You Cannot Kill An Idea

[This post has been updated as of 5:30 on Monday, November 3rd.  See the bottom of the article.]

A week ago, on Tuesday, the Parliament of Burkina Faso announced it was going to discuss an amendment to the constitution to allow President Compaoré to run for a fifth term next year. This move met with major protests. On Thursday, before Parliament could even attempt to hold the vote, protesters stormed the Parliament building and the ruling party headquarters and set them both on fire. The President disappeared. On Friday, the military announced it was taking charge. Blaise Compaoré, 27 years the President of Burkina Faso and murderer of one of Africa’s most promising leaders, had fled.

Blaise Compaoré, President of Burkina Faso from 1987 to 2014.

Even in my wildest dreams I never thought it could have happened so quickly. I have waited for Compaoré’s ouster for years. He came to power in 1987, in coup sponsored by the French against his former comrade Thomas Sankara. Sankara himself come to power in a coup in 1983. But Sankara was a very different sort of African head of state: anti-austerity, populist, and genuinely radical. He banned forced labour for tribal elders and FGM, instituted a massive vaccination campaign, and began to implement gender parity in government (following his comment “I can hear the roar of women’s silence”). He sold off the fleet of presidential vehicles, refused to use air-conditioning on the grounds that few other people in Burkina had it, and renamed the country (previously called the Upper Volta). There were also uncomfortable authoritarian undertones to his policies in the later years, with the creation of youth brigades and restrictions on the press, and show trials against those viewed as not doing their part. Given a longer rule in power, who knows in which direction he would have swung.

Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987.

As it turned out, we never found out. Compaoré got a bit excited during the coup and had Sankara murdered, earning himself a lasting place in the replete panoply of African tyrants. Sankara’s death was the Patrice Lumumba assassination all over again, except this time the killer wasn’t some anonymous Belgian captain in the middle of the Congolese jungle – he was the new president, and everyone knew it. The murder overshadowed every day of Compaoré’s 27 years.  And finally he’s gone.

Now for the come-down. A lot of people have been fairly suspicious towards the prospects of anything representative emerging from Compaoré’s end. I can see why they’re suspicious. Without the army’s cooperation, I doubt very much that Blaise would have left. The initial power struggle involved two high-ranking officers, neither of whom was particularly distant from Compaoré, decided who would become the next head of state. With the parliament dissolved and the constitution suspended, who else could it be? Initial statements about elections within 60 days have been swiftly retracted. All hail Lt.-General Isaac Zida, Burkina Faso’s President for the next 27 years.

But the signs aren’t all bad. For a start, Burkina Faso’s West African neighbourhood is no longer particularly autocratic. Only the two thinnest countries in Africa, Togo (a Gnassingbé family business since 1967) and Gambia (two consecutive military periods of military rule), stand out as slivers of dictatorship. Several of the members of the West African organisation, ECOWAS, might not be especially strong states –Nigeria and Mali come to mind– but they’re not autocratic. If things are changing in Africa in general, the tide in West Africa shifted long ago.

The opposition in Burkina is also more mobilised and more unified than one might expect. Public discontent with Compaoré has been building for years, and the example of his predecessor has provided a strong ideological focus for many activists. The same day that the military announced Zida had its full support, a coalition of opposition parties signed a statement opposing the move.

The third, and perhaps inevitably most important, factor is the international response, which, given that few politicians actually knew that Burkina Faso existed and those who did probably quite liked Compaoré, has been a muted but firm insistence on the return to constitutional order. The UN, the US, and the EU have all taken this line, but the organisations which really matter are the African Union and ECOWAS.

The African Union is insisting on a return to constitutional order. This might seem a little counterintuitive – the Union is famously tolerant of autocracy among its ranks – but think again. The AU is tolerant of existing autocracy, regimes like Tanzania, Angola, Sudan, or Chad, which have been going for decades, but exceptionally short-tempered when it comes to new attempts to impose autocracy. Hence the suspension of Mali, Guinea-Bissau, and most recently Egypt, after military coups. True, the AU withdrew its objections to Egypt once Sisi had been elected President, but then Egypt, as the recipient of billions of dollars of aid and a population of 80 million people, is important; Burkina Faso is not. It is a terribly poor country intensely vulnerable to the imposition of economic sanctions of the sort the UN is now threatening. In similar situations, the military cartels in charge of Mali and Guinea-Bissau both caved in and yielded to elections.

Burkina Faso among the members of ECOWAS.
Burkina Faso among the members of ECOWAS.

In fact, the only thing which made Burkina Faso vaguely important was Blaise Compaoré’s determination to fashion himself into a sort of West African Tony Blair, the ECOWAS peace envoy whose presence was so invaluable in persuading unconstitutional military governments in Guinea-Bissau and Mali to yield power (or so it’s claimed). With Blaise as the region’s elder statesman, Burkina could stake a claim to regional influence; without him, it has nothing but its sudden inability to ignore demands from both ECOWAS and the AU to restore constitutional order.

I’m not saying that whoever gets chosen as leader will necessarily do well, or even that it will be someone unconnected with Blaise, but I do think that the process will ultimately take place via an election rather than the military. After six coups (’66, ’80, ’82, ’83, ’87, ’14) Burkina Faso’s chances of having its first constitutional change of power in 54 years of independence have markedly improved.

Update, 5:30 November 3rd: About an hour after I posted this, the army declared its intention to pick a civilian leader to oversee the transition to democracy, over which it will watch carefully.  Quite what this means is unclear: are they choosing this leader to be a new Prime Minister, with executive authority? The words ‘head of state’ were scrupulously absent from the declaration.  Or is Zida planning to emulate Mali’s Amadou Sanogo and operate as an éminence grise while the Transitional President is the regime’s smiley face? (Possibly not as this didn’t end very well for Sanogo.) Most pertinent of all: will the street accept it?

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