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A complex transition to power is in the making in Burkina Faso

Blaise Compaoré’s departure after 27 years at the helm of Burkina Faso was the result of a show of popular resilience and strength.

A growing civil society and an active political opposition played an important part in organising and mobilising the demonstrations that hastened his downfall. This development will likely resonate beyond Burkina Faso and reach other countries led by individuals who have managed to overturn or ignore national constitutions for years.

A new generation of young Africans, who comprise the majority of the population of the continent and who did not experience the anti-colonial wars, have given rise to a new kind of Africa with a greater sense of liberty, democratic values and rule of law. They represent a growing middle class that prizes access to near-instantaneous information from the internet and mobile phones. These young, knowledgeable and better-off young Africans are thus better able and prepared to demonstrate their disillusionment with the ruling elites, making their voices powerful enough to be decisive in the survival odds of a regime.

Compaoré’s fall from grace after nearly three decades marks a fundamental shift in sub-Saharan Africa’s historical record – some go so far as to say it could even become trigger an Arab Spring-like revolution. However, the immediate aftermath of this event raises some doubts over whether anything will change at all.

Since independence, the armed forces have acted as the primary game changers across sub-Saharan Africa, often by launching frequent coups d’état. The armed forces often justify toppling a regime as protecting the nation and guaranteeing the wellbeing of its people, though private interests are normally at its core. While Compaoré resigned due to the popular protests and the anti-establishment violence that ensued, the revolution in Burkina Faso seems to have been hijacked by the military.

Compaoré’s resignation on 31 October 2014 followed the largest popular demonstrations in the country since 2011. They were motivated by Compaoré’s intention to make the parliament approve a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for another term in the November 2015 elections. In the capital, Ouagadougou, protesters set the national assembly ablaze, and targeted other government buildings. The protests spread to other parts of the country, including the second largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso. In response, Compaoré dissolved the government and the parliament, and offered to negotiate with his adversaries in order to form a transitional government – headed by him – to pave the way for the 2015 elections, in which he would not run. The proposal was met with indifference by the opposition, who continued demanding his resignation.

Just before Compaoré’s resignation announcement, an army spokesman told demonstrators in the capital that Compaoré was no longer in power. A few hours later, General Honoré Nabéré Traoré, the chief of staff of Burkina Faso’s armed forces and a Compaoré loyalist, announced in a press conference that he had assumed the functions of head of state. Surprisingly, later in the evening, Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Yacouba Zida, deputy commander of the presidential guard, said in a radio broadcast that he had ‘taken things in hand’ and, distancing himself from the armed forces command, affirmed Traoré’s claim as ‘obsolete’. Zida also announced the creation of a new ‘body of transition’ and the suspension of the constitution. In addition, he stated that he would assume the ‘responsibilities of transition leader and head of state’ and attempt to define in a ‘consensual manner…and with all the political parties and organisations of civil society, the contours and content of a peaceful democratic transition’. Zida was unanimously elected by the military hierarchy to lead the transition period.

The army’s power grab is certainly a bad sign for Burkina Faso’s democratic prospects. The situation is bleak considering the close links the new leadership has to Compaoré. In fact, it is perceived that what changed is just the figurehead, while everything else remains the same – the same policies and priorities. Rumours have it that Zida’s appointment was a political manoeuver by Compaoré. That is not too far-fetched. For Compaoré, who according to Zida moved to Côte d’Ivoire, it would be too great a threat to return to Burkina Faso without firm control over the authorities and, most importantly, no longer enjoying the endorsement of France and the United States. In fact, to return under such conditions would certainly remove his immunity from prosecution for a number of accusations, including charges that he was complicit in the assassination of former President Thomas Sankara, supplied arms and troops to fight UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds, had links to the 2002 rebellion in Côte d’Ivoire, and dealt in the diamond trade during Angola’s civil war. Moreover, losing grip over the country would also probably mean losing the vast business interests Compaoré and his family hold in the country.

One of the few positive developments in the aftermath of Compaoré’s departure was the army’s swift agreement over who would take charge. That joint decision itself has in principle averted the possibility of an all-out war between military factions, thus protecting the valuable relative peace and stability that the country has enjoyed for the last three decades. Despite all of Compaoré’s wrongdoings, the international community, namely France and the United States, have had in his regime a strategic and reliable ally in the region. The regime played a vital role in monitoring and resolving sources of conflict in West Africa, the Sahel and the Sahara. It is worth noting Compaoré’s mediating role in northern Mali, in particular in initiating talks with Ansar Dine, and in negotiations to free Western hostages held by jihadists groups. Soldiers from Burkina Faso have also had a regular presence in UN peacekeeping missions in the continent. Therefore, having the military at the helm of the country should guarantee the continuation of Compaoré’s policies on terrorism and cooperation with the West. It seems that for now France and the United States will keep one of its major allies in the region.

However, international and domestic pressure for the return to constitutional order highlights the need for Burkina Faso’s international partners to pressure the transitional authorities towards ceding power to a civilian body. In order to satisfy the international community’s security interests, and also to answer calls for the return to constitutional order, some sort of equilibrium must be attained. That quest is clearly favoured by the joint mission of the United Nations, African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the country.

If one can learn anything from recent transitions from military to civilian rule in West Africa it is that pressure from ECOWAS, in collaboration with other regional and international organisations, can have an impact. For example, in Guinea-Bissau the international community, via ECOWAS, managed to pressure the military junta that took power following the 2012 coup towards holding elections in early 2014. The military accepted the results and a civilian government took charge of the country. The coup leader who pulled the strings during the transition period was exonerated, and the situation seems to have stabilised.

In the case of Burkina Faso, things seem to be even more favourable to a positive outcome. The country’s armed forces have had for decades a close relationship with France and the United States, and benefited from military assistance and large flows of aid (which often translated into personal gains). In a show of force for a transition to civilian rule, both France and the United States threatened to cut off aid to the country. Exerting the right amount of pressure on the military may expedite the transfer of power to civilian rule while also maintaining the army’s loyalty to Western interests.

Zida stated that the military has not taken the helm of the country to ‘usurp power and to sit in place and run the country but to help the country come out of this situation’, thus showing an apparent strong resolve to heed domestic and international pleas for respect for the constitution. However, Zida made it clear that ‘the executive powers will be led by a transitional body but within a constitutional framework that we will watch over carefully’, indicating that the army does not intend to completely step aside from politics, while also signalling that the chosen leader will have to be borne out of a consensus. Such a consensus will depends on balancing the interests of the military, political parties, civil society and the international community (especially France and the United States).

The West surely cannot afford to have a new government with foreign policy views radically different from that of Compaoré’s regime. That would mean losing a principle ally in a turbulent and volatile region. It is, however, possible to marry Western goals of security and stability in the region with the broader international community’s goals of returning the country to constitutional order. Considering the possibility that the West will use its leverage in the appointment of a new government, the question is who will be a consensual leader among the military, the political opposition and the civil society. Burkina Faso’s history has shown that political coalitions have short life spans, bringing down hopes that an alliance between opposition parties can materialise. Nonetheless, the context in Burkina Faso has changed: Compaoré is out of office after three decades, and this fact could become a unifying force.

Zéphirin Diabré, the leader of the parliamentary opposition coalition before the body was dissolved, seems to be the leading candidate to lead the country at present. A former finance minister under Compaoré, founder of the largest opposition party, the Union for Progress and Change (UPC), and also former deputy director general of the UN Development Programme, he has been the most active voice against Compaoré. In September 2014, Diabré met with Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, a former president of the national assembly who defected from Compaoré’s party in January 2014 and formed his own political party, the People’s Movement for Progress, with others who had resigned. The meeting aimed at strengthening relations and acting together toward Compaoré’s demise and a democratic transition. In fact, Diabré’s close cooperation with the opposition was a major factor behind the successful organisation of the popular demonstrations that led to Compaoré’s resignation. The question now is if collaboration among political forces is sufficiently committed to in order to form a coalition capable of reaching a consensus with the military and getting the international community’s endorsement, and hence put the country on the right track.

Diabré is an experienced politician and aware of the machinations within the international community. Given this, he has sought to woo international partners. Diabré’s most important asset in regards to Western interests may turn out to be his closeness to Paris, namely his past chairmanship of the Africa and Middle East regions at AREVA Group, a nuclear energy company owned by the French state. (It may be worth recalling that AREVA was one of the main drivers behind the 2013 French military intervention in Niger to secure uranium mines.)

Although Diabré is not the only one aspiring to succeed Compaoré, he seems to be in the best position presently. Undoubtedly, much can happen during the forthcoming transition period, including a change in Zida’s stated plan to quickly transfer power to civilian hands. The next few days will certainly provide a better idea of who will be the preferred option to take up Burkina Faso’s presidential seat. Despite the doubts that hang over the transition process, one thing is certain: the military will not easily abandon its influence over the country’s affairs.

A version of this article was first published by the Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security on 6 November 2014.