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The Lwili Revolution: Burkina Faso and beyond

One month after the ousting of Blaise Compaoré, the former President of Burkina Faso, a power struggle continues to unfold. Other leaders in their final terms will be watching closely, write Adrian Fielding and Toby Thomas.
Former President Blaise Compaoré was amongst those most surprised by the so-called “Lwili Revolution”, a popular revolt which led to his ousting on 31 October 2014. The catalyst for the uprising, a parliamentary vote effectively allowing Compaoré to extend his presidential tenure, unleashed widespread popular discontent which had built up over the latter half of his 27-year semi-autocratic rule. His departure raises questions for several African countries whose long serving leaders are looking to unconstitutionally prolong their rule. 

Ever since Compaoré’s controversial victory in the 2010 presidential election, he had reportedly been seeking a way to amend Article 37 of the constitution, which allows only two consecutive terms in office. Despite widespread popular opposition, Compaoré opted for pushing a vote through the National Assembly. For three days in the run-up to the vote on 30 October, hitherto peaceful protests intensified in Ouagadougou, the capital city. As members of the National Assembly gathered for the vote, around 1,500 protesters stormed the parliament building and set it on fire. Several hundred rioters also attacked Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina, forcing state TV and radio off air. Similar protests took place across the country, including Bobo- Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second city, where rioters burned the town hall. By nightfall, around 30 protesters had been killed by security forces, who had failed - and in most instances refused - to quell the uprising. 

In subsequent stages of desperation to appease protesters, Compaoré scrapped the vote and declared a state of emergency, before dissolving parliament and announcing a year-long transitional government, at the end of which he would step down. This proved to be too little too late. On 31 October, after intense public pressure and likely military consultation, Compaoré resigned and fled to Côte d’Ivoire in an armed convoy. After initial confusion within military circles, Colonel Issac Yacouba Zida, former deputy head of the Presidential Guard, stated publicly that the army was supportive of the protesters’ demands, before announcing that he was assuming the position of head of state. For over a week, Zida repeatedly reassured international delegations and protesters who feared a military hijack of the popular revolt. And true enough, after deliberations with the many divided civil society and opposition factions vying for power, the armed forces appointed Michel Kafando, a career diplomat, as president of the interim government, to rule for 12 months in the run-up to elections in November 2015. Kafando, in turn, appointed Zida as prime minister and defence minister, effectively returning the favour.  

The speed with which events unfolded stunned the Burkinabé authorities and international observers alike. However, the protests and even Compaoré’s overthrow had long been foretold. The primary factor in Compaoré’s swift demise was a fundamental underestimation of growing Burkinabé disillusionment, caused by 27 years of economic stagnation, corruption and semi-autocracy. Burkina Faso’s relatively free media reported widely on the Compaoré clan’s vast personal wealth, amassed at the expense of Burkinabés, 83% of whom are deemed by the UN to be in a state of acute poverty. With two-thirds of the population under the age of 25, high rates of unemployment and illiteracy, anti-Compaoré sentiment had been growing since the late 1990s. The final ingredient, social media, which played a crucial role in the Arab Spring, enabled an angry young population to communicate and coordinate, with the #lwili hashtag on Twitter becoming a symbol for the uprising. A secondary factor in the public’s strong rejection of a parliamentary vote on Article 37 was Burkinabés’ distaste for Compaoré’s persistent exploitation of the constitution. Article 37 was introduced by the National Assembly in 2000, after four years of transitional rule and two seven-year terms under Compaoré. However, the ruling Congrès pour la Démocratie et le Progrès (CDP) managed to obtain a ruling from the constitutional court that the amendment was not retroactive, thereby wiping Compaoré’s slate clean and allowing him to stand in two further elections in 2005 and 2010. He won these under contentious circumstances. 

Compaoré’s inability to completely dominate the political system sealed his fate. On the international stage, he fulfilled international donors’ requirements and played a key role in regional anti-terrorism operations and conflict mediation, gaining Burkina Faso a reputation for being a dependable, stable ally. Domestically, Compaoré effectively managed local elites – including the Mogho Naba, the King of the Mossi, Burkina Faso’s largest ethnic group – and marginalised the political opposition by pitting them against each other. However, Compaoré’s rule was never characterised by the extreme repression of Africa’s longest-serving strongmen in Angola or Equatorial Guinea. 
Much has been made of the potential for the events in Burkina Faso to lead to an ‘African Spring’, triggered by several leaders’ attempts to extend their presidential term limits.

His preparedness to yield to his critics in 2011 marked a turning point in his rule. In April 2011, members of the Presidential Guard, his personal security corps, protested over pay, sparking widespread rioting and looting by rank-and-file soldiers in Ouagadougou and the military strongholds of Po and Tenkodogo. Compaoré, who was reportedly forced to flee to his hometown Ziniare, never fully recovered from this episode of civil unrest. In June 2012, Compaoré was seemingly aware of his own eventual fate when he passed a law granting an amnesty to all former and current heads of state. 

Much has been made of the potential for the events in Burkina Faso to lead to an ‘African Spring’, triggered by several leaders’ attempts to extend their presidential term limits. Term limits, adopted alongside a host of democratic reforms across sub-Saharan Africa during the 1990s, have had a mixed impact. On the most basic measure, they have worked. Prior to 1990, most African leaders’ rule ended in violent overthrow; subsequently, most have ceded power via peaceful means. However, term limits become problematic once they are reached. Of the 23 sub-Saharan rulers who have governed for two consecutive terms since 1990, 15 have challenged the limits on their tenure, and most have done so successfully. 

Between 2015 and 2017, the presidents of Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti and Rwanda will come to the end of their final terms. As in Burkina Faso, whether the leaders of these countries will risk internal turmoil to extend their rule is dependent in part on their confidence in their popular support. Pressure from international players will also play a key role in their decision. According to a 2005 study by academics at the University of California, Los Angeles, African countries whose leaders have not sought an unconstitutional extension receive almost twice as much aid as those with leaders unwilling to cede power. By this measure, the leaders of Burundi, the DRC and Rwanda (where aid provides over 10% of national income) are most likely to step down, whilst those of Benin and the petrostate of Congo-Brazzaville may be more tempted to run for a third term. 

Even in those countries where leaders are denied an extension of their power, progress towards full democracy is not guaranteed. Compaoré ensured that his succession was managed by his Presidential Guard, led by General Gilbert Diendéré. The continued mobilisation of Burkinabés in the streets of Ouagadougou will put huge pressure on the transitional government to avoid reinstating regime insiders. However, with a transitional government largely controlled by military figures, and Diendéré reserving the right to put himself forward as a presidential candidate in November 2015, the stage is set for a return to the status quo.

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