Burkina Faso

Fall of a strongman

Print edition : November 28, 2014

Over a million anti-government protesters thronged the Place de la Nation in Ouagadougou on October 31, forcing President Blaise Compaore to give up office. Photo: JOE PENNEY/REUTERS

Blaise Compaore, who was forced to quit, has much to answer for if immunity from prosecution is taken away from him. Photo: Francois Mori/AP

Blaise Compaore’s ouster as President in a popular uprising has left a political vacuum as the opposition is against a military ruler.

THE dramtic events in the landlocked African nation of Burkina Faso in the last week of October have resulted in the exit of its long-serving authoritarian ruler, President Blaise Compaore. The 63-year-old President, in a foolhardy move, tried once again to tinker with the Constitution to extend his rule indefinitely. On October 22, the ruling party suddenly announced that it would table in the National Assembly a Bill that would amend Article 27 of the Constitution and give the President another five-year term in office. On October 28, the country’s pliant legislature was on the verge of rubber-stamping the changes when the citizens of the capital, Ouagadougou, stormed the parliament building and set portions of it on fire. The protest had started a week earlier in the capital and in the country’s second biggest city, Bobo Dioulaso.

According to reports, the protests on October 28 were the biggest in the country’s history. More than a million people gathered in the capital. The last big anti-government protests that rocked the country happened in 2011. The elite Presidential Guards had helped crush the protests at that time, when the opposition was not united. This time, the security forces were unable to control the crowds even though they resorted to firing. According to reports, more than 30 protesters were killed by the security forces in the week-long uprising. With the people determined to oust the ruler, fissures started emerging in the armed forces. The Presidential Guards noticeably did not swing into action to protect Compaore and his close circle.

Compaore initially tried to brazen it out by declaring martial law. But when he realised that the armed forces were no longer united behind him, he announced that he was no longer interested in seeking another term in office. Compaore then asked his party to withdraw the offending Bill from Parliament. But the protesters and the opposition parties stood their ground and demanded the immediate resignation of the President. When he began his last presidential term, Compaore had pledged that it would be his last. He had contested four elections since sizing power in 1987. The opposition has alleged that widespread fraud was employed by the ruling party in all the four elections. The people were now no longer willing to take the President’s promises seriously.

Under his rule, the country continued to stagnate. Despite being the fourth largest exporter of gold in Africa, Burkina Faso ranks 183 on the list of 186 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index. The unemployment rate is one of the highest in the region. Some 60 per cent of the population of 16.9 million is under 30. The youth were in the forefront of the protests.

On October 31, the President finally announced that he was quitting, and the next day he was given asylum in neighbouring Ivory Coast, where his close political ally, Allasane Outtara, is in power. Compaore had played a key role in ending the civil war in that country and the installation of Outtara as President.

Compaore’s hasty exit has left a political vacuum. He had not designated or groomed a successor. The first to stake claim for succession was the army chief, General Honore Nabere Traore, a confidant of Compaore. Within hours, another army commander, Lt Col. Isaac Zida, threw his hat in the ring. Zida was the second in command of the presidential security regiment and has operational command over the army’s best trained and equipped unit. He proclaimed himself the “interim” President to “guarantee the continuity of the state”. According to reports, the bulk of the Burkinabe army supports the colonel. Traore has since withdrawn his bid for the presidency.

But the protesters and the opposition do not want a military man to hold the levers of power, even for an interim period. The opposition has described the exit of Compaore and his replacement by another uniformed man as “a military coup”.

Zida is insisting that the military has stepped in “to avoid anarchy” and has publicly acknowledged that Compaore’s ouster was the result of a popular uprising. Zida has pledged that his rule “will be as brief as possible” and that elections will be organised in a short time. However, he has not specified a time frame.

The opposition is not buying the rationale put forward by the military. “The victory of the popular uprising—and consequently the management of the transition—belongs to the people and should not be in any way confiscated by the army,” emphasised a joint statement issued by the coalition of political parties and civil society groups participating in the protests. The statement pointed out that the Constitution of the country made it clear that political transition should be democratic and transparent in character.

According to the country’s 1991 Constitution, the Speaker of the National Assembly is to take over the top post if the President resigns and hold elections within 90 days. One of the first steps the new military leaders of the country have taken is to dissolve the National Assembly. A statement by the military leadership said that the time frame for the duration of their rule and the holding of elections would be announced later.



The African Union (A.U.) has criticised the military takeover in a member country. In a strongly worded statement, the A.U. asked the military to hand over power to the civilian authorities. The U.N. has warned the military officers that stringent sanctions will be imposed on the country if they refuse to hand over power to civilian authorities. The army used force to disperse a protest on November 2 and took over administrative buildings and the television broadcasting centre. The U.S. and the European Union, too, have urged the military to step aside. The American and French governments, along with the E.U., had earlier voiced apprehensions about Compaore’s plans to unilaterally extend his rule.

Compaore has been a close ally of the West in its various military and political machinations in the region. He has been a key ally in Washington’s war against Islamist groups on the African continent and was an honoured guest in Washington when President Barack Obama hosted the first American-African summit. The French have a military base in the country and have been instrumental in keeping him in power for the last three decades. Compaore had a deft diplomatic touch. During the 1990s, he was a frequent visitor to New Delhi and was the linchpin for Indian diplomacy in Africa. The two countries even issued an “Ouagadougou Declaration” in 1993 when Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao visited the country. Compaore was among the first African leaders to support India’s bid for permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council. Compaore also supported the Indian stand on Kashmir. This correspondent met him on one of his frequent visits to New Delhi in the 1990s. A tall and handsome man with a ready smile, he came across as an affable personality.

Thomas Sankara

A former military man, Compaore came to power in 1987 in a military coup. The man he replaced was the charismatic Thomas Sankara, affectionately remembered as “Africa’s Che Guevara” by many. Sankara and Compaore were comrades-in-arms in the army. Sankara, during his comparatively brief tenure as President, had identified neocolonialism and imperialism as existential threats to the sovereignty and dignity of African nations. In Francophone Africa, especially, the former colonial masters were still running the show.

One of the first things Sankara’s government did was to shed the name bestowed on the country by its French colonial masters. The name they chose was Burkina Faso—“the land of the upright”. The colonial name was Upper Volta.

Sankara and a group of radical officers, including Compaore, set out to change Africa’s political map. Once in power, they, inspired by the ideology of pan-Africanism expounded by leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, immediately started striving to build a new anti-colonial bloc on the continent, together with Jerry Rawlings of Ghana and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. Sankara was the most radical of the group and espoused Marxist ideals. He cut a dashing figure at international conferences with his trademark beret, military fatigues, and personal revolver. Like Che, Sankara has become a political icon in sub-Saharan Africa. “You cannot carry out fundamental changes without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from non-conformity, the courage to turn your back on old formulas, the courage to invent the future,” Sankara had said. The newly formed South African Economic Freedom Fighters Party, which fared well in the recent elections, has adopted Sankara as its mascot. Sankara’s dream was to achieve a “second independence” from the former colonial masters.

Compaore, on the other hand, is seen as a Brutus- or Macbeth-like figure. Many in Burkina Faso and the rest of the region consider him the man responsible for the killing of Sankara in the 1987 coup. “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas,” Sankara had remarked a few weeks before his demise. Sankara’s death is shrouded in mystery. One of the reasons why Compaore was reluctant to relinquish his hold on power was his fear that he would have to answer questions surrounding the death of the man who was supposed to be his best friend and closest comrade.

Immediately after taking over from Sankara, Compaore reversed the political and economic course the country had taken under the stewardship of Sankara. It once again became a close ally of France, the former imperial power and, later on, of the U.S. Sankara, during his four years in power, had made his country self-sufficient in food production and had almost rooted out corruption. Today, the country has to import all its basic food needs. Protesters on the streets of Ouagadougou were seen carrying banners with the portrait of Sankara with signs reading “Sankara, look at your sons. We are fighting your fight”.

Compaore’s overthrow could signal the beginning of a “black spring” in sub-Saharan Africa on the lines of the Arab Spring. There are quite a few authoritarian rulers in power in the region who may have reasons to be worried about the turn of events in Burkina Faso. Paul Biya has been in power in the West African state of Cameroun since the early 1980s. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, another close ally of the West, has indicated his intention to seek another term in office. He has been in power since 1986. Paul Kagame, the Rwandan strongman, brooks no opposition, and he, too, has the backing of the West.

The former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, once said that African leaders cling to power because “of the fear of the unknown”. Compaore, like many of his contemporaries in power in other African capitals, feared the “loss of immunity from prosecution”. He has many questions to answer, including those relating to Sankara’s death and his strong links with the imprisoned former President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, and the former rebels in Sierra Leone. The Nigerian government had alleged that Compare had allowed the “Boko Haram” group to set up training camps in Burkina Faso.

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