Democracy’s Moment of Truth in Burkina Faso?

Author: Ashby Henningsen, UMBC                      _______________________________________________________________________________________

Over the past weekend, the world bore witness to yet another example of how quickly public outcry can catalyze political upheaval. In the western African country of Burkina Faso, protesters decrying the possibility of a fifth ruling term by long-ruling strongman Blaise Compaore led to a rapid toppling of the long-standing regime. In the aftermath lies a myriad of questions concerning the country’s political future–and what the unfolding tumult implies for the region’s overall stability. The only certainty is that this section of the world, already beleaguered by militant and sectarian violence, human rights issues, and the ongoing struggle against Ebola–just took a more complicated turn.

Precipitating recent events in the capital city of Ouagadougou, a recent effort by now-deposed president Compaore to extend his potential administration through the constitution sparked nationwide criticism and dissent among the populace. Compaore had pledged support for a referendum that would have modified the national constitution so as to allow for a third term limit [1]. Seeing as Compaore has in fact been in charge of Burkina Faso since the military coup that put him in power in 1987–long before the original two-term limit had been enacted in 2005–this would have extended Compaore’s rule to 32 years by the end of 2019. His 27 year-tenure as the nation’s chief executive, however, has evidently worn out its appeal among his citizens. Thousands took to Ouagadougou’s streets on October 30, the day scheduled for the parliament’s vote on the term-limit referendum, to voice their objections to the measure. Within hours, what had started as street demonstrations morphed into ransackings of the parliament building, the national television offices, and other government buildings. Not even police lines and tear gas could hold them back [2].

Upon closer scrutiny, one finds that the controversy over presidential term limits has served only to inflame underlying contention between Burkina Faso’s people and their public officials. That contention can be traced to the earliest days of the now-deposed regime. In 1987, Compaore led an uprising against his former friend Thomas Sankara, who himself had risen to national power via a military coup [3]. Compaore had steered the country’s helm from that moment on until his own recent fall from grace, in one form of legitimacy or another. Although Ougadougou introduced national multi-party elections in 1991, Compaore’s Congrès pour la Démocratie et le Progrès (CDP) has utilized corrupt tactics and exploited weaknesses among opposition parties to preserve a hegemonic monopoly of power over the legislature and bureaucracy [4]. Although Compaore had deftly protected his rule in the face of mounted opposition in the past, both in the form of citizen protests and challenging political coalitions, his fortune has appeared to have finally run out.

Unfortunately for the country’s prospects for political liberalization or peace, that has not automatically translated into popularly consented rule. The day after Compaore was forced to step down, potentially rival military officials almost simultaneously declared that they would assume responsibility of leading the transitional government until political stability could be restored [5]. Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida’s definitive appointment by the military to lead the country for the time being has met sharp disapproval from Burkina Faso’s people: throngs have resumed protests, although this time the public has directed its ire against what they regard as yet another military coup [6]. Already, the country’s popular ire has been supplemented by that of the United States, the United Nations, and the African Union. All have chastised the military leadership for its abrupt assumption of power and have urged that they hand over control to a civilian leadership; the AU has gone so far as to impose a two-week deadline for civilian constitutionally-based governance to resume, on the threat of sanctions [7].

A shift in affairs as momentous as political reform ought to be met with nothing more or less than heavily guarded optimism. Initial success can only be regarded as such; early setbacks do not seal a political reform movement’s fate. The transition unfolding in Burkina Faso has reached a state of indefinite limbo, with no sure final outcome in immediate sight. At this point, it rests upon the military leadership to cede authority in a responsible manner, and the people of Burkina Faso to maintain public pressure peacefully. And while the threat of AU sanctions may hold sway circumstances in democracy’s favor, all the world can ultimately do is watch and wait.











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