The last very dramatic days has led to a particularly complicated, and yet, fascinating political process of society and change in Burkina Faso. Even though the popular uprising last week did not come as a surprise for observers of Burkinabe politics, the rapidity of the ending of the 27 years of reign of Blaise Compaoré was unexpected. After years of attempts by Compaoré and his regime to find ways of changing Paragraph 37 of the Constitution, the Burkinabe government finally crossed the Rubicon at its extraordinary council meeting on 21 October 2014 when it took the decision to send the proposed Bill to the National Assembly. This was the ultimate decision that would definitely open for a change of Paragraph 37 and, in practice, allow Compaoré another term, and possibly even up to 15 years more in power. That decision became “a pill too difficult to swallow” (une pilule trop difficile à avaler) for the Burkinabe.
The current popular uprising – it is not a coup d’état per se – is to a large extent characterized by struggles over legitimacy and legality. The government did act legally and cautiously followed the Constitution in sending the Bill to the National Assembly, but it had completely lost its legitimacy, given that it had not listened to and taken into account years of protests and contestations. In the following I particularly reflect on struggles over legitimacy and legality in the current situation in Burkina Faso.
Blaise Compaoré came to power in the bloody coup in October 1987 in which his predecessor and brother in arms Thomas Sankara was assassinated. Yet Compaoré soon initiated a democratization process with a new Constitution of the Fourth Republic adopted by Referendum in June 1991. Compaoré was elected in presidential elections in 1991, 1998, 2005, and 2010 respectively, always with an overwhelming majority. In 2010 he scored some 80% of the votes, albeit with a low voter participation. Similarly, in legislative elections in December 2012 Compaoré’s party Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) got 70 of the 127 seats in National Assembly. Hence, while legally speaking there were arguments for changing the Constitution, the remaining legitimacy was finally lost when the government decided to push for the modification of the Constitution.
But legality and legitimacy also concern the political opposition. Since the last two years the political opposition has strengthened its power. In 2012 Zéphirin Diabré’s Union for Progress and Change (UPC) became the biggest opposition party with 19 seats. In 2013 the UPC led the protests against the proposed creation of the Senate, as this institution would perfectly help Compaoré to stay in power. With as much as one third of Senators to be appointed by President Compaoré himself, all indicated that this was part of a master plan for life presidency. In 2013 political opposition and civil society organizations mobilized with massive demonstrations and succeeded finally in having the Senate postponed, albeit not abolished. Another important change in political opposition emerged simultaneously to these protests, because in January 2014, after months of rumors and speculations, three main architects of “le système Compaoré” finally left CDP and founded the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP).
The civil society organizations have always been strong in Burkina but in recent years they have undergone rejuvenation. The Burkinabe Movement for Human and People’s Rights (MBDHP) that was so strong in the aftermath of the Zongo affair in late 1990s and early 2000s has not been in the forefront this time. Instead the Movement La Balai Citoyen (Citizen Brush) has since 2013 organized protests and also been given concrete material and community support to people in neighborhoods since 2013. This movement and similar ones have also been very active on social media. The Citizen Brush has played an instrumental role in the popular uprising. Other important civil society organizations include the Front for Citizen Resistance and different youth organizations.
On Tuesday 28 October when hundreds of thousands – the opposition said a million – of people took to the streets to demonstrate against the proposed Bill, this was a last warning to Compaoré and consequently the beginning of the end of the regime. On 30 October National Assembly was stormed and looted by protesters to prevent the Members of Parliament to start the session. The popular uprising and insurgency rapidly spread and Compaoré had to step down on Friday 31 October. The army was asked to “take its responsibilities” as to stop looting and reinstate security and order – or to put it differently, simply “took over” to prevent chaos and anarchy. On Saturday 1 November Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida was appointed by the armed forces to take over as head of State and lead the transition. Yet, very soon opposition parties and civil society organizations, including the people who occupy at the Place de la Nation that has taken back its past name Place de la Revolution, feared that their “revolution” had been confiscated by the army. The movement Citizen Brush was even accused of having “sold out” the victory to the Army, an accusation that was strongly rejected by the movement.
The international community, including the joint ECOWAS, AU and UN delegation and USA and France, also urged for a civil, democratic transition. Yet many Burkinabe rhetorically wondered where the AU had been when Compaoré endlessly sought to manipulate the Constitution. The international pressure nevertheless reinforced political parties and civil society organizations urge for a civil, consensual transition.
The confusion remained on Sunday 2 November when both retired General Kouamé Lougué and Saran Seremé went to the National Television to make – each of them – a statement in which they would now onwards take the lead in the political transition. The security forces subsequently attacked the National Television and one young man was killed in the turmoil.
And, yet, despite a weekend of confusion, all signs do indicate that the Colonel Zida will hand over the power to a civil led transition the coming days to ensure that the country complies with constitutional order and avoid sanctions and international embargo. On Monday 3 November Zida declared that “the army is not interested in power”, a statement that is ironically undermined by the armed forces’ historical stronghold in different regimes since 1966. Still, it does seem likely that the current military leadership has no interest in keeping the State power, given the national and international pressure and conjuncture.
And who will then be both legal and legitimate to lead the transition? Well, one can identify those who cannot. First, according to the Constitution the President of the National Assembly should take over when the President has resigned. Yet Soungalo Apollinaire Ouattara is a leading CDP-politician and one of those whose house is reported to have been looted. So, while legally Ouattara should take over, he has no legitimacy at all. Second, the interim president cannot be any of those who aspire to become presidential candidate in the upcoming elections, that is, the transition should be led by an interim president with no ambitions to stay in power. Hence, a consensual interim president that may also be completely outside of the political class is more likely. This is more uncertain, but we will hopefully know this the coming days.
The last week in Burkina Faso has been intense, but overall, signs are promising and the return to a constitutional order is likely. The popular uprising successfully targeted Compaoré and his entourage. But despite this sweeping away of the country’s dominant political force, one must keep in mind that the country has so many state institutions, political parties, well-grounded civil society organizations (and not just donor-sponsored NGOs) and, most importantly, capable and experienced people that will have the capacity and perseverance to work to combine legitimacy and legality.
Sten Hagberg is Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Chair of the Forum for Africa Studies at Uppsala University. He has done research in Burkina Faso since 1988, and is currently conducting research on municipal politics in Burkina Faso and Mali.