By Albert Mbiatem:
The recent popular revolution in Burkina Faso and the resignation of President Blaise Compaoré has emerged as a ‘warning alarm’ to African tyrants who are bent on eternalising themselves in power. The political crisis in Burkina Faso could be seen as a ‘call for attention’ to the presidents of Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and Rwanda who intend to amend their respective constitutions in order to become eligible for a third mandate.
Presented by some Western states (France and the United States) as an effective mediator in resolving regional crises, Compaoré has just failed to prevent and resolve the political crisis in his own country. The Burkinabe people chose to oust Compaoré during the month of October, just as he ousted President Thomas Sankara in October, 27 years earlier. With the complicity of France, Compaoré took power in 1987 by eliminating a Sankara, a transformational leader. Sankara and thirteen collaborators were killed during the coup. The result was that a committed head of state was replaced by a ruler responsive only to the interests of the former colonial power.
During his rule, Compaoré set up a political system largely unresponsive to people’s needs, wants and aspirations. For almost three decades, the Burkinabe people witnessed a high level of corruption, poverty, injustice, a high unemployment rate and a repressive political system. Civil rights and the freedom of the press were undermined. One of the most gruesome examples of this came on December 13th 1998, when the charred bodies of journalists Norbert Zongo and three of his friends were found in their vehicle 100km south of Ouagadougou. The President’s brother, Francois Compaoré, was a prime suspect. Unequal resource distribution has also been one of the main causes of persistent popular disenchantment. According to World Bank statistics from 2012, 46% of the population still lives below the poverty line.
President Compaoré, like many African Heads of State, was more interested in clinging to power than in the needs of his people. Modifying the constitution to stay in power became the ultimate goal for Compaoré. Article 37 of the constitution of Burkina Faso stipulates that ‘the president of Faso is elected for five years by direct universal suffrage in a secret ballot. He can only be re-elected once’. Elected in 2005 and again in 2010, Blaise Compaoré could not stand for re-election without amending this article. On October 21st 2014, Compaoré announced his intention to hold a referendum which, if it went his way, would give him the power to amend the constitution and stand for a fifth presidential term. A wave of popular disapproval spread throughout the country, incorporating both the opposition party and large sections of civil society.
On 30th October, when the amendment of the constitution was due to be debated in parliament, the Burkinabe people stormed into the parliament building and destroyed it.
The weakening of the regime in Ouagadougou not only came from the discontent of civil society but also from perennial mutinies in the army. In 1999 soldiers protested about the payment of their bonuses. In 2011 there was another mutiny, coinciding with civil unrest. Despite the fact that Compaoré at that time added the role of Minister of Defense to his presidential portfolio, the regime continued to show signs of weakness. The relatively low degree of retaliation by the armed forces with regard to the uprisings of 28-30th October show the persistent discontent within the ranks.
Another problem for Compaoré was his firm belief in protecting his ‘Western friends’ above all else – France and the USA. He thus gave little attention to the famous phrase vox populis, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God). The victories of popular revolutions over tyrannical regimes across the world provide enough evidence to argue that ultimate power lies in the hands of the people.
As we look towards the future, there are several questions to consider: What kind of political future will Burkina Faso have? Will the country undergo the kind of political controversies witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt after the respective downfalls of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak? As the former second in command of Compaoré’s presidential guard, will Lieutenant Colonel Zida ensure a transparent transition? Does the military’s ascendance to the helm of the state undermine the intention of the revolution to free the people from tyranny? Is it not high time for the African Union to actively intervene in favour of a peaceful and consensual transition in Burkina Faso?
It is not easy to find specific answers to these questions since the situation on the ground is evolving all the time. But it is high time for the leaders in Burkina Faso to recognise leadership as a process of interaction between leaders and followers. Leaders must be aware and responsive to societal needs. The structure of the transition should be consensually determined by the Burkinabe people in such a way that all the strata of society are taken into account. In this context, a consensual civilian government would be the appropriate structure for an effective democratic transition. As the main political organisation on the continent, the African Union must effectively encourage a peaceful transition in ‘the land of incorruptible people’, as Sankara once called Burkina Faso, before he was deposed by the eminently corruptible Compaoré.
Albert Mbiatem is a fellow of the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London. He is currently on attachment at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) in Addis Ababa. He is also a research assistant at the University of Buea in Cameroon.
- Radio France Internationale, Revue de Presse. 31 October, 2014.
- Bonkoungou, M. (2007) “Burkina Faso Salutes “Africa’s Che” Thomas Sankara”. Reuters, 17 October 2007. And Radio France Internationale, October 27, 2008.
- International Crisis Group “Burkina Faso: With or Without Compaoré, Times of Uncertainty” Africa Report N°205, 22 July 2013.
- World Factbook and the World Bank. 2012.
- Le Figaro, “Au Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré Rêve Encore de Pouvoir”. 22 October 2014.
- Crisis Group Interview, International Military Official, Ouagadougou, September 2011.