Burkina Faso’s Silver Lining

The maneuvers that triggered the military coup may actually have been good for democracy in Africa.


On Friday, Blaise Compaoré, president of Burkina Faso for 27 years, resigned from office after massive protests in opposition to his decision to violate Article 37 of the constitution on presidential term limits. Beginning Tuesday, thousands of protesters had paralyzed the country’s major cities. In Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s second city to the southwest, protesters tore down a statue of Compaoré. On Thursday, protesters broke into the country’s parliament ahead of a planned vote to scrap Article 37, and set the building on fire. Others then took over the state broadcaster. Later in the day, the army was forced to step in to calm the situation after protesters started marching toward the presidential palace.

At first, Compaoré was equivocal, giving concessions tinged with defiance. He conceded to the protesters’ demands on Article 37 but insisted that he would remain in charge until elections next year. But the political opposition had had enough, and it called on protesters to keep up the pressure until Compaoré resigned. Unable to reassert his authority, Compaoré eventually gave in. The head of the military, General Honore Traore, announced that he is now in charge and will steer the country through a transitional period after which constitutional rule will be restored.

It is likely that the next presidential elections in Burkina Faso will be held on schedule in late 2015. However, it is unclear if the military takeover will soon restore calm to the landlocked country, whose economy is dependent on cotton and gold exports. A large proportion of the protesters have voiced their preference for a former defense minister, General Kouame Lougue, instead, citing the closeness of Traore to Compaoré and his allies as cause for concern. The civilian political opposition remains fractured, with no single bloc able to claim national representation. The largest opposition party, the Union for Change, led by former Finance Minister Zephrin Diabre, only had 19 of the 127 seats in the now-dissolved assembly.

So how exactly did Burkina Faso get to this fractious point? 

Compaoré, now 63, took power in 1987 after the murder of famed Burkinabe revolutionary-president Thomas Sankara (dubbed Africa’s Che Guevara, and who himself seized power in a coup in 1983). To legitimize his rule after the violent power grab, Compaoré held a series of five elections, all of which he won.

Up until 1987, high levels of instability had characterized the political scene in Burkina Faso. Only six years after independence from France (in 1960), the country found itself in a coup trap, experiencing an average of a coup every 3.5 years between 1966 and 1987. Compaoré’s tenure therefore brought about some semblance of political stability, albeit marked by sporadic protests, including major ones in 1998 and 2011. For much of Compaoré’s time as president, the army stayed in the barracks, only making major news in 2011 when they mutinied over poor pay and living conditions.

But even as he continued to consolidate his rule, Compaoré never managed to completely dominate the political system. In 2000, he conceded to demands for the restoration of Article 37, which limited serving presidents to two terms (the national legislature had recently done away with it); the article was also amended to reduce terms from seven to five years. And in perhaps the clearest indication of the decline in his popularity, his party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), won only 49.5 percent of the vote (and 57 of 111 seats) in the 2002 parliamentary elections. This was a steep decline from the 68.61 percent that it won in the 1997 elections.

By 2005, the president had served his second and thus technically last term, but amid protests from the opposition, Compaoré managed to get the Burkinabe Constitutional Court to rule that the 2000 amendment did not apply retroactively, thereby resetting the term-limit clock. The president won the election that year and was again reelected in 2010 with over 80 percent of the vote.

Following the 2010 election, Compaoré and his allies immediately began laying the groundwork for a future constitutional amendment to scrap term limits. In 2011, the president established the Advisory Council on Political Reforms (CCRP) to deliberate on possible reforms in the wake of widespread protests over the cost of living in the country — and it was within the CRRP’s mandate to also investigate the contentious Article 37. The CCRP overwhelmingly voted in support of maintaining the article, but even this did not deter the president’s backers, who vowed to continue for their push to essentially make Compaoré president for life.

Appreciating the significance of the National Assembly (the official name of the country’s parliament) in the constitutional amendment process, the president’s allies also sought to guarantee his party a permanent majority in the body after the electoral scare of 2002. Burkina Faso selects its legislature using a proportional representation (PR) system, with varied district magnitudes (that is, the number of candidates per district). Before 2004, most of the assembly members were elected under the PR system, with the country’s 13 regions being the electoral districts. However, after the 2002 election, the president deemed the use of the regions as districts to be disadvantageous, and instead rammed through an amendment to make the country’s 45 provinces the new electoral districts. Under the new rules, the CDP managed to win a greater share of seats in the legislature (73 out of 111 in 2007, and 70 out of 127 in 2012).

It is perhaps this assurance of control over the legislature that gave Compaoré the confidence to ask the National Assembly, instead of a popular constitutional council, to amend Article 37 in late October. Unfortunately for him, Compaoré grossly underestimated popular discontent with the proposed amendment — and he was soon out of a job, a year before his term was set to expire.

Moving forward, Burkina Faso will probably return to civilian rule sooner rather than later. In the last decade, the African Union and the sub-regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have come down hard on leaders who come to power via coups. It is therefore very likely that a civilian transitional government will be put in place, and elections will be held as scheduled before the end of 2015. The wider international community will want to see a speedy return to calm in the country, given its importance to military activities against al Qaeda affiliates and other armed groups in the Sahel. France maintains a Special Forces base in Burkina Faso, while the United States military runs surveillance missions out of the airport in Ouagadougou. 

Although the outcome of this week’s turmoil in Burkina Faso was an extra-constitutional transfer of power, the events leading up to it were a reminder of the continued entrenchment of constitutional rule in much of Africa. It is instructive that even as he plotted to violate the country’s constitution, Compaoré resorted to institutional means to do so. He did not issue a decree or name himself president for life, but instead asked parliament to ratify the amendment to Article 37. This is an indication of the growing importance of institutions, even in non-democratic regimes. It is also a reminder to global democracy advocates that presidential elections alone do not make democracies, and that legislative elections also deserve attention. As the norm of institutionalized rule consolidates in Africa, legislatures will become the new arena of political contestation. This means that the manner in which legislatures are constituted and the rules that govern them will become just as important as whether presidential elections are free and fair. 

Moving beyond Burkina Faso, a number of African presidents also find themselves faced with term limits in the next few years. These include the presidents of Angola, Burundi, the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda. Of these countries, only the leaders of Liberia and Sierra Leone have unequivocally stated their intention to step down at the end of their second terms. Many will be watching to see whether events in Burkina Faso will inform mass political action in the other countries if their presidents try to engineer the scrapping of term limits. Perhaps unsurprisingly, throughout the week, discussions by Africans on social media of the events in Burkina Faso often invoked the revered Thomas Sankara as a figure who could potentially inspire protests in these other contexts.

Such thoughts, however, will most likely be confined to the realm of wishful thinking. The complexities of the ethnic, social, and economic conditions in these other African countries will most likely result in presidents’ getting their way. Still, the most important lesson from Burkina Faso is that, more and more, institutions do matter in African politics. And that is a very good thing.

Ken Opalo is an assistant professor at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service. Twitter: @kopalo

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