be true social movements-"owned" and sustained by the proverbial grass-roots. Second, in mobilizing pressure against rights abuses, Halidou draws in prominent African jurists and lawyers from outside the country to add credibility to the effort and to reduce the personal risks to local campaigners. Third, local/national movements are linked and reinforced by a pan-African human rights vision and structure.Halidou tested his idea for a grass-roots human rights movement in his home country of Burkina Faso, where he served as a magistrate. The Burkinab Movement for Human and Peoples' Rights, established in 1989, was the first popular human rights movement established in Africa and the first and only human rights organization to be created on the basis of the individual membership of citizens.It is governed by a "scientific committee" of 30 respected individuals and includes lawyers, professors, homemakers and journalists. The committee's tasks include mobilization, sensitization activities and the organizing of colloquia. The governing board or Executive Bureau has fourteen members and a female secretary-general.Taking into consideration the many types of people the Movement must deal with, including the military, Halidou's approach places emphasis on spreading knowledge and widespread understanding while also promoting the practical measures needed for resolving problems relating to human rights. Bringing training and education to both rural and urban communities, teams of volunteers conduct training and sensitization sessions for its members, teachers, members of military and para-military groups and leaders and organizers of various organized social groups. The education activities promote a culture of respect for human rights and commitment to basic legal procedures, as well as actively encouraging genuine participation of citizens in the political, economic and social life of their country.The Movement has provided the first translations of constitutional law into four local languages, organized symposia on prison conditions and organized various training workshops throughout the country. In addition, basic texts on human rights and democracy have been produced and widely disseminated, regular radio and television broadcasts have been aired and the construction and equipping of regional offices has begun. The Movement has been protesting some extrajudicial killings, handling citizens legal complaints, observing local elections and working to introduce a human rights curriculum in the schools.Today the Movement is a vital part of Burkinab society and there are always new members waiting to join. The Movement can take some credit for the 1994 release of political prisoners, which followed an active campaign. More than 1,000 people detained in violation of their human rights in recent years have been released after Movement campaigns. Due to the efforts of local sections, local prison visits are now permitted and detainment conditions in general have improved considerably. Clearly the government is "on notice" that the Movement can and will mobilize considerable pressure when human rights are violated.Perhaps the best evidence of the effectiveness of Halidou's strategy and effort to date is the fact that the example of the Movement has inspired similar organizations to be started in a number of other African countries.The second element in Halidou's strategy opposes specific human rights violations with a combination of locally based pressure and support and solidarity from respected lawyers and human rights activists from other African countries. Magistrates and state prosecutors in charge of sensitive dossiers are more likely to respect legally ratified declarations of principle and institutional codes of conduct if the individual or group in question is supported by broadly organized and informed groups of citizens and respected human rights activists from neighboring countries. Similarly, reprisals against local campaigners are less likely where an international presence is established.The third strategic thrust brings in the international dimension. Human rights provide a powerful ideological scaffolding that crosses national boundaries and links people everywhere in a common expression of humanity. Halidou has seized upon this fact in various ways to revitalize the ideals of pan-Africanism with the universal ideals of human rights norms. He uses inter-African linkages to strengthen national human rights campaigns. To give greater legitimacy and scale to national movements, Halidou co-founded the Inter-African Union for Human Rights in 1992 as an umbrella body for African emerging human rights organizations that is creating an institutional scaffold upon which pan-African human rights activities might be constructed. Today it links 45 human rights organizations in almost as many countries, most of which were inspired and supported in their establishment by Halidou. The Union has developed a program of its own that includes several significant precedential activities. In 1993, the Union lodged a complaint with the African Commission for Human Rights against the presidents of (then) Zaire, Togo and Mauritania for massive violations of human rights. It has played an ongoing role for the past few years in Burundi and Rwanda in mediation and needs assessment. In Rwanda, it helped to rebuild the judicial system after the 1994 genocide, training fifteen magistrates, 50 court clerks, and 119 judicial police officers. The Union has become a regular and respected independent election observer, including elections in Madagascar, Central African Republic, Togo, Benin, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau. Its training courses and regular publications are a feature of most African countries. And Union chapters provide regular information on local human rights situations to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).Halidou also created the Foundation Aime Nikiema to provide recognition to African human rights leaders and successful campaigns. Operating under a prestigious international jury, the Foundation awards an annual African prize for the defense of human rights.As a visible and impeccable human rights leader, Halidou is also frequently called in to assist in resolving the continent's human rights crises. He helped organize successful pressure campaigns to force the liberation of illegally detained opposition deputies and journalists in Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire and also helped mediate the transborder conflict between the nomadic desert Touareg people and the governments of Mali, Niger and Mauritania. Halidou also drafted the language of what became the official OAU text on the devastating human rights tragedy in Rwanda.

The Person

Born in Ouahigouya, Halidou is from a humble farming family. Struck by his mother's courageous efforts to raise her children, he became aware at a young age of the hardships endured by the majority of his people. Halidou stood out in primary school and was the lucky pupil given the opportunity to attend the Lycee Zendia in the capital, Ouagadougou.As a young man Halidou continued to demonstrate the qualities of empathy, intelligence, ingenuity, courage and leadership that are now used universally to describe him. In the heady days of political liberation in the 1960s, he organized and led a youth delegation to visit Bougourawa Ouedraogo, a prominent political figure who was imprisoned arbitrarily in 1964. Later, while a law student in France, Halidou's scholarship funds were cut, and, in order to complete his studies, he took a position as a concierge in the evenings. Upon his return to Ouagadougou, Halidou was posted as a Magistrate far out in the Lobi region. Here he was able to reflect on the poor conditions of magistrates and determined to reform the magistrature to improve the administration of justice. To promote his ideas for the autonomy and independence of the judiciary and the improvement of conditions for magistrates, Halidou overcame the trepidation of his colleagues and the active hostility of the government to create the Autonomous Union of Burkinab Magistrates (SAMAB).Soft-spoken and, surprisingly for a judge, rather more given to listening than pontificating, Halidou claims that he is still an amateur at the task of promoting human rights. All of his human rights work has been voluntary and extracurricular to his "day job" as a magistrate. His activism has certainly curtailed his advancement on the bench and more than once resulted in threats against his life. As the human rights movements that he has inspired take off, he looks forward to retiring from the bench to devote himself full time to his vision for Africa.