Regime Change In Burkina Faso: Implications for Sub-Saharan Africa

A political upheaval in the Republic of Burkina Faso during a three-day period, October29-31, 2014, resulted in the premature departure of President Blaise Compaore who had been head of state since 1987. What triggered the mass movement of over a hundred thousand protesters in the streets of the capital city Ouagadougou was Compaore’s attempt to amend the constitution to eliminate the two-term limit on the presidential mandate. He wanted to run for a third term, and the population was fed up with his long misrule. The mob burned down the parliament to prevent the enactment of the constitutional change, and then forced the President to flee for his life in a French military helicopter. It was notable that the Burkina military, especially the elite presidential guard, did not defend the president against the protesters.

Since 1990, the majority of African countries have re-written their constitutions to eliminate the so-called “one-party state” in favor of multiparty democracy. One common feature of the new constitutions was the inclusion of a two-term limit on heads of state. The idea was to stop African strong men from remaining in power indefinitely through the falsification of election results.

The implementation of the two-term limit has worked as intended in a number of African countries, such as Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique. In all of these countries, the elected heads of state departed after two terms, and in some cases opposition leaders were elected in their place. In other cases, especially Tanzania and Mozambique, the ruling parties continued in power by continuing to elect one of their own for successive two-term mandates. In other words, power has remained in the same club, but under fresh faces at the top.

Prior to the Burkina upheaval, a number of African heads of state did succeed in changing their nations’ constitutions to eliminate the two-term limit for their own benefit. These have included Paul Biya in Cameroon, Idris Deby in Chad, Roweri Museveni in Uganda, and Omar al-Bashir in the Sudan. All of these heads of state have essentially made themselves “presidents for life” through their manipulation of the electoral process.

What happened in Burkina Faso to thwart Blaise Compaore’s effort to become the permanent president is the sign of a growing popular trend in Africa on behalf of the democratic concept of rotation in power. Even before Burkina, President Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria demanded that the parliament amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term back in 2007. Despite bribes of one million US dollars for each member-of-parliament, popular outrage caused them to vote against the constitutional amendment.

The next major challenge to the two-term constitutional limit is currently taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where President Joseph Kabila is in the midst of his last two years of his second mandate. The DRC constitution provides for a two-term presidential limit with the additional stipulation that the clause in question cannot be amended. Despite this ironclad prohibition on more than two terms, Kabila’s parliamentary majority is blithely discussing the possibility of a constitutional amendment.

Kabila was easily elected under the DRC’s new constitution in 2006. He had brought an end to civil war, and he was popular in the densely populated eastern provinces. In the election of 2011, Kabila was re-elected, but all the observers, both international and domestic, condemned the election as a total fraud. Since then, social, economic and security conditions have deteriorated, and Kabila has become highly unpopular.  The huge revenues from the Congo’s exports of close to one million tons of refined copper per annum are bringing no benefits to the people.

A new element in the DRC is international opinion. Both the American and French governments have warned Kabila and his majority party not to try and amend the constitution. Both are major donor countries, and both see no hope for economic development and honest government as long as Kabila remains in power.

Even more important, the cloud generated by Burkina Faso is hanging heavily over the Congo.  President Kabila knows that the number and vehemence of the protesters in the capital city of Kinshasa will greatly dwarf the crowds in Ouagadougou if he makes an attempt to change the constitution. Indeed, talk of such a change has diminished in Kinshasa since the events of Ouagadougou.

The new trend in sub-Saharan Africa is against strong leaders keeping themselves in power indefinitely. The events in Burkina Faso of late October 2014 will therefore be remembered as a milestone in contemporary African history.

Burkina Faso: Analysis of the new regime

Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore has departed for good. He was ex-filtrated from Ouagadougou by French security to Yamassoukrou, Côte d’Ivoire.  According to press reports, he is now in Morocco.

After a consultation among political opposition, the military, and civil society, the people of Burkina have decided on a transitional government. The transitional president is Michel Kafando, a distinguished retired diplomat.  The prime minister will be Lt. Colonel Isaac Zida, the second in command of the presidential guard.

None of the officials in the transitional regime will be eligible to run for high office in the elections that will take place some time in 2015.  Nevertheless, people who are suspicious of a possible return to military rule do not like the fact that a military officer, who was very close to Blaise Compaore, will be running the day-to-day operations of the transitional regime.

I am optimistic that the final result will be a new civilian government selected through a transparent election. I believe that the military insisted on being part of the transitional government in order to assure the army’s future role in Burkina Faso. The military saw what happened in Nigeria in 1999 when civilian rule replaced two decades of military rule.  The new civilian regimes in Nigeria since 1999 have neglected the military in terms of both budget and equipment.  What used to be the most powerful army in West Africa, is now underfunded and underequipped, and cannot cope with a major insurgency in the northeastern region of the country. The Burkina military does not want to repeat the Nigerian experience. 

As for the potential for a return to multiparty democracy, the prospect is favorable, in my opinion.  Before the military coup carried out by the late Thomas Sankara and the recently deposed Blaise Compaore in 1986, Burkina Faso, then called Upper Volta, had a tradition of competitive elections, as well as free trade unions. I believe they will return to the democratic tradition.

The US military has facilities in Burkina as part of US support for counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel region. I believe the US Government need not worry about the continuity of Burkina support for those efforts.  The new transitional regime understands that they and the US, as well as the French, are partners in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Mahgreb (AQIM), and will certainly continue to make their military facilities available to American drone operations.

Burkina Faso Regime Change

November 1st, 2014

REGIME CHANGE IN BURKINA FASO:  State Department: Please do not designate the change as a “military coup”.

Massive demonstrations in Ouagadougou, the capital city of the West African Republic of Burkina Faso on October 30, 2014, resulted in the resignation of President Blaise Compaore.  As of November 1, Compaore was in Côte d’Ivoire where he has been granted asylum.

Simultaneously with Compaore’s resignation and flight, the Burkinabe Army announced that it was taking power for a transitional period, with the promise that they will relinquish power  

after a democratic election for a new head of state.

In the past, the US Department of State has had a tendency to designate all military takeovers in Africa as “illegal coups”, especially when the regime that has been overthrown came to power through democratic elections. This follows the African Union rule that democracies should not be overthrown through military coups.  When such a “coup” happens, the military regime will be ostracized until such time as a free and fair democratic election takes place. For its part, the US refuses to maintain normal relations with such military regimes until there is a return to civilian rule through democratic elections.

In the case of Burkina Faso, I contend that what took place was not a military coup against a democratically elected government.  It was a popular uprising that was fed up with a head of state who had done nothing to improve living standards for his people.

Former President Blaise Compaore had been in power for 27 years. The constitution limits heads of state to two terms.  On October 30, Compaore introduced a bill in Parliament revising the two-term limit to three terms.  This proposal was the last straw for the long- suffering Burkinabe population.  Compaore had spent most of his 27 years as President interfering in the internal affairs of neighboring countries.   His destabilization activities had plunged both Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire into destructive civil wars that lasted for ten years in each country.

Because Compaore devoted so much of his regime’s time and scarce resources to the support of his surrogates in Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, his own people in Burkina Faso made no economic gains during his tenure in office.  They were just as poor in 2014 as they were in 1987 when Compaore overthrew his predecessor in a coup.

I repeat my message to the State Department. What happened in Ouagadougou on Thursday, October 30 did not constitute a military coup against an elected democracy.  The event was a popular uprising against an unpopular president who wanted to prolong his presidency illegitimately.  Please do not make the same mistake that you made in Guinea (Conakry) when the military took power in a transitional government after the death of President Lansana Conté in December 2008.  The US had no diplomatic dialogue with the ruling military group for a full year, and therefore was unable to influence the unfolding of the political process as it made its chaotic way toward a democratic election in 2010.