Hard Lessons From Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso’s president Blaise Compaoré resigned on Friday after four days of violent protests. Burkinabé citizens took to the streets in the capital Ouagadougou and in Bobo Dioulasso calling for the resignation when Compaoré attempted to push through parliament a constitutional amendment that would abolish term limits and allow him to run in national elections scheduled for November 2015. This move was the last straw for opponents who have chafed under the president’s 27-year rule and have been increasingly assertive in recent years in voicing their frustration. Compaoré’s offers of concessions were flatly rebuffed, and General Honore Traoré, head of the armed forces, took power promising a transitional government that would prepare for elections. A tussle among military forces appears underway as Lt. Col Isaac Zida, a deputy in Compaoré 's presidential guard has also claimed to be in charge.

For Burkina Faso this ushers in a period of uncertainty and flux. It’s not yet certain that the public will trust the impartiality of Traoré or Issa, or any member of the military who has been close to the erstwhile president. The opposition is fractured and has never been able to coalesce in a meaningful way to challenge Compaoré. Pressures will likely mount for the military to turn the transitional government over to civilian authority, but the leadership and composition of that authority will likely be disputed. The president’s overwhelming influence in the country’s political affairs has meant that there are few obvious candidates to replace him, and government institutions that might facilitate a transition are extremely weak. The presidency and the military have been the country’s strongest and best-resourced institutions.  Meanwhile, the country’s burgeoning mining sector has raised political stakes considerably, and the struggle for control of natural resources in one the world’s poorest economies could be protracted.

Burkina Faso’s crisis holds some hard lessons for Africa’s long-time autocrats, for the African Union (AU) and ECOWAS (the West African regional body), and for the United States. Already being called Burkina’s Black Spring, the crisis should serve as a warning to other entrenched authoritarian regimes. Compaoré is not alone in changing the rules to prolong his incumbency. Chadian President Idriss Deby and Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, in office for 24 years and 28 years, respectively, have both changed the constitution to abolish term limits and remain in office, and there is a strong possibility that both will seek yet another term. Paul Kagame, in power 20 years, has hinted that he might follow suit, and DRC President Joseph Kabila, who changed election laws six months before the 2011 election, is proposing abolition of term limits ahead of the 2016 polls. These manipulations, a more sophisticated version of the old fashioned military coup d'état, have a façade of legality and, despite being fundamentally undemocratic, have thereby deflected harsh criticism or punitive action by the African Union and the international community. But the reaction of Burkinabé citizens—increasingly urbanized, frustrated, and connected through social media—should put long-time authoritarian rulers on notice and is a more powerful signal than any externally imposed sanction. Unfortunately, in some cases, leaders may simply ramp up security measures and further restrict political space, particularly around elections, but in the long term this is not a winning strategy.
The African Union and ECOWAS will need to grapple with the growing trend of pseudo-legal power grabs. Both organizations have successfully changed the continental norm on military coups, suspending any state where the leadership has come to power through force of arms, but neither, as yet, has challenged this newer, more circuitous tactic. If the AU is to fulfill its pledge to uphold the principles of democracy and promote adherence to the principle of rule of law, it will need to grapple with the challenge of incumbents changing the democratic rules in mid-stream to suit their own interests. ECOWAS, which has played an important role in preventive diplomacy and mediation of electoral crises, likewise needs to speak out on this issue. In Senegal and Nigeria, efforts by incumbents to extend their stay through constitutional change were both rebuffed, and these cases set a strong regional example that can serve as a basis for normative change.

The Burkinabé crisis holds a lesson for the U.S. government as well, as it seeks to balance competing interests of maintaining stable, reliable security partners in Africa with promoting participatory and accountable governance. The rise of violent extremist groups in the Sahel has elevated U.S. engagement in Burkina Faso, which it sees as an important partner in West Africa. Compaoré has shrewdly—and somewhat ironically, given his past role in fueling conflict in Angola, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—positioned himself as a regional peacemaker, mediating (with mixed success) crises in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, and Mali. The United States has worked closely with Burkinabé security forces, providing training in peacekeeping, counterterrorism, border security, and regional cooperation, and the U.S. military maintains an airbase in Burkina Faso to as a platform for surveillance flights into Mali and the broader Sahel. The security partnership has dampened any real criticism of the Compaoré government, and in fact Burkina Faso received a grant of $480 million from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, despite MCC criteria on transparency, civil liberties, and political rights.

Security threats in the Sahel and West Africa are real, and the United States does have an interest in checking the spread of violent extremism and building the competence and professionalism of African security forces. But most of Africa’s security threats are rooted in political conflict and most often in the failure of governments and state institutions to equitably address the grievances and concerns of their citizens. Burkina Faso, like other important U.S. security partners in Africa—Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, for example—has been free from political volatility for a very long time, and Compaoré, like other African strongmen, has presented himself as an indispensable guarantor of domestic and regional stability. But the absence of volatility does not guarantee long-term stability. The outsize influence of long-serving heads of state, the suppression of political opposition, and the weakness of independent institutions and civil society ultimately sow the seeds of fragility and crisis.  Burkina Faso’s Black Spring demonstrates how quickly these stable security partners can collapse.

Jennifer Cooke is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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