Popular ousting of Compaoré not considered contrary to AU norms

The Peace and Security Council (PSC) has accepted that the popular protest that ousted President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso is not a classic case of an unconstitutional change of government but rather an expression of ‘people’s right to overthrow oppressive regimes’. The military takeover and suspension of the constitution, however, is considered a coup d’état and the African Union (AU) has given the military until 18 November to hand over power to a civilian regime. With ECOWAS calling for restraint over sanctions against Burkina Faso, it risks being on a collision course with the AU should the latter impose sanctions at the end of its two-week deadline. 

At its first meeting on the crisis in Burkina Faso on 3 November 2014, the AU PSC reviewed the Burkina Faso military’s installing one of its own as the country’s leader following the ‘resignation’ of long-time President Blaise Compaoré on 31 October 2014. Apart from the AU’s concerns over the potential for further instability in the country, the main focus of the PSC’s session was the issue of whether there had been an unconstitutional seizure of power as defined by the AU’s norms on unconstitutional changes of government.

Meanwhile, questions are also being asked about the AU’s role in the run-up to the events of 30 and 31 October 2014 and whether its early warning system alerted policy makers before the situation reached a crisis level and whether AU policy makers made any effort to respond proactively and contain the situation.

At the 3 November meeting, the PSC did not consider the protests that forced Compaoré to leave office to be contrary to AU norms. Building on the practice that started with the adoption of the 50-year anniversary’s solemn declaration and reiterated at the PSC’s 432nd session, the PSC affirmed ‘the right of peoples to rise up peacefully against oppressive political systems’. It thus expressed its acknowledgement of the ‘profound aspiration’ of the people of Burkina Faso to uphold their constitution and deepen democracy in the country.

The PSC affirmed ‘the right of peoples to rise up peacefully against oppressive political systems’

Compaoré’s departure involved a resignation

In strict legal terms, unlike the case of Egypt, where the president was forced out, Compaoré’s departure involved a resignation. As a procedure anticipated in the national constitution, ‘resignation’, unlike forced removal, does not give rise to questions of unconstitutional changes of government warranting the application of the AU’s norm. The issue of unconstitutionality in Burkina Faso’s particular circumstances arose in the context of the political developments witnessed after Compaoré had relinquished power. The army, instead of allowing the procedure stipulated in the national constitution in the event of the resignation of the president to be followed, suspended the constitution and appointed Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Yacouba Zida, the deputy head of the Presidential Guard, as transitional leader.

In a communiqué issued after the meeting, the PSC rejected the army’s declaration ‘as constituting a coup d’état’. However, it suspended the application of the measures to be taken under the AU’s norm on unconstitutional changes of government in the event of a coup for a period of two weeks.

Some members of the PSC held that consistency demanded the immediate application of the procedures envisaged in the AU’s norm in the event of a coup, but the overwhelming view expressed in the PSC was that a limited grace period should be allowed for the transfer of power to a civilian authority, as proposed by the AU Commission Chair. Accordingly, the PSC put the Burkinabe military on two weeks’ notice for transferring power to a ‘consensual and civilian’ administration based on ‘the respect of the constitution and the aspiration of the people of Burkina Faso’ until elections are held. It was believed that this would ease the mediation efforts and facilitate the speedy resolution of the crisis. In this context, the PSC also underlined the continued validity of the constitution.

Soon after the PSC’s announcement of the two-week deadline and amid continuing protests against the military’s takeover, Zida announced that the military would hand over power to a transitional body made up of civilians.

While this announcement was in line with the PSC’s demand, it remained unclear whether the speaker of parliament would take over the interim leadership pursuant to Article 43 of the Burkinabe constitution. In April 2012, following the coup d’état in neighbouring Mali, that Speaker of Parliament headed a transitional administration with clear timelines for elections. Since the speaker of parliament was one of the actors implicated in Compaoré’s failed attempt to change the presidential term limits of the constitution, the ongoing discussions and mediation processes seem to focus on clarifying the composition of the transitional civilian authority, rather than the strict application of the constitution.

Ensuring the integrity of the constitutional process

The PSC’s affirmation of the validity of the constitution was significant not only in terms of the concerns over the AU’s norm on unconstitutional changes of government for ensuring respect for constitutional rule but also of the demands of the people to secure the integrity of the constitutional process.

At the political level, the AU, ECOWAS and the UN showed a high level of convergence

Since the PSC’s meeting, the presidents of Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria have travelled to Burkina Faso in an effort to push for the speedy transfer of power to a civilian administration. Like the AU, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also did not impose sanctions against the military in Burkina Faso.

In terms of follow-up on the PSC’s decision, two frameworks have been provided for. First, the AU appointed Edem Kodjo, former secretary general of the AU’s predecessor the Organisation of African Unity and one of the new members of the Panel of the Wise, as a special representative of the Chairperson of the AU Commission to Burkina Faso. Second, the PSC requested the AU Commission to report to it at the end of the two-week period on 18 November on the efforts made towards a civilian-led and consensual transition.

AU and ECOWAS disagree over sanctions

The PSC also awaits the outcome of the ‘AU/ECOWAS/United Nations (UN) Joint Mission’, which returned to Burkina Faso on 3 November 2014. The joint mission, initially composed of AU Commissioner for Political Affairs Aisha Laraba Abdullahi, President of the ECOWAS Commission Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo and Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for West Africa and head of the UN Office for West Africa, undertook its first visit to Burkina Faso on 31 October and 1 November. At the political level, the AU, ECOWAS and the UN showed a high level of convergence. They separately issued statements expressing concern over the situation and urging a peaceful resolution to the crisis. It was this convergence that facilitated the swift deployment of the joint mission.

If progress was not made, the PSC expressed its intention ‘to take all appropriate measures, including the suspension of Burkina Faso from participating in [the] AU’s activities and the imposition of targeted sanctions against all those who would be obstructing the efforts referred to above, in accordance with the relevant AU instruments’.

Although a plan for a return to civilian rule was adopted by political parties, civil society organisations and religious leaders on Sunday 9 November, agreement was not reached over who heads the transition. In the meantime, ECOWAS at an extraordinary meeting held in Ghana’s capital Accra appointed Senegal’s president Macky Sall as mediator and urged the international community to abstain from sanctioning Burkina Faso. With Zida reportedly rejecting the two-week AU deadline, ECOWAS stands to be on a collision course with the AU should the latter impose sanctions at the end of its two-week deadline.

feature-5icon-printerlogo-chlogo-frPSC REPORT