By Sophie des Beauvais
On Tuesday, October 28, hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to protest against the attempt of President Blaise Compaoré to run for re-election. Although the popular revolution reveals a deep change in African politics, the institutional future of this country remains quite uncertain.
Compaoré became president following an institutional coup in 1987, and was planning to revise the fundamental law−which he already modified twice−to allow him to continue leading the country after 27 years in power. Resistance began on October 21, when Compaoré attempted to persuade Parliament to lift the two-term limit on his time in office. A few days later, the civilian protests escalated, the army dissolved Parliament, and Compaoré resigned.
Following this unexpected crisis, General Nabéré Honoré Traoré stated he would take on the “responsibilities of Head of State,” though he was considered too close, politically speaking, to the former president and failed to gain unanimous support from the army. The army eventually selected Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida to lead the political transition, and Zida confirmed it would be democratic one at that.
Many African and Western governments pressured the Burkinabè army to hand back power to a civilian government and hold elections. The African Union gave Zida a two-week deadline to hand over power. “We have taken note of the origin of the popular revolt, which led to the military getting power, so we determined the period of two weeks, and after that period we are going apply sanctions,” said African Union official Simeon Oyono Esono.
Regarding the international community, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon congratulated the people of Burkina Faso on the adoption of an agreement on the principle of a one-year civilian-led transition, leading to democratic elections in November 2015. U.N. spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric indicated that a joint mission of the United Nations, the African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was continuing consultations with all parties to “ensure a democratic civilian-led transition in Burkina Faso.”
Zida ensured foreign diplomats that the executive branch will be led by a transitional body within a constitutional framework, insisting on the fact that “we’re not here to steal power.” Although the person leading the transition has not been appointed yet, Dujarric explains that Ban Ki-moon “further encourages all parties to continue to use dialogue to rapidly reach an agreement on an eminent civilian personality to lead the transition process.”
The opposition and the civil society handed the army their charter proposal for a civil transition, which Zida declared would be the basis for a resolution to the crisis. The framework includes a president, a prime minister, a government of 25 ministers, and a parliament of 90 members. This document also suggests a complex process led by an ad hoc commission to elect the future president of the transition.
This text will be amended to take on board the contribution of the army and the ancient pro-Compaoré majority. “This is an excellent work that needs to take into account that the transition must be as short as possible and limited to a maximum of a year,” said Edem Kodjo, Togo’s former Prime Minister and Special Envoy of the African Union. Although Kodjo wonders if they “will be able to implement all this properly and in a decent amount of time without forgetting that elections must occur at the end?”
Thus, the democratic transition of Burkina Faso, though coordinated by the African Union and supported by the international community, remains fragile. Nonetheless, the international interest in the country is high because it is, for Western countries, a useful base to fight Islamic extremism in neighbor countries. For instance, both French and American armed forces currently use it to keep an eye on Mali, the Sahel, and sub-Saharan regions.
African leaders also have a deep interest in paying attention to the current situation in Burkina as term limit issues have emerged all over Africa. Indeed, it is still a fragile concept. The leaders of Chad, Uganda, and Zimbabwe managed to extend their time in power for an undefined amount of time, while the presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda recently considered changing the fundamental law to extend their time in power. Leaders of Benin, Congo, and Djibouti are said to be considering doing so as well. However, in 2012, a similar situation sparked democratic elections in Senegal, which led President Abdoulaye Wade to admit his defeat. This year, the Burundi Parliament disallowed its former president, Pierre Nkurunziza, to run for a third term. This decision came down to a single vote.
It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the “Black Spring,” a term protesters in Ouagadougou use when referring to their recent revolution. However, much like the Arab Spring, there is still quite a bit of uncertainty for what the future may bring. The African Union has a strict policy of not recognizing coups and non-constitutional changes of governments, and it applies those principles to popular revolutions as well. Thus, the situation is volatile and the composition of Burkina Faso’s next government remains a mystery. If the democratic transition succeeds, however, it will be a huge step for the continent at large.
Sophie des Beauvais is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.