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Burkina Faso: Is President Compaoré Finally on the Way Out?

Despite Compaoré’s efforts to strengthen his position, there are growing signs that the writing is on the wall for his 26-year-old regime.
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President Blaise Compaoré speaking at a conference in 2013. Photograph by CTBTO.

Over the last few years, the West African nation of Burkina Faso has, somewhat paradoxically, been teetering between two opposing fates.

On the one hand, President Blaise Compaoré’s regime has successfully managed to maintain institutional stability and instigate a degree of democratic consolidation since 2011, when popular protests shook the very foundations of the regime and Compaoré reshuffled the government, appointing Luc Adolphe Tiao as his new prime minister. Successful municipal and legislative elections in December 2012, for example, brought about stronger representation for the political opposition, though the ruling Congrès pour la Démocratie et le Progrès (CDP) still won a sweeping majority. And the stability of the regime has continued to be reinforced by Compaoré acting as a West African mediator in many of the region’s conflicts.

On the other hand, however, there are also several signs that the country is due to experience some political unrest in 2014 and possibly even a political turnover in 2015. Having been in power since 1987, when he led a coup d'état against his former friend and predecessor Thomas Sankara, Compaoré may finally see his time in office come to an end.

Signs of the times

The first sign that change may be on the horizon for Burkina Faso is the increasing demand for radical changes in wealth distribution and proper implementation of the rule of law. Widespread corruption in all sectors of society – not least in the judiciary – means that most Burkinabé have to bribe their way through chains of bureaucracies to get a fair treatment. Meanwhile, the escalating enrichment of a small political and economic elite at the expense of ordinary citizens is contributing to a sense that enough is enough when it comes to the personalisation of power by Compaoré and his allies. Although the economy has reportedly been growing rapidly in recent years − with GDP estimated to have grown by 8% in 2012 − Burkina Faso remains one of the world's least developed countries, ranking 183rd out of 186 in the Human Development Index.

The second sign that Burkina Faso could be on the verge of a new chapter in its history is the fact that Compaoré's attempts to modify Article 37 of the Constitution − which limits the president’s mandate to two five-year-terms − have so far been met by with protests.

Last year's unrest specifically concerned the creation of a Senate, an institution which was envisioned in the 1991 constitution, but never created. The Senate would have the power to modify the constitution and would be composed of a mixture of elected representatives at municipal and regional levels, customary and religious authorities, and of a number of figures directly appointed by the president. This latter group would account for one third of senators, and the sudden desire to establish the legislative body was seen by many as an attempt by Compaoré to indirectly change the constitution.

Alternatively, some feared the Senate could be used as a way to ensure François Compaoré, the president's younger brother, succeeded Blaise. François has already been taking an increasingly public role in politics as an MP for the ruling CDP, and some predicted that if he were made president of the Senate, he would be well-placed to take over the presidency.

Senate elections were carried out in July-August 2013, but after large protests, its installation was postponed.

Keep your friends close

A third sign of coming unrest could be the emergence of dissenters within the ruling CDP.

Rumours have long circulated that leading figures – including former president of National Assembly Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, former minister and ambassador Salif Diallo, and former mayor of Ouagadougou Simon Compaoré (no relation to Blaise) – are to found a breakaway political party.

This prospect is looking ever more likely with the publication of an open letter on 4 January 2014 to the CDP’s Secretary General announcing the resignation of 75 CDP member signatories. The signatories cited the imposition of the senate and attempts to modify the constitution as reasons for the move, though the real motives may be less based on principles and more based on their rejection within the party. After all, in 2012, Kaboré, who was then president of the National Assembly, argued that Article 37 was “anti-democratic” because it contravenes the right of citizens to freely choose who they want as leader.

In any case, for whatever the reason, the resignation of these former CDP figures has turned up the political heat, with many analysts seeing the new party as a potentially more threatening challenge to Compaoré than the current political opposition who have just a modest number of parliamentary seats. At the same, however, it should be noted that some others suspect that Compaoré is actually the mastermind behind the move and argue that it is unlikely these political figures would defy their former patron and protector for real.

These diametrically opposed readings of the same events point to the complexity of Burkinabé politics and the fact that commentary has for long time developed into a kind of modern-day kremlinology, analysis based on ‘reading between the lines’, interpretation of rumours and hearsay around power-holders’ intentions and moves.

Indeed, it is extremely difficult to predict what will happen in the next couple of years in Burkina Faso. One could point to the Compaoré's well-proven staying power and strong position as a French and US ally in the region, especially since the Malian crisis, to imagine he could still be around for a good while yet. However, at the same time, the hints that change could be on the cards in 2014 and 2015 are getting harder to ignore.

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