Is this a people’s revolution, or a coup d’état? The uncertain definition of recent events in Burkina Faso, after former president Blaise Compaoré resigned and the army announced they would take control of a transitional phase and suspend the constitution, is not only haunting international press but also lingering in the internal debate. These are confusing days. Politicians from the opposition have stated that “the army has confiscated our revolution” and asked people to demonstrate in order to put pressure on the military forces, asking for a civil transition toward the next elections. On the opposite side, representatives of Balai Citoyen (“the civic broom”, a youth movement created about one year ago and represented publicly by local well-known artists like reggaeman Sams’k Le Jah or rapper/singer Smockey), the main actor in the organization of recent demonstrations, on the opposite side, have confirmed for the moment their cautious support to the idea of the army managing the transition, and suspect the opposition parties of trying to appropriate a mass movement that they have not created in the first place. Indeed, the opposition parties have been quite hesitant in questioning Compaoré’s regime, at least until recently.

Undoubtedly, the sudden end of Compaoré’s “long reign”, after remaining in power for 27 years and being confirmed at every election, has mostly been obtained because of an unprecedented mass mobilization. The regime had already faced difficult moments: in 1998, when protestors reacted to the assassination of independent reporter Norbert Zongo; or in the spring of 2011, when student protests and low-rank officials mutinies forced Blaise – as Compaoré is usually referred to in a familiar way – to flee the presidential palace and find shelter in his hometown Ziniaré for a few days. But in both cases, the crisis had progressively been reabsorbed and the omnipresent CDP (the Congress for Democracy and Progress, the ruling party) had managed to regain control over political life. This time, something has changed. Mathieu Hilgers, anthropologist at the university of Brussels and specialist of local politics and opposition movements in Burkina Faso, explains in an interview with me: “During the last years, we have observed a ‘background movement’ in the society, a slow trend of increase in discontent. This is due, first of all, to the economic situation: Burkina Faso suffers not only from the global financial crisis, but also from the economic impact of regional conflicts, such as the recent civil war in Côte d’Ivoire. This has reinforced the frustrations and the sense of precariousness among the population. A second factor is the conclusion of the administrative decentralization process [in 2006 municipal councils were elected over the whole country for the first time], which has transformed the relation between people and politics. The opportunity to vote and interact directly with local powers has given voters the chance to measure their own impact, and has facilitated the emerging of a multiplicity of claims and demands in all sectors”.

Two controversial initiatives from the government have propelled popular unrest: the projects concerning the institution of the senate, immediately perceived as an attempt to consolidate the position of the government (by enlarging a political elite that would be faithful to the president and grant him a safe way out of power eventually) and criticized for the useless expenses it would generate; and the attempt to modify the article 37 of the constitution, in order to allow Blaise to participate in the presidential elections scheduled for 2015. Activists of Balai Citoyen have been organizing demonstrations against these plans for several months now, and the date set for a parliamentary discussion of the constitutional amendments has precipitated the events, bringing the participation to protest rallies held last Tuesday (October 28th) in Ouagadougou and other cities to unprecedented levels. In 2011, Hilgers says, “many categories demonstrated in the streets: opposition forces, trade unions, cotton producers, military and police officers, petty traders, teachers… These were mainly corporate demonstrations, focused on the interests of specific professional categories. Today, paradoxically, Blaise has unified people against him: the attempt of a constitutional amendment has federated the contestations. Protesters are now formulating collective claims”.

The language of contestation reflects the ambiguity of the ongoing political transformations. On one hand, the parliamentary opposition wants to defend the constitution and opposes, for the sake of democratic legality, the attempts from the army to control the transition phase. On the other hand, many demonstrators speak a more “revolutionary” language and get inspiration by the legacy of Thomas Sankara, who led the revolutionary junta from 1983 until his assassination in 1987. Despite the fact that the parties officially affiliated to a Sankarist ideology currently receive little electoral consensus, limited to a minority of the urban intellectual class, Sankara remains an important symbolic reference in youth mobilization. His legacy – the pride of Burkina Faso, “the land of righteous men”, and his courage in defending the autonomy of his political project in front of the international community – is still perceived as positive by a large part of the population. In his public declarations, colonel Zida (who on Friday October 31st declared to assume control of the transition) seems to encourage this mood, renaming the Place de la Nation as “revolution square” and promising public assemblies where the army would negotiate with the “living forces of the nation”. To some supporters of this front, the determination of the parliamentary opposition in defending the constitution looks like a passive homologation to the technical and formalist language introduced by the Compaoré regime since the 1990s in the wake of the “rectification”, aimed at reassuring Western powers after the destabilization of Sankara’s government.

The duration and direction of this transitional phase remain uncertain. But despite the requests coming from the opposition and the international organizations – namely, the UN and the African Union – the army will probably play a prominent role in it: after all, it is the one of the very few structured institutions in the country. But divisions inside the armed forces are profound and there has been a lot of uncertainty about who would actually hold the leadership in these last days. The first rumors credited a possible role for Kouamé Lougué, retired general and former minister of defense, estimated to have good relations with the most rebel sectors of the army and appreciated by the demonstrators. The chef d’état major, Honoré Traoré, who issued a statement assuming the control of the transition in the afternoon of Thursday October 30th, was criticized for being too linked to the president and for appearing too hesitant in forcing Compaoré to resignation. By Friday 31st, the general support of the officials seemed to be oriented towards Colonel Isaac Zida, number two of the presidential guard. But later demonstrations on Sunday November 2nd, and rumors about an attempt by Lougué to speak publicly against Zida in the national TV, show that the divisions are still there. In the next hours, press conferences might reveal if a compromise has been reached.

The comparison between the current turmoil in Burkina Faso and the Arab spring, often proposed by commentators in the media, may not be so tenuous after all. The enthusiasm about an extraordinary popular participation in recent demonstrations has suggested a parallel between the rally points of demonstrators (particularly the Place de la Nation, or the Rond Point des Nations Unies) and “a new Tahrir Square in Burkinabe version”. Some underline the potential domino effect generated on the political debate of other Sub-Saharan countries (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi or DRC among others) where the possibility of new mandates for the presidents in charge are under discussion. But, more importantly, as in the Arab spring, the complex relationship between popular protest and the role of the army in managing the crisis will be a key issue.

Cristiano Lanzano is Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute. He has worked on urban culture and youth, rural development, natural resources management and mining. He has conducted fieldwork in Senegal and Burkina Faso.