Joseph Ki-Zerbo (June 21, 1922 – December 4, 2006, Burkina Faso) was a Burkinabé historian, politician and writer. He spent his youth in Toma where he grew up in a rural context inside a big family. Ki-Zerbo himself declared that his first 11 years passed in a rural context marked his personality and thoughts. He was recognized as one of Africa’s foremost thinkers. He was educated both in his home country in missionary schools at Toma, and Pabre (around 20 miles from the capital). Also, he studied at Faladie in Mali and after at Sorbonne University, France. After getting his aggregation degree in History, he returned to Africa. Once back, he became politically active. From 1972 to 1978 he was Professor of African History at the University of Ouagadougou. But in 1983, he was forced into exile, only being able to return in 1992.
Ki-Zerbo founded his own party, the Party for Democracy and Progress / Socialist Party, of which he was chairman until 2005 and represented in the Burkina Faso parliament until 2006. Ki-Zerbo was also the best known opponent of the revolutionary government of the President Thomas Sankara. Ki-Zerbo was socialist and an exponent of an independent development of Africa and of Unity of the continent.
Ki Zerbo was the son of Alfred Diban Ki Zerbo and Therese Folo Ki. His father was considered as the first Christian in the town. in 1915 he intervened during the Volta-Bani War to stop Toma being razed to the ground. Indeed, we can understand his many attendances in catholic high school. Between 1933 and 1940, Ki-Zerbo was a student in missionary schools at Torna in Pabre (about 20 mile from the capital Ouagadougou) in Burkina, and Faladie in Mali. He attended the seminary school at Koumi near to Bobo Dioulasso, the economic capital of Burkina Faso for higher teaching level. In Dakar Senegal, Ki-Zerbo taught many years and also found other subsistence jobs as many others migrate. To give an example, Holenstein (2006) reported that he participated in the building of some railroads as part of the labor force while he found a job in a weekly newspaper “Afrique nouvelle” where he worked for several months. At the age of 27 Ki-Zerbo earned a scholarship to Paris. He started studying history at the Sorbonne University in 1949 and was following at the same time some political science courses at the Institute of Political Studies in [Paris]. After that, he finished brilliantly his [history] studies with an aggregation in History.
Ki-Zerbo’s political activities started while he was still student. He was the co- founder and president of the [Upper Volta] students in France (1950–1956). He was also the President of the Christian Students Association of Africa, Caribbean Islands, and Malgache. In 1954, according to Holenstein (2006) Ki-Zerbo published an article in the newspapers “Tam-Tam” with the remarkable title “On demande des nationalists”. (In English, “we demand nationalism”). In Paris, Ki-Zerbo met other intellectuals as the Senegalese historian Cheik Anta Diop, and the current president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade. During one of his tour in Western Africa in Mali, Ki-Zerbo met his wife Jacqueline Coulibaly. She is the daughter of a famous Malian syndicalist. After his studies, Ki-Zerbo became professor in history at [Orleans] and Paris. He taught in some public schools in 1957 in Dakar with a status of French employee and citizen.
The second half of the 1950s was a deep disruption on the African continent with the different desires to access to [independence]. Barry (2007), a reporter of Rfi reported that in 1957, he created his party, le Mouvement de Liberation Nationale (MLN), (In English, National Freedom Movement), and he informed the first Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah about the MLN. The MLN aims were immediate independence for Africans, creation of a United States of Africa, and socialism. MLN went to many other West African states to ask people to say “No” to the referendum on the creation of a Franco African community presented by the French President Charles de Gaulle. From all the West African countries, only Guinea Conakry got independence and voted No to the referendum. Barry (2007) mentioned as a result in his article that Sekou Toure the current President of Guinea Conakry at this time asked Ki-Zerbo and his wife with other volunteers to come to Conakry and replace the French teachers returned to France because of independence.
Ki-Zerbo came back to Burkina Faso in 1960. Ki-Zerbo justified his coming back in saying “I explained to Sekou that I have to go back home to pursue the fight for independence in others territories”. After some years of teaching, Ki-Zerbo was at this time the first and most qualified high school teacher of his country. He was nominated in 1965 as academy inspector and General Director of Juvenile, Sports and Education. Then, Ki-Zerbo was professor at the University of Ouagadougou (1968 to 1973). Ki-Zerbo was the co-founder and general director (from 1967 to1979) of the African and Malagasy Council on Higher Education (CAMES) that assures an academical autonomy of Africans countries. CAMES plays a role of pioneer in the research of African alternative medicine and promote scientific relief in Africa.
Social and political ideas
Ki-Zerbo exposed his social and political ideas in many publications on history and culture. He wrote a pedagogic manual called “Le Monde Africain Noir” in English “Black African World” that was published in 1963. In 1972, Ki-Zerbo published a famous book “Histoire de l’Afrique Noir” in English “History of Black Africa” that became the reference book in African history. Holenstein (2006) described that in his book, Ki-Zerbo challenged the common belief of Africa as a black continent without culture and history. He claimed that Africa had reached an upper level of political, social and cultural development before the Atlantic slave trade and colonization. Written only few years after independence, Ki-Zerbo’s book represented the hope of many Africans of a brighter future in liberty and self-determination.
Sitchet (2003), a reporter of Africulture, argued that from 1972 to 1978 Ki-Zerbo was executive member of the UNESCO foundation (United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization). From 1976 to 2001, Ki Zerbo was also the President of African Historian Association and moreover a Professor at the University of Ouagadougou. His conviction on education led him to found in 1980, Centre for African Development Studies (CEDA) that has this goal “on ne developpe pas, on se developpe”. (In English, we don’t develop, we develop ourselves). Holenstein (2006) insisted that on the basis of a critic on the relation north-south imperialism, Ki-Zerbo forecast an endogenous development that will take seriously the ecological and social skills, and the African cultural identity. His endogenous development is a practice that lets native farmers use their own ideas and traditions alongside new technology. It incorporates the ideas and knowledge of indigenous cultures rather than disregarding them.
After scientific researches and teaching, Ki-Zerbo continued with his political activities. Under the Burkinabe President Maurice Yameogo’s regime (1960-1966), the creation of any political party was forbidden. So, Holenstein (2006) explained in this article on the interview about Ki-Zerbo’s book “A quand l’Afrique”. Ki Zerbo got his members in the syndical teachers’ class and villagers. The syndical and MLN played a big role in popular movement organization on 3 January 1966 that brought down the President Maurice Yameogo. General Secretary of the MLN, Ki-Zerbo went to the 1970s legislative elections and he got 6th rank.
In February the Burkina Faso Parliament is ruined because of a military Coup. In October the banning is cancelled. Many new parties arose like “Union Progressiste Voltaique (UPV) under the control of Ki Zerbo that replaced MLN. UPV was still in opposition to the government party (Union Democratique Voltaique- [Rassemblement Democratique Africain (UDV-RDA).]
In 1983, a group of young officers took the power by a military coup under the control of the Captain Thomas Sankara. A new stage started for Upper Volta which became Burkina Faso “Land of integrity people”. Under the power of the new government, Ki-Zerbo was obliged to go into exile. Then, in 1985 he was finally arrested with his family for two years of detention and became free only after another military coup organized by the current President of Burkina Faso Blaise Compaore. Even in exile, he created some research center like the Research Centre for Endogenous Development (CRDE) and taught at Cheikh Anta Diop University at Dakar and never came back until 1987. His library rich of eleven thousands books in his hometown Burkina Faso has been burned while he was still in exile. He came back and tried to rebuild everything in getting a place in parliament.
Ki-Zerbo has received recognition for his knowledge and commitment by various awards from across the world. In 1997 he was honoured with the Right Livelihood Award for his researches on development. This prize is given to those who tried to find credible solutions to the protection of the environment and nature. Also for people who helped the development of human rights and peace. In 2000, Ki-Zerbo also received the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights. In 2001, Ki-Zerbo got the title of Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Padua in Italy.
Ki-Zerbo as an Historian has published a number of books with endogenous development as the central theme:
- 1964 : Le Monde africain noir (Paris, Hatier)
- 1972 : Histoire de l’Afrique noire (Paris, Hatier)
- 1991 : Histoire générale de l’Afrique
- 2003 : A quand l'Afrique, collaboration with René Holenstein (Editions de l’Aube, prix RFI Témoin du monde 2004)
- 2005 : Afrique Noire, with Didier Ruef ( Infolio éditions)
In addition, Ki Zerbo was a committed historian and politician. As illustrated, Holenstein (2006), Ki-Zerbo extended his fights internationally to make people recognize slavery as a crime against humanity and that Africa should get reparations for this. He tried to combine science and political activity. Ki-Zerbo summed his philosophy up in the following quote: “The Africa which the world needs is a continent able to stand up, to walk on its own feet… it is an Africa conscious of its own past and able to keep on reinvesting this past into its present and future.”
- Holenstein, R. (2006, December 11). Joseph Ki-Zerbo: A quand l’Afrique. Le Faso.net (2006). Retrieved May 22, 2007 from http://www.lefaso.net/article.php3?id_article=17840
- Michel, Marc (2003). les Africains et la Grande Guerre. Paris: Kathala. ISBN 9 782845 864177.
- Barry, A. (2006, December 5). Joseph Ki-Zerbo, un érudit épris de liberté politique. Rfi actualite (2006). Retrieved May 22, 2007 from http://www.rfi.fr/actufr/articles/084/article_47971.asp
- Sitchet, T. C. (2003 October 27). A quand l’Afrique ? Joseph Ki-Zerbo. Critique d’un entretien avec René Holenstein. Africultures (2003). Retrieved May 22, 2007 from http://www.africultures.com/index.asp?menu=revue_affiche_article&no=3143