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.