This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Late last month, longtime Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaoré resigned under public pressure and fled to neighboring Cote d’Ivoire.
Compaoré’s abrupt expulsion—which ended his twenty-seven-year rule—was a significant achievement for the hundreds of thousands of Burkinabes who took to the streets to demand his ouster and a democratic transition.
However, a dark cloud hovers over the demonstrators’ democratic aspirations, as many fear that Compaoré’s loyalists in the military—who seized power in the midst of the ongoing unrest—will refuse to relinquish control to a democratically elected civilian government.
What happens next will determine whether Compaoré’s fall will mark the beginning of a democratic transition or merely the latest episode in a tradition of military coup d’états that have shaped Burkina Faso’s political landscape since its independence in 1960.
It will also be a test for the West, which long relied on Compaoré’s semi-authoritarian government for investment opportunities and security cooperation. With a US-trained military officer now running the country, it remains to be seen whether Washington will evince much interest in pressing the military to step down.
West African Spring
Though Compaoré’s sudden fall was a surprise even to many of the demonstrators who pressured the West African leader to relinquish power, the country’s political opposition has been mobilized for months.
Last January, peaceful opposition groups staged massive demonstrations in Ouagadougou and other cities to protest Compaoré’s efforts to muscle through constitutional changes that would have enabled him to run for another term in office. The mobilization was so impressive that some international commentators thought a “West African Spring” was developing in Burkina Faso.
On October 30, Burkina Faso’s parliamentarians were expected to vote on a plan to amend the Constitution to let Compaoré stand for re-election in 2015. This triggered an outpouring of popular anger that led to hundreds of people setting ablaze cars, storming the National Assembly, overpowering security forces, attacking the national television headquarters and torching the Parliament. Protesters also set fire to the ruling party’s headquarters in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second-largest city. Consequently, the vote on the constitutional change was called off and the Parliament was dissolved.
A previous bout of unrest in 2011 began within the army and spread among the populace and opposition parties. However, that round of protests fizzled out after Compaoré reshuffled the government.
This time around, the one who got shuffled out was Compaoré himself.
A New Strongman?
Burkina Faso’s Constitution calls for the president of the senate to take power after the president resigns, until elections are held within 60-90 days. However, in the midst of the unrest, Gen. Honoré Traoré, the chief of staff of the armed forces, bucked this requirement and usurped power himself.
Shortly thereafter, Lieut. Col. Isaac Zida declared himself leader and sidelined Traoré with the backing of the Burkinabe military, which reportedly never recognized Traoré as head of state. This resulted in Burkina Faso having three heads of state within two days, following twenty-seven years of rule by just one man.
At this juncture it is not entirely clear who actually leads the country, and Traoré’s whereabouts are unknown. Some regional experts warn that his loyalists may wage a revolt against the Zida-led government, which could open up the country to a prolonged power struggle within the armed forces and undermine the prospects for stability and democratization.
Meanwhile, the protesters who pressured Compaoré to step down remain in the streets, demanding that the military return to the barracks. Many protesters have called for Saran Sérémé, the leader of an opposition group called the Party for Democracy and Change, to become the next president. The military has cracked down on these protesters, violently dispersing rallies outside of the national TV station’s headquarters, resulting in the death of one demonstrator.
The international community has joined the opposition in calling for a transfer of power to a democratically elected civilian government, with the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union—which sent a team to assist Burkinabe authorities in maintaining stability—issuing statements in support of new elections.
The US State Department has called “on the military to immediately transfer power to civilian authorities” and urged “civilian leadership to be guided by the spirit of the constitution of Burkina Faso and to move immediately towards free and fair presidential elections.”
Zida has claimed that the military usurped power to prevent Burkina Faso from sliding into “anarchy,” disavowing any desire to rule. “I salute the memory of the martyrs of this uprising and bow to the sacrifices made by our people,” Zida declared.
On November 5, the presidents of Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal mediated talks in Ouagadougou among Burkina Faso’s military, politicians and civil society groups. The parties agreed that the transitional government should hold power for one year before elections in November 2015, but did not reach an agreement on who should lead the country during that period.
Burkina Faso and the West
The United States and France—Burkina Faso’s former colonial ruler—are closely monitoring the fluid situation in Ouagadougou.
After seizing power in the 1987 coup, Compaoré aligned Burkina Faso with Western superpowers, opening the country to both French military bases and a US spying network. More recently, Compaoré’s government has made itself a willing partner in Washington’s putative counterterrorism operations against Islamist militias in Africa’s Maghreb and Sahel regions. Zida himself received training from the US military.
Meanwhile, Burkina Faso has become Africa’s fourth-largest producer of gold. With the country’s natural resources opened up to international investment, Compaoré’s economic policies have created lucrative opportunities for Western corporations.
Yet exploitation of the country’s resource wealth has not done much for ordinary Burkinabes, nearly half of whom still live below the official poverty line. With high rates of infant mortality and low rates of literacy, Burkina Faso ranks near the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index. The development that failed to materialize despite growth in the country’s extractive industry was a key driver in the protests that precipitated Compaoré’s departure.
The legacy of former Burkinabe president Thomas Sankara, who was killed in the coup that brought Compaoré to power, remains a potent ideological force. A Marxist revolutionary, Sankara—a so-called “African Che Guevara”—aligned Burkina Faso against France and the United States and implemented aggressive land reforms, among other redistributive policies.
Many Burkinabes attribute the nation’s problems to Compaoré’s embrace of neoliberalism and his reversal of Sankara’s reforms. Sankara’s brand of anti-imperialism remains an ideal for many West Africans who envision a future in which the region becomes more economically and politically independent of the West.
These currents could create a conundrum for Washington and its allies. A democratic government put in power by a population angry over the inequality engendered by Compaoré’s economic policies might well threaten Western economic interests. And a new government might not cooperate as readily with Western military and intelligence agencies.
Yet Burkina Faso is not Egypt, where the military’s toppling of a divisive civilian government initially enjoyed a modicum of popular support. In the absence of a democratic transition, protests could continue indefinitely.
This leaves Compaoré’s old Western allies with a dilemma: Will Paris and Washington endorse a democratic revolution that might produce policies they don’t like, or will the West risk trying to legitimize the seizure of power by a divided military lacking public trust? The State Department’s support for “free and fair presidential elections” in the country might yet be tested.