What the history of successful nonviolent movements teaches us about the political transition in Burkina Faso.
- By Jonathan PinckneyJonathan Pinckney is a Ph.D. Student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and Research Fellow at the Sie Cheou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy.
On Oct. 31, President Blaise Compaoré, the 27-year ruler of Burkina Faso, stepped down following massive protests in the country’s two major cities. While incidents of violence were reported during the protests, including arson and vandalism at the parliament building in Ouagadougou, the so-called “Lwili Revolution” (named for the traditional fabrics worn by many of the protesters) was primarily one of nonviolent civil resistance, and drew on the tactics and imagery of the 2011 Arab Spring protests.
Yet as the Arab Spring shows, the most challenging time for Burkina Faso will come in the weeks and months ahead. Burkina Faso’s leaders have already approved a transition plan and appointed a transitional president to guide reforms over the next year, but it will still need to navigate innumerable pitfalls along the way. Several recent political transitions following nonviolent campaigns have been seriously flawed. Hopeful moments of regime change in the Middle East have been followed by communal conflict in Yemen and violence and authoritarian retrenchment in Egypt. In Ukraine, too, the nonviolent ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych has been followed by civil war.
These outcomes are puzzling because multiple studies have shown that, in general, political transitions following nonviolent movements tend to be more peaceful and result in the establishment of democracy. They have better outcomes than transitions following violent campaigns and transitions initiated by political elites. So why have so many recent transitions following nonviolent campaigns encountered so many major political problems?
The answer may lie in how these campaigns achieve success. I have analyzed every successful nonviolent campaign for regime change from 1900 to 2006. Of these 87 campaigns, 16 achieved success through a mechanism similar to that in Burkina Faso: a coup d’etat led by insiders from the old regime, either military or civilian, who have assumed power ostensibly in support of the goals of the campaign. Prior to Burkina Faso, this mechanism was most prominent in the 2011 and 2013 coups against Presidents Mubarak and Morsi in Egypt. Nonviolent campaigns that succeeded through these kinds of mechanisms were followed by major political violence in 50 percent of cases, and have only led to democracy in 40 percent of cases. This stands in contrast to more consensus-based mechanisms of success, which have only been followed by major political violence in 18 percent of cases and have led to democracy 65 percent of the time.
These differences are due primarily to three factors that characterize these “coups for democracy”: a lack of political consensus between regime elites and the opposition, lack of opposition initiative, and limited political capacity-building. This combination privileges old regime elites, reduces pressure for democratic reforms, reduces the perceived legitimacy of the political transition process, and fragments society along pre-existing cleavages, leading to an increased likelihood of political violence.
For example, the 2011 coup d’etat by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, while undertaken ostensibly in support of the country’s Arab Spring protests, primarily served to cement the position of the military relative to its “crony capitalist” rivals in the old regime. The generals were able to use their ouster of President Mubarak to frame themselves as on the side of the protesters. By taking the reins on behalf of the protesters, the military was able to de-mobilize large segments of the opposition that had joined the Tahrir Square protests but had failed to develop organized political capacity in the lead-up to the coup. This ultimately led to the centralization of power in the Egyptian military with the ascent of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
Furthermore, these types of incidents tend to repeat themselves, with increasingly negative effects. A military coup in Thailand inspired by a civil resistance movement against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has set off an almost continual pattern of back-and-forth, extra-institutional political disruption that regime elites, including the military, have sought to resolve through coercion and force. The most prominent examples of this are the crackdown on “Red Shirt” protesters in 2010 and this year’s coup by military leader Prayuth Chan-ocha.
These trends put the long-term outcomes in Burkina Faso in serious doubt. While the ouster of President Compaoré by the nonviolent opposition is inspiring, the mechanism that led to his ouster is unlikely to lead to democratization or domestic peace. Instead, it is likely that in the next few months prominent figures in the military will seek to use their new position to concentrate power, leading to a new and possibly harsher authoritarianism and continued political instability and, possibly, violence.
There is some reason for hope, though. In contrast to Egypt in 2011, the protesters in Burkina Faso have remained both mobilized and largely unified. They have continued to protest against the new military regime, insisting on a transition governed by constitutional processes and based on broad political consensus. (In the photo above, a protester in Ouagadougou holds a sign that reads “No to the confiscation of our victory. Live the people!”) This refusal to accept the military’s coup as a legitimate expression of the people’s vision suggests that the protesters are determined to achieve success through a more positive, consensus-based mechanism. Already, the protesters’ insistence on inclusion has yielded a compromise transition plan that army leaders approved on Nov. 14. The plan ensures that both the interim heads of state and government are civilians, and that opposition and civil society leaders play a role in choosing the speaker of the National Transition Council. In accordance with this compromise, Burkina Faso inaugurated its new president, former U.N. ambassador Michel Kafando, as its transitional president on Nov. 18. Though Kafando was among the military’s choice candidates for the position, he is a civilian and a career diplomat, so his appointment marks a distinct success for the protesters.
This is very encouraging. Civil resistance campaigns that employ consensus-based mechanisms such as negotiations or elections have had a much more positive track record. The historical record suggests that a negotiated political transition with a mobilized civil society keeping the old guard accountable and a rapid move to democratic elections within the time frame mandated by Burkina Faso’s constitution is the country’s best chance for a long-term positive outcome.
As campaigns for regime change by unarmed civilians continue to re-shape the political landscape, understanding the dynamics of these campaigns and their aftermaths is critical. The lessons of civil resistance over the last century provide crucial insight into how the long-term effects of these campaigns vary, and how activists and policymakers can influence these outcomes toward greater democracy and civil peace.