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 area in a big family. Ki-Zerbo declared that his rural first 11 years marked his personality and thoughts. He was recognized as one of Africa’s foremost thinkers.
He was educated in his home country in missionary schools at Toma, and Pabre (around 20 miles from the capital). Later, he studied at Faladie in Mali and 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. In 1983, he was forced into exile, only being able to return in 1992.
Ki-Zerbo founded a political 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 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 the first Christian in the town. In 1915 he intervened during the Volta-Bani War to stop Toma being razed to the ground.
Between 1933 and 1940, Ki-Zerbo was a student in missionary schools at Torna in Pabre (about 20 miles from the capital Ouagadougou) in Burkina and Faladie in Mali. He attended the seminary school at Koumi near Bobo Dioulasso, the economic capital of Burkina Faso for higher teaching level. In Dakar, Senegal, Ki-Zerbo taught many years and found other subsistence jobs as many others migrate. Holenstein (2006) reported that he participated in the building of 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 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 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 newspaper Tam-Tam with the remarkable title “On demande des nationalists” (“We ask the nationalists”). In Paris, Ki-Zerbo met other intellectuals as the Senegalese historian Cheik Anta Diop, or Abdoulaye Wade, later third president of Senegal (2000-2012).
During one of his tours 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 public schools in 1957 in Dakar with the status of French employee and citizen.
The second half of the 1950s was a deep disruption on the African continent with different desires to access to [independence]. Barry (2007), an RFI reporter, reported that in 1957 he created his party, le Mouvement de Liberation Nationale (MLN) (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 on the referendum. Barry (2007) mentioned as a result in his article that Sekou Toure (the 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 returned to Burkina Faso in 1960. Ki-Zerbo justified his coming back by saying “I explained to Sekou that I have to go back home to pursue the fight for independence in others territories”. After years of teaching, Ki-Zerbo was 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.
Ki-Zerbo was professor at the University of Ouagadougou (1968 to 1973). He was the co-founder and general director (1967 to 1979) 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 (Black African World) that was published in 1963. In 1972, Ki-Zerbo published the famous Histoire de l’Afrique Noir (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, Histoire de l’Afrique Noir represented the hope of many Africans of a brighter future in liberty and self-determination.
Sitchet (2003), an Africultures reporter, argued that from 1972 to 1978 Ki-Zerbo was an executive member of UNESCO (United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization). From 1976 to 2001, Ki-Zerbo was the president of the African Historian Association and a professor at the University of Ouagadougou.
His conviction on education led him to found in 1980 the Centre for African Development Studies (CEDA) that has this goal “on ne developpe pas, on se developpe” ("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 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 research 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. Holenstein (2006) explained this in an 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 syndicate and MLN played a big role in the 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; he got sixth rank.
In February the Burkina Faso Parliament was ruined because of a military coup. In October, banning was cancelled. Many new parties arose like Union Progressiste Voltaique (UPV) under the control of Ki-Zerbo that replaced MLN. UPV was in opposition to the government party (Union Democratique Voltaique-Rassemblement Democratique Africain (UDV-RDA).)
In 1983, a group of young officers took 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.
In 1985 he was finallyarrested with his family for two years of detention and became free only after another military coup organized by the ex-president of Burkina Faso Blaise Compaore. Even in exile, he created research centers like the Research Centre for Endogenous Development (CRDE) and taught at Cheikh Anta Diop University at Dakar; he came back until 1987. His library rich of 11,000 books in his hometown Faso was burned while he was in exile. He came back and tried to rebuild by 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 research on development. (This prize is given to those who try to find credible solutions to the protection of the environment and nature; it is for people who helped the development of human rights and peace.) In 2000, Ki-Zerbo 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 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. 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 actualité (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