Blaise Compaoré announced on Friday, October 31, that he was stepping down “to preserve democratic gains and social peace.” In a rare demonstration of people power in Sub-Saharan Africa, Compaoré was forced out by massive, sustained demonstrations over the past week, with hundreds of thousands of people protesting his move to remain in power by amending the constitution.
The demonstrations culminated on Thursday, Oct. 30, the day the National Assembly was expected to change constitutional term-limits, Compaoré having secured the allegiance of enough parliamentarians for the vote to pass. The amendment would have allowed Compaoré to stand for office again in 2015, after 27 years in power. Instead, the National Assembly, having lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the population, was burned down.
Activists from “Balai citoyen” (“citizen broom,” a reference to sweeping away corruption) – an organization led by two singers and inspired by the Senegalese youth movement “Y’en a marre” – were among those leading the demonstrators. The vast majority of those in the streets were youth – and a recurring complaint that in their lifetime they have never known any other president than Blaise.
In a last-ditch effort to maintain control of the situation, Compaoré withdrew the proposed constitutional amendment, dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency, Thursday afternoon. Too little, too late. By midday on Friday he was gone. Who has taken over in his place?
Who will guide the transition? Reflecting the suddenness of this unexpected outcome, top military brass and civilian leadership from opposition parties and civil society groups scrambled on Friday to present a common front and a coherent message. For most of the day, the country appeared rudderless, as looting of homes, hotels, banks and stores belonging to members of Compaoré’s family, the ruling CDP and allied parties intensified across the country.
First the army chief of staff, General Honoré Traoré declared himself head of state and president of the transition. Then the second in command of the presidential guard, Lt. Colonel Isaac Zida, said he was the one in charge. Zida had earlier in the day served as spokesperson for the armed forces, informing the population of Compaoré’s departure, but he apparently saw another role for himself.
The confusion was lifted, at least from the army’s perspective, Saturday morning, as the joint chiefs of staff and other officers of the armed forces declared Zida their unanimous choice as leader of the transition. Opposition party and civil society leaders do not, however, see it that way, and demand that a civilian be charged with leading the transition.
While the opposition is unified in resisting recuperation by the armed forces of the popular uprising, which by some accounts has cost 30 people their lives, there seems to be a lack of consensus as to who should then preside over the transition. Ouagadougou lived through another chaotic day on Sunday, as two separate presidential candidates – retired General Lougué and opposition party leader Saran Sérémé – were brought to the national radio and TV-station to declare themselves president. None of them with the coordinated blessing of opposition political parties that seemed to have lost control of the situation. As demonstrators amassed outside the TV-station and the situation appeared to be spinning out of control, the army dispersed the crowd and blocked access to the Nation’s Square – rebaptized Revolutionary Square by the demonstrators. A demonstrator was killed.
Finally, Sunday afternoon Zida began to engage in direct dialogue with representatives from the coordination of opposition political parties and civil society groups, diplomatic representatives, including the ambassadors of France, the EU and the US, and former president Jean Baptiste Ouedraogo. Talks are to continue next with representatives of religious and traditional authorities as well as unions and other civil society components.
The coming days will be crucial for determining the further course the transition will take. Already, Burkina is celebrated on twitter (#Burkina, #lwili) as an example by civic and political activists in other countries on the continent where incumbents are considering tinkering with constitutional term limits (the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo Brazzaville and Rwanda). All the more reason for Burkinabe democrats, regional bodies (the AU and ECOWAS) and international partners (the UN, France, the EU and the US) to maintain pressure on the military leadership of the country to do the right thing.