This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Sustained anti-government rallies in Thailand, Ukraine and Venezuela have captured the attention of millions. But large pro-democracy demonstrations in Burkina Faso last month largely escaped the Western media’s radar.
Since January, tensions have flared between the West African country’s authoritarian government and the impoverished masses yearning for democratic reforms. Depending on how developments unfold, the protests in Burkina Faso could serve as a catalyst for further uprisings in the region.
On January 18, over 10,000 Burkinabé citizens rallied in the nation’s capital, Ouagadougou (WAH-gah-DOO-goo), and other cities to protest the concentration of political power in one man—President Blaise Compaoré, who has ruled Burkina Faso since 1987. While Compaoré claims democratic legitimacy, the opposition demands his departure from power, maintaining that Compaoré’s past electoral victories were fraudulent and rigged.
The demonstrators, led by opposition leader Zéphirin Diabré, have taken to the streets to protest Compaoré’s plans to revise Article 37 of the country’s constitution. This provision, incorporated in 2000, limits the president to two five-year terms. After winning presidential elections in 2005 and 2010, Compaoré’s final term is set to end in 2015. Although Compaoré has issued no official statement concerning his intention to seek another term, his critics contend that he is laying the groundwork for a constitutional amendment to extend his rule beyond 2015. Calling January 18 a “historic day,” Diabré declared that the thousands of protesters were “taking a stand in this free and republican protest to send Compaoré into retirement in 2015.”
Compaoré’s failure to improve living standards for average Burkinabés also factors into popular resentment of the government. Despite being rich with gold reserves, Burkina Faso remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Nearly half of the eighteen million citizens who inhabit this landlocked nation live below the poverty line, and GDP per capita hovers around a paltry $1,400. Fewer than thirty percent of adults are literate and the nation’s infant mortality rate is the ninth-highest in the world. Recurring floods and droughts in recent years have exacerbated all of these dismal conditions.