On Oct. 30, protesters calling for the ouster of Burkina Faso’s longtime leader, President Blaise Compaoré, torched government buildings, stormed radio stations and burned the homes of government officials in the capital Ouagadougo and the country’s second largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso. The protests followed months of heightened speculation that Compaoré was planning to have the parliament revise Article 37 of the country’s constitution, which stipulates presidential term limits, to seek another term in the November 2015 elections.
Under public pressure, Compaoré announced his resignation on Friday and left the capital for an undisclosed location. Several protesters were killed and others injured in clashes with the military earlier this week. Despite Compaoré’s ouster, there is still a palpable fear that the military could crush the uprising, inflicting further human rights violations and increasing their incentives to preserve the status quo ex ante.
The country’s 1991 constitution gives presidential powers to the President of the Senate in case of vacancy, until a new president is elected within 60 to 90 days. However, the fact that both Compaoré and the military’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Honoré Traoré, had each dissolved the government on Thursday raised concerns about unconstitutional power grab for the duration of the transition — a period that Traoré has indicated would be 12 months.
Traoré, whom Compaoré appointed following protests and army mutinies in 2011, has now seized the powers of the head of state, furthering the military’s claims as the guardians of the transition. Shortly after, Lieutenant Colonel Issac Zida of the presidential guard announced that the constitution was suspended, raising concerns about a split within the Burkinabé military.
Prominent opposition leader Bénéwendé Sankara has characterized the military takeover as tantamount to a coup. It is unclear whether the protesters would accept the stewardship of Traoré, who is largely seen as an ally of the embattled ex-president, or Zida, who could draw on civil society support. Further complicating the matter, protesters appear to favor former defense minister, General Kouamé Lougué, who on Thursday stood with the demonstrators, acting as an intermediary with the military. To avoid further stalemate, whichever of military leaders emerge as the leaders of the transition must now offer substantive concessions to the protesters, who are unsurprisingly suspicious of the military that helped keep Compaoré in power for almost three decades.
Burkina Faso faces two immediate risks. First, Compaoré’s resignation and physical absence from the seat of power could erode the protesters’ momentum, making it more difficult to hold the military accountable for restoring civilian rule. Second, continued disturbances by the protesters could be met with further violence, thereby escalating the country’s political crisis and hampering smooth transition.
None of this was unexpected; it was clear that the Compaoré regime was reaching a denouement. Compaoré's ascent to power via coup in 1987 came at the demise and death of revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara. No one has ever been prosecuted for involvement in Sankara’s death, nor for the 1998 murder of journalist Norbert Zongo, who was investigating the president’s brother at the time of his death.
In 2011, he faced the strongest threat to his rule, with near-simultaneous protests over corruption, rising cost of living and police impunity, and military mutinies over the abuse of power within the military leadership and the disaffection of the rank-and-file. Challenges to Compaoré’s rule picked up momentum in recent months, with Sankara asserting on Thursday that Compaoré’s departure was non-negotiable.
A key ally in the U.S. war on terror, Compaoré stated earlier this year that there are no strong institutions without strong men, perhaps a contrarian play on President Barack Obama’s remarks at the Ghanaian parliament in 2009, where he famously said, “Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” Compaoré’s nearly three-decade rule has now culminated with protesters burning the institutions he had sought to undermine by using bureaucratic maneuvers to extend his grip on power for additional five years.
Burkina Faso’s political upheaval shares some similarities and divergences with other recent transitions of power across Africa. For example, mid-level Nigerien officers ousted President Mamadou Tandja in 2010 to prevent him from seeking a third term. Similarly, popular protests in Senegal in 2011 and 2012 played a role in preventing former president Abdoulaye Wade from extending his mandate beyond the constitutional terms. Farther afield, Egypt provides a cautionary tale of how a revolution could be hijacked — and eventually derailed — by the military.
The coming days will demonstrate which of these paths, if any, Burkina Faso will pursue. But for now, the military’s evolving role remains one key development to watch.