27 Years in Power and All I Got Was This Bloody Revolution
Blaise Compaoré tried to change the constitution—but thousands of protesters stopped him
In an incredibly show of people power, hundreds of thousands of Burkinabè showed one of Africa’s longest serving rulers who’s boss on Oct. 30.
Blaise Compaoré has ruled Burkina Faso for 27 years, after leading a bloody coup to dislodge his predecessor, former best friend and socialist revolutionary Thomas Sankara.
But Compaoré’s staying power seems to have finally run out. A bid to change the constitution to allow him to stand for another term met with massive protests.
Protesters, said to number up to a million people, took to the streets on Oct. 30 to frustrate a parliamentary vote on the proposed constitutional changes, which aimed at abolishing presidential term limits.
The vote would likely have resulted in a constitutional referendum, but a two-thirds majority, which the ruling party could have secured with the help of smaller parties, would have let to immediate changes.
Pictures from this morning show a sea of people marching toward the national assembly, which was cordoned off and heavily guarded by Burkinabè security forces.
After several attempts, the protesters succeeded in storming the building. At least one person was killed during the fighting.
The national assembly was subsequently looted and set on fire, as were the houses of several ruling party members and other structures associated with the country’s elite.
It was at this point—at the latest—that elements of the security forces began switching sides. Compaoré’s brother Francois was arrested at the airport while a retired general and former minister of defense, Kouame Lougué, met with opposition politicians and the Moro-Naba, a traditional king with considerable political influence.
Lougué reportedly later led protestors to the presidential palace. There were gunshots and several people died.
What’s not to understand?
Speculation ran rampart that Compaoré had escaped the country to either Côte d’Ivoire, Sénégal or Morocco. The presidency finally published a statement via radio, around 4:30 p.m. local time.
The president had understood the will of the people and cancelled the constitutional amendment, according to the statement. He also announced the dissolution of the government, negotiations with the opposition and a state of emergency for the whole country.
He asked everybody to remain calm.
By this point, though, the people on the street might not be content with negotiations. Opposition leader Zéphirin Diabré has already rejected the state of emergency and called for the protests to continue.
It seems like Compaoré, who survived similar but much smaller crises in 2003 and 2011, won’t escape with his job this time. It seems unlikely he’ll run again next year.
And there’s no handpicked successor whom Compaoré could control from the shadows. Any attempt to groom, for example, his brother Francois could provoke similar opposition.
There are still some elements of the army, notably the presidential guard, that seem to still be loyal to Compaoré. But a descent into civil war is nonetheless unlikely.
Burkina Faso has no history of violent conflict and there are enough external powers with influence, chiefly ex-colonial power France and the regional organization ECOWAS, which have no interest in letting another country go down in flames.
The U.S. also has an important military partnership with Burkina Faso and is likely already scrambling to limit the fallout of the political standoff.
Counting out a full-blown civil war, only two possible scenarios remain— Compaoré’s immediate abdication or some kind of compromise that sees him leading the country toward elections next year, albeit with diminished power.
Indeed, the army has declared a curfew and a “transitional phase.”
This wouldn’t be the first coup in Burkina—Compaoré’s was the previous one. But it’s unlikely that the current tumult will lead to the sweeping political changes that the demonstrators are hoping for, at least in the short term.
Some observers—as well as Burkinabè on the ground—are raising the possibility that the army coup, whose leadership doesn’t seem to include the general Lougué, is in fact a ploy by Compaoré to stay in power.
Even if the military gives up power and Compaoré steps down, there are no real political alternatives. The protest movement was led in part by young local rappers such as Smockey and Sams K.
While popular, they don’t have the political standing in the overwhelmingly rural and conservative country to play a formal role in politics.
Meanwhile, Compaoré has expertly co-opted the political scene, leaving no prominent politicians who weren’t at some point part of his government or inner circle.
The ruling elite permeates politics, as well as the country’s economy and social fabric. Traditional authorities like the Moro-Naba, while possibly important to suppress open violence in the current situation, have also cooperated with Compaoré during his rule and have little interest in systematic changes to Burkina Faso’s politics.
So while the Burkinabè who took to the streets today were likely successful in their immediate goal of dethroning the only ruler many of them have ever known, a real renewal of Burkina Faso will take much more than a single day of protest.