Burkina Faso: West Africa's Arab Spring?

The dramatic ousting of former president Blaise Compaoré by popular uprising in Burkina Faso last week, and the speed with which it happened, caught some observers by surprise.

There had been serious warnings about the threat to the socio-political stability of the country for the last few months following the 2011 protests and the breakaway, late last year, of senior ruling party members from Compaoré’s regime.

Yet few predicted that his insistence to cling to power through a constitutional amendment would so infuriate the citizens of Burkina Faso that they would take to the streets and set fire to the Parliament building, where the vote was to take place last week Thursday, 30 October.

Who are the protestors that chased away Compaoré after 27 years in power? Who took the initiative to tear down a statue of the ousted leader in the second city of Bobo-Dioulassou earlier last week – a gesture reminiscent of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, or Muammar Gaddafi in 2011? The answer to these questions might shed some light on the implications of the events in Burkina Faso for the rest of the region and the continent.

In Burkina Faso, as in Tunisia, the initial response by the international community was timid

As many commentators have stated over the last few days, not only political parties and civil society organisations were behind the popular protests. Zyad Limam, well-known commentator and editor of the Paris-based Afrique Magazine told TV5Monde that the protests simply came from ‘the streets’ (la rue). In statements by civil society, like the 2 November press release of the Burkina Faso human rights’ organisation, Le Mouvement Burkinabè des Droits de l’Homme et des Peuples, the protestors are invariably described as ‘the youth’.

Out of a population of 17 million people in Burkina Faso, over 60% are between the ages of 17 and 24 years old, says the World Bank. It also states that the illiteracy rate amongst the youth population is close to 30%, even though school enrolment in the country has now improved to over 80%.

As in many other African countries, young people are either unemployed, or they are unskilled and earn very low wages, according to the African Development Bank’s African Economic Outlook. Generally, despite a growth rate of over 4%, prospects are not good in landlocked Burkina Faso, with a rating of 181 out of 187 countries in the United Nations (UN) Human Development Index.

In the few days following Compaoré’s ousting, the hashtag #BurkinaSpring began to appear on social media. The basic scenario of all the Arab Spring events in North Africa in 2011 were mass protests by frustrated youth to remove a long-serving head of state from power, with the acquiescence of the international community, or sections of it.

There are a number of valid comparisons between what is happening in Burkina Faso and the January 2011 ousting of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – the initial events that launched the Arab Spring. In Burkina Faso, as in Tunisia, the mass protests were led by a young population against a head of state who has remained in power for decades, surrounded by a corrupt elite. In addition, the political class has shown very little understanding for the wishes of the population. While the leaders of the opposition have been calling for Compaoré to stand down when his term ends in 2015, politicians from the ruling party only recently had the courage to break away from his regime.

Praise for the protestors streamed in on social media from across Africa

As in North Africa, freedom of expression has at times been limited, dating back to the murder under mysterious circumstances of well-known journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998. Yet in Burkina Faso significant progress had been made in this regard in the past decade, and it wasn’t a ‘police state’ under Compaoré. Many commentators have stressed over the last few days that despite being ruled by one president for so long, there was a semblance of democracy in Burkina Faso, with a very vocal civil society and an active media – increasingly using online and social platforms to make its voice heard.

In both Tunisia and Burkina Faso, security forces seemed to sympathise with the protestors and refused to protect the head of state. This scenario is very different from other African countries like Uganda or Angola, where any semblance of a protest is quickly squashed by the police.

In the case of Burkina Faso, as in Tunisia, the initial response by the international community was timid and expressed support for ‘the wishes of the people’. Since this was no classic coup d’état, organisations like the African Union (AU) and the UN refrained from supporting the prevailing status quo and called for a ‘civilian’ transition.

The AU, having probably learnt from its slow response to the Arab Spring events, made a number of statements as soon as the developments took place in Ouagadougou. It also sent a team, together with the Economic Community of West African States and the UN, to the region on Saturday 1 November. It has now told Lt. Col. Isaac Zida, who has taken control, that the army has two weeks to appoint a civilian government or face sanctions.

France, the former colonial power, refused to support Compaoré when the violence broke out last Thursday, despite having troops based in the country as well as in surrounding Chad, Mali and Niger. French president François Hollande did warn Compaoré in early October that he would not support the constitutional amendment of Article 37, which limits the president to two mandates.

Hollande said in a letter on 7 October, published by French media, that if Compaoré would agree to give up power in 2015, he would be considered for ‘an international position’. Some presumed this to be head of the International Organisation of the Francophonie, even though elections to this post are taking place at the end of this month during the Francophonie Summit, to be held in Dakar.

In both Tunisia and Burkina Faso, security forces seemed to sympathise with the protestors

Being ‘dropped’ by France was, however, not the deciding factor that sealed Compaoré’s fate. In 2012, former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade didn’t have France’s support either when he wanted to stand for a third mandate. Despite mass protests that lasted for weeks, and which were also compared to a ‘West African Arab Spring,’ Wade pushed through and managed to stand in the elections. He was duly defeated at the ballot box in an election seen as an example for democracy on the continent.

The implications of the recent events in Burkina Faso for the rest of Africa are still not clear. When the protests in Ouagadougou broke out last week, praise streamed in on social media from pundits across Africa – including places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of the Congo, where heads of state are also suspected of wanting to cling to power despite constitutional term limits. There are important differences between these countries and Burkina Faso, such as the size of the population, the stance of the military, the ethnic composition of voters and the support of the international community.

What seems clear though, is that an increasingly informed and connected youth population, frustrated at the lack of democracy in their countries, has immense power. Long-serving African heads of state should probably take note.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant