Lessons from the Burkina Faso political upheaval

Lt. Col. ZidaIn the space of less than a month, Burkina Faso went through an unparalleled political flux, which most countries must wait for a generation or more, to experience.

The nation had no alternative than to cope with a popular revolt against a democratically elected leader, power struggle between senior military officers and then the setting up of an interim government.

It started on October 28 last year, when thousands of violent protesters thronged the streets of Ouagadougou, the nation’s capital, setting ablaze buildings, including the Parliament House, to thwart President Blaise Compaore’s bid to change his country’s constitution and extend his rule. Sensing danger, Compoare resigned and fled to Ivory Coast, after imposing a fruitless state of emergency.

The people were irritated by his attempt to lean on Parliament, to lift the two-term limit on his time in office which he had hastily inserted into the constitution. The army moved in swiftly to clear the protesters from the streets to restore law and order, suspended the constitution, dissolved Parliament, and selected Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col.) Isaac Zida as the Head of State, overriding an earlier claim by the Army Chief of Staff, General Honore Nabere Traore.

The West African sub-region had for years witnessed political transitions, but not as vicious and momentous as Burkina Faso’s. In fact, violent demonstrations which forced rulers in some Arab countries – Tunisia (Zine El Abidine Ben Ali), Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) and Libya (Muammar Gaddafi) out of office in recent memory, were least expected to occur in Burkina Faso, considered as one of the peaceful countries in the sub- region.

The revolutionary wave of protests against repression and corruption in the Arab world, called the ‘Arab Spring’, has not generally been part of politics in West Africa.

While we salute the people of Burkina Faso for rising against Compaore’s attempt to violate the constitution, to enable him to contest the country’s next presidential election, it is imperative for people to reflect on the ‘object history’ of the political developments.

Certainly, the Burkinabes have demonstrated that the will of the people is the supremacy of the law, and popular revolt, once it erupts; sweeps away self-seeking leaders into the lumber chamber of history.

Though the former President a shrewd, and influential politician, and was a key ally of the United States and France in operations against al-Qa’ida-linked groups in West Africa, he under-estimated the political prowess of his people.

Former President Campaore, who had hung onto power for 27 years, first emerging as a military strong man in 1987 through a coup, could have saved his country from the quagmire, but for his thirst for absolute and perpetual power.

It is a worrying trend that some African leaders are hatching plans to clinch onto power, no matter how precarious the situation is, even when they have outlived their usefulness in office.

It is mind-boggling that Compaore wanted to extend his already long stay in office, though he was blamed for not tackling poverty and unemployment in the nation of 17 million people, by investing government earnings from gold and cotton wisely.

Undisputably, law makers of the Burkinabe Parliament failed in their duty to check Compaore from seeking his personal aggrandizement, thereby abusing the trust reposed in them by the electorate.

The time has come for Parliaments in Africa to rise against arbitrary rule, dictatorship and corruption which often result in discontent and revolt, as exemplified by the Burkinabe case.

Perhaps the dismissal of Prime Minister (PM) Altankhuyag Norov of Mongolia by Members of Parliament (MPs) for incompetence, cronyism and corruption is a useful guide for law makers in Africa.

Unpredictably, out of the 66 MPs, who voted during the full parliamentary session, 36, including those of his own party, voted to dismiss the PM.

Altankhuyag came under severe criticism for incompetence and cronyism and corruption by the opposition Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) and some factions within his party – the Mongolian Democratic Party.

The Burkina Faso crisis has demonstrated that majority rule, if not properly managed, can bring apparent conflict between the benefits of that system of governance and other values important to a democratic society.

Leaders, especially in Africa, must refrain from manipulating the majority in Parliament to enact obnoxious laws that might be inimical to the wishes, norms, aspirations and development of the people.

There is the need to adopt constitutional limits on executive power, especially in Africa to mitigate the effects of the abuse and tyranny by the majority in Parliament, to facilitate the protection of democracy.

The Burkinabe army‘s commitment to democracy is useful orientation for their counterparts in other parts of Africa.

Admirably, the military in Burkina Faso did not waste time in handing over power to a transitional government, headed by President Michael Kafando, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, with Lt. Col Zidah as Prime Minister.

After all the military can collaborate with civilians to restore and promote democracy in Africa !

The United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United States and the African Union (AU), must be lauded for living up to their responsibilities of ensuring peace and stability, and the efforts to return Burkina Faso to democracy.

Their rejection of the army’s seizure of power and immediate call for the handing over of power to an interim government, until elections are organised next year, coupled with the high level diplomacy, played out successfully, in bringing Burkina Faso back on the path of progress.

This notwithstanding, these international bodies must take further steps to avert looming political crises in Africa. Despite the fact that democracy supports regular change of Heads of State, it is still a fragile concept in Africa, as attempts are made by leaders to subvert or change the status quo with the support of Parliaments.

African leaders, especially the generation of long-serving ones, who are approaching the constitutional limits of their terms in office would have to take a cue from the political events in Ouagadougou.

A similar move in Senegal led to the ouster of former President Abdulai Wade at the polls in 2012, and in Burundi, Parliament disallowed a-third presidential term by one vote last year.

The Presidents of Rwanda, Djibouti, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have mooted the idea of amending the constitution, to prolong their stay in office.

Many of them are motivated by President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, and President Idriss Deby of Chad, not to mention President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who has managed to postpone retirement indefinitely.

Undoubtedly, the Burkina Faso political upheaval, christened ‘Black Spring’, is a bad omen for Africa, setting the clock of progress in that country back.

Though we console ourselves that the crisis was short-lived and life has returned to normalcy in that country, African leaders should consider it as a useful lesson, to propel them to strive for, and promote good governance towards the consolidation of the continent’s fragile democracy.

By Clemence Okumah

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