Burkina Faso's ambitious move to depoliticise government

New legislation targets the clientelism and political patronage that have plagued public service delivery for decades.

Poor governance of public affairs has been cited as one of the reasons for Burkina Faso’s two coups last year, and the severe insecurity that has engulfed the country since 2015.

The popular uprising of 2014, which ended Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year reign, revealed citizens’ desire to rebuild their country on the principles of good governance and a public administration free of political influence. That aspiration was taken up in 2015 by then-president Michel Kafando, who laid the foundation for a new law to depoliticise the government. 

Eight years later, on 16 March this year, the bill – which reinforces political neutrality and meritocracy in public administration – was finally passed. The country’s Transitional Legislative Assembly approved the bill, which bans practices prejudicial to the good functioning and stability of the state.

The law could serve as an example to other countries in the region whose public administrations have similar problems. Governance reforms are vital in most West African nations, where insecurity and rising coups are fuelled by exclusion, injustice and socio-economic inequality. Most of these problems stem from bad governance practices. The putschists in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and recently Niger all justified their actions by referring to the governance deficit. 

A study requested by Burkina Faso’s 2015 transitional government shows the damage caused by the politicisation of public administration. Political party cells or groups with regionalist leanings were active in government, and wearing uniforms in political party colours was common practice. Promotions and other favours were granted to certain civil servants based on political affiliation, while others could be punished or even persecuted for belonging to the political opposition.

The new law reinforces political neutrality and meritocracy in Burkina Faso’s public administration

The influence of party politics on institutions such as the army, civil service and judiciary contributed to the 1998 murder of journalist Norbert Zongo, who was investigating cases involving people close to Compaoré. It has also resulted in clientelism, favouritism, injustice and corruption in government, deepened social inequalities and prevented the equitable redistribution of national resources. The protest following Zongo’s assassination was the harbinger of the 2014 popular uprising.

This situation has also created fertile ground for violent extremist groups in the country’s rural areas, and sparked popular support for the two military coups in 2022. 

Drafting the new law was however an arduous process. The first version of the preliminary draft met with resistance from political stakeholders as early as 2015 – particularly members of former president Roch Kaboré’s party, the People’s Movement for Progress. According to Institute for Security Studies sources, the party was worried that the law would prevent them from rewarding their militants and supporters with government appointments.

Two other attempts to revive the process of finalising the draft bill failed for the same reasons – first under Kaboré in 2017, then in April 2022, under coup leader Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba.

Putschists in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger justified their actions by referring to the governance deficit

After the September 2022 coup led by Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the new authorities undertook to reduce the negative influence of politics on the functioning of public administration. The preliminary draft bill was updated, adopted by the Council of Ministers on 30 November 2022, and referred to the Transitional Legislative Assembly for approval. 

Civil society in Burkina Faso considers certain provisions of the new law as a step forward. Article 19 in particular gives several key positions the status of technical posts in order to remove them from the political sphere. These include ministry secretaries-general, public and semi-public company general managers, public establishment general managers, national project or programme coordinators, embassy staff, and inspectors-general and technical inspectors of services.

Other provisions have sparked controversy, however. Political party militants have expressed concern that they will be excluded from public office. Religious leaders fear restrictions on faith-based practices, such as wearing headscarves or other symbols in administrative offices. At a press briefing on 21 March, officials from the Ministry of the Civil Service clarified the law’s aims and reassured the public of the inclusive nature of the legislation.

The challenge is ensuring compliance in a country where politicised institutions have been entrenched for decades

Attention is now focused on the law’s regulations, which should set out the conditions and procedures for appointments to technical posts and above all, the legislation’s effective execution. The challenge for the transitional authority will be to ensure compliance in a country where the politicisation of institutions and clientelism have been entrenched for decades.

Traoré’s government faces the difficult task of not only implementing the law but entrenching it in Burkina Faso’s political culture. To achieve this and ensure compliance by future authorities, the constitution should enshrine the principles of political neutrality and meritocracy in public administration.

Burkina Faso’s current political transition has provided an opportunity to introduce this important law, which is innovative compared to the reforms usually carried out by countries in transition. Its effective application could improve the administration’s efficiency in serving citizens without discrimination. It could also help stabilise the country’s political and security situation. How useful the new law is will depend on how it is implemented.

Hassane Koné, Senior Researcher and Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné, Sahel Project Manager, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel Basin and Lake Chad 

Image: © AFP Photo

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Development partners

This article is part of a series on preventing coups in West Africa and the Sahel. Research for the article is funded by Irish Aid and the Bosch Foundation. The ISS is also grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

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