Emerging expressions of people’s will beyond elections: The case of West Africa

By Myriam Wedraogo:


On the 30th of October 2014, large numbers of protesters prevented the Burkina Faso National Assembly from voting on a constitutional review bill that would allow President Blaise Compaore, in power since October 1987, to be eligible to contest the November 2015 Presidential election in a third term bid. This uprising reached a climax within one day, with the resignation of the President and the announcement of an interim leader in the person of Honore Traore, Chief-of-Staff of Burkina Faso’s armed forces. The unexpectedly quick succession of events was triggered by a massive rejection of the idea of modifying Article 37 of the Burkina Faso Constitution. Indeed on 28 October, ordinary citizens, together with opposition parties expressed their discontent in an unprecedented manner as several media reports on the protest show. People’s will, like a powerful tide, engulfed President Compaore.

These events in Burkina Faso should be analyzed as a social change movement and not merely a political one. While opposition leaders are undoubtedly benefiting from the expressed will of the people against ‘ruling for life’, the mounting thirst for change shows a new dimension of leadership being experienced in the West African region. People are claiming entitlement to not just elect, or be given universal instruments for voting leaders out of office, but to also enforce such a will whenever they feel the so-called legal and universal channels are being manipulated at their expense. Now people want real power, not the type they entrust a leader with, but the kind of power they can use to ensure legally enforced electoral processes.

Between Peaceful and Militarised Enforcement

Other cases of disputed electoral reform in the region offer some reflections for consideration, even if their historical paths and contexts are different from what is happening in Burkina Faso. The main focus should be on how such pre- or post-electoral disputes got the military involved or not.

In 2009, President Tanja of Niger sought and obtained a constitutional review through a referendum that, according to the outcome, meant the people wanted him to stay in power. This move was short-lived as a military coup took place in February 2010 and was followed by elections under the guidance of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

In a different style, the Senegalese peaceful protest movement ‘Y en a marre‘ (‘Enough is enough’) led the population to a historic presidential poll in 2012 whose outcome was more an expression of voting the incumbent President Wade out of office, than one of placing President Macky Sall in power.

Then comes Burkina Faso currently undergoing a “revolution” ahead of the general elections scheduled for November 2015. The Government had prepared two plans in view of the review of the constitution pertaining to the number of presidential terms. Plan A was to have the National Assembly decide on 30 October, in which case, three-quarter of votes in favour of the bill would have sufficed for the bill to be adopted. Plan B was in case of no parliamentary consensus to consult the “sovereign people” through a referendum None of the two plans materialized. Rather, Burkina Faso has from 31 October an interim military ruler, following the resignation of the embattled President Compaore.

This turn of events implies that a presidential election will have to be held within 90 days, assuming all logistical aspects and right transitional processes are put in place; most importantly, assuming the military leader does not begin to experience the syndrome of “appetite comes with the eating”, thus delaying the return to civilian leadership.In any case, civil-military alliances in enforcing people’s will are, rightly or wrongly utilised, and remind us of the need to deeply interrogate our history, our democratic systems and above all, initiate sincere dialogue on where we are aiming at, but also how we want to contribute to enriching democracy manifestations in a globalised setting. Indeed, no amount of defense and security sector reforms combined with the regular holding of elections would sort out our troubled and conflict-prone interpretation of leadership, democracy and governance.



Myriam Wédraogo is an alumna of the African Leadership Center (ALC) who has been working with the German development cooperation since 2010 as an Advisor in peace and security to the Commission of the Economic Community of African States (ECOWAS).

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