Tuesday, November 4, 2014

It’s Just Africa: A “Sub-Saharan Spring” in Burkina Faso?

It’s like déjà vu all over again: Popular uprising against abuses of power forces long-serving former military man to step down. The military, loyal to the deposed head of state, seizes power and promises a democratic transition. Protests resume. International outcry commences.

The parliament building in Ouagadougou was set on fire by protesters last Thursday
Last week, residents of Burkina Faso’s capital city of Ouagadougou took to the streets, setting fire to parliament and government buildings in response to President Blaise Compaore’s attempt to change the country’s constitution and extend his nearly three-decade long rule. The protests forced Compaore’s resignation, but the resulting celebration, complete with cheering and dancing in the streets, was short lived, as thousands of people gathered on Sunday in protest of what they called a blatant power grab by the army.

The people’s frustration is justified: according to Burkina Faso’s constitution, power transfers to the head of parliament if the president resigns, and the interim government has a mandate to organize elections within 90 days. However, when Compaore, who himself seized power in a 1987 military coup, stepped down, the military moved to dissolve the legislature and suspend the constitution. On Friday, Army General Honore Traore announced that he would lead the transitional government, a move that was widely denounced by the civilian population as well as by a group of army officers. Then, on Saturday, in a move that exposed a power struggle within its ranks, the military sidelined Traore and named Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida, former second-in-command of the presidential guard, the new head of the interim government.

Military leaders have issued statements in their defense, stating that their actions do not amount to a coup d’état. They say that they are working on the side of the people to ensure a democratic transition decided in consultation with layers of society. Col. Zida addressed diplomats and journalists in Ouagadougou, stating that the military intended for a transitional government comprised of civilians to take office and would facilitate the creation of the new governing body.

Military leaders have called for cooperation from regional bodies, such as the African Union (AU) and the West African regional bloc ECOWAS. They will not see any such cooperation, as the AU and ECOWAS have joined domestic protesters and international actors to denounce the actions of the military.

Thousands of protesters gathered over the weekend in Place de la Nation, demanding that the military immediately step down and calling for the removal of Zida from power. The opposition and civil society organizations view the military’s actions as usurping the uprising, which they believe belongs to the people. Protests turned violent yet again on Sunday, when soldiers blockaded the main square in Ouagadougou and fired shots at the state TV station. One demonstrator was reportedly killed.

The military is not without any support within the country: some people believe that Col. Zida will keep his promises, and they hope that civil society leaders and political leaders can work with the military to construct the new government.

The AU has been calling for the military to transfer power to civilian authorities. The Peace and Security Council, the arm of the AU that imposes sanctions for violations of the democratic process, held a meeting in Ethiopia on Monday to discuss the situation, resolving to apply sanctions against Burkina Faso if the military fails to give up power within two weeks. The Council plans to reconvene in two weeks to discuss any further developments and next steps.

The US State Department condemned the military’s seizure of power almost immediately, and on Saturday, urged Burkina Faso’s military leaders to transfer power to civilian authorities, noting that the US would consider freezing military cooperation if they determined that these actions amounted to a coup. The EU also called for the people of Burkina Faso to have the final say in determining their leader.

Whether the military can continue to cling to power and force a potentially rigged, or at least heavily stacked, election, or whether it will fold under the combined weight of the popular uprising and regional/international opposition remains to be seen. It is almost certain that should the military manage to place one of their own in power, this individual will only hold power so long as they can spur economic growth and reduce corruption and the blatant wealth gap between the ruling class and the people.

Burkina Faso’s uprising and its outcome may be foreshadowing the future of West and Central Africa’s political trajectories as well. In several other countries in the region, including Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Benin, long-serving leaders are reaching the end of their constitutional terms. Should these leaders decide to vie for another term, they may shy away from blatantly unconstitutional means.

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