Flooding the streets of Ouagadougou on January 18, 2014 were approximately 10,000 Burkinabes, accompanied by thousands more demonstrating in other cities throughout the West African nation of Burkina Faso. The objective of these rallying crowds: the protestation of long-time President Blaise Compaoré’s efforts to extend presidential term limits.
Compaoré, who has been in power since ousting Thomas Sankara in a military coup in 1987, has maintained his seat as Chief of State for 27 years. After winning the 1991 and 1998 presidential elections—which were both boycotted by major opposition party candidates—Compaoré revised the Constitution in 2000, permitting him to serve two additional five-year terms. Thus, his last term in office under the current Constitution is set to come to a close in 2015. Yet, in seeking to “keep himself in power for life,” Compaoré created a new Senate in 2013 which, dominated by senators within his Congress for Democracy and Progress party, is believed to be the vehicle through which he will revise Article 37 of the Constitution to ultimately abolish the two-term limit.
The question of whether Compaoré will, indeed, pursue the extension of the presidential term limit, and whether he will announce plans to run in the upcoming presidential election scheduled for November 2015, remain cloaked in complexity. On the one hand, the act of amending the nation’s Constitution would appear to require little more than a formality in legislative terms, given Compaoré’s overwhelming control of the Parliament. Further, Compaoré’s two primary Western supporters—former colonial ruler, France and the United States—are unlikely to challenge the incumbent party’s pursuit toward prolonged power, despite its antithetical ramifications regarding democratic consolidation, as their principal interest in Burkina Faso remains firmly constrained to the nation’s active use as a hub for secret intelligence operations, mandated to track terrorist organizations that have emerged across the Sahel.
Thus, the real risks of pursuing constitutional revisions and term extensions lie not with the bureaucratic measures of institutional conventionalism, nor in regard to antagonistic relations with donor nations or the international community more generally. Rather, if Compaoré moves forward with the steps to perpetuate his authority as President, it is likely that he will inevitably undermine the very sense of contentment and peace, irrespective of how superficial, that he has for so long sought to maintain—both nationally and regionally.
Compaoré has constructed an unexpected reputation as a regional power-broker, working closely with President Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire throughout the Ivory Coast peace process and serving as Facilitator of the Inter-Ivorian Dialogue throughout the early years of the new millennium. Compaoré also played an integral role in seeking to restore civilian rule in Guinea in 2010, after meeting with junta officials and mediating an agreement that would allow the interim leader, Sékouba Konaté, to remain in power in order to organize formal and institutionalized elections. Given the density of intra-regional ties maintained and strengthened by Compaoré throughout the last decade, it is likely that the impacts of last month’s demonstrations will reverberate beyond the borders of Burkina Faso. As Ivorian blogger, Théophile Kouamouo notes, many politicians within the Ouattara regime in Cote d’Ivoire—which also came to power through the escalation of violence—have realized since the rise in civil unrest in Burkina Faso, the “fragile nature of their own political futures.” The outcome of last month’s protests, which amassed to formulate what is widely held to be the country’s largest demonstration in decades, will also undoubtedly prove to impact the ongoing developments in the neighboring country of Benin, where President Yayi Boni has also proposed an amendment to the current Constitution that would eradicate the ban that is now placed on presidential third terms. It would appear, then, as though the question of the fate of democratic development throughout the continent is now upon the states of West Africa.
What remains to be seen is whether such developments and potential power transitions can be accomplished in the absence of violence. While the demonstration against constitutional reform transpired across Burkina Faso peacefully, Meluleki Mthembu, a researcher at the African Democratic Institute, notes that the nation could experience great upheaval if Compaoré does, indeed, run in the 2015 election. However, it is worth emphasizing that the means by which democratic consolidation is pursued holds serious implications for the nature and extent to which such end is realized.
Despite the rather sharp sense of apprehension that is felt regarding the political limbo in which Burkinabes currently find themselves and their country, there is cause to be cautiously optimistic. One may be compelled to assume that even if Compaoré does choose to cooperatively step down, any successor will inevitably emerge from the ruling elite, given the monopolization of governance institutions by the Congress for Democracy and Progress party. In this sense, it may be argued, the organizational structures shaping existing patronage politics and power dynamics will remain intact, though a few names in varying ministries may change.
Yet, though it is true that several opposition leaders have been co-opted by Compaoré in the past, it appears as though the tides may really, and sustainably, be turning. A week before the widespread protests occurred, the incumbent party experienced mass resignations, as seventy-five members of the Congress for Democracy and Progress party defected to the opposition, noting that the principles of pluralism and democracy had “disappeared” from Compaoré’s rule. Since defecting, these officials, including the former head of the National Assembly, have come together to form the Movement of People for Progress (MPP). Acknowledging the threat to political stability that is currently being experienced within Burkina Faso, and the potential for such instability to extend throughout West Africa, the MPP has asserted a commitment to securing and solidifying the democratic process.
Though an amendment to the Constitution or a popular referendum was no doubt a likely and proven scenario in previous years, it would be unfair and ill-informed to assume that meaningful change in standards of political accountability and levels of civic engagement have failed to manifest in Burkina Faso. The peaceful, and, therefore, highly legitimate and internationally legitimized protests transpiring across the country in January illustrate that the positive changes that have empirically taken place regarding participatory citizenship are powerful enough to prevent the negative changes that could take place regarding the constitutionally protected extension of presidential terms.