Tackling third term bids: Lessons from Burkina Faso

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    The popular insurrection of 30-31 October 2014 that led to the resignation of the president of Burkina Faso shed light on a recurrent trigger for political tensions in many young African democracies: constitutional tinkering by presidents who do not want to leave power. The popular uprising that led to the fall of President Blaise Compaoré on 31 October 2014 set the tone for a year fraught with uncertainties and anxieties in West and Central Africa. Beginning with presidential elections in Nigeria and Togo in March and April, 2015 will end with presidential polls in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. Presidential elections are also scheduled in Burundi this year while Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) should follow in 2016. The “revolution” of Ouagadougou shed light on what has become a recurrent trigger for political tension and violence in many African countries.

    Toppling the President

    Hundreds of thousands of Burkinabé protesters changed the course of their country’s history by pushing their president, who had been in power for 27 years, to resign and flee. He was about to use the National Assembly to amend the country’s constitution to allow him to run for a third term in late 2015. Captain Compaoré became president in October 1987 after a coup toppled and killed another young captain, the famous Thomas Sankara. Compaoré had managed to stay in power, adapting to democratisation in the 1990s by accepting a multiparty system while remaining firmly in control of political space. He manipulated the constitution two times to lift obstacles to his continued rule. The 2014 attempt at constitutional change was one too many. The transition in Burkina Faso should end in October 2015 with presidential and legislative elections. The vote will be competitive and the risk of political violence more limited than if the former president had forced his name on the ballot.

    Learning from Burkina Faso

    The implications of what Burkinabé called “democratic popular uprising” on upcoming elections in the region are not obvious. In Togo, the events of Burkina Faso have provided ideas and encouragement to political and social forces opposed to the candidacy of President Faure Gnassingbé. Allowed by the current constitution to seek as many terms as he wishes, coupled with the single run first-past-the-post system that is favourable to the incumbent, and with a divided opposition, the rule of the president does not appear threatened. His father had governed the country for 38 years until his death in 2005. The youth of Burkina Faso sent a strong message to the heads of state who make and revise constitutional provisions to suit their own interests. All of them saw the images of the National Assembly building in flames in Ouagadougou, but it is not clear that they heard and understood the message. Everywhere on the continent, the victorious collective action of the people of Burkina Faso is an encouragement to those who have been fighting for credible democratisation and believe that alternation in power enshrined in the constitution is essential. But it is a cause for major concern and strategic thinking for incumbent presidents and their entourages who have been looking at ways to lift obstacles to the extension of their political and economic domination.

    Constitutional tinkering

    In Burundi, DRC and Republic of Congo, political tensions are already perceptible because of presidential plans, or suspicions thereof, to seek third terms despite constitutional provisions. It is difficult to predict the immediate political future of these countries. Their respective history matters as much as local and external pressures towards democratic consolidation through respect of two-term limits where they exist. In Burkina Faso, one important factor of the successful mobilisation against constitutional tinkering has been the level of cohesion within the Burkinabé society, which made massive collective action, transcending ethnic, regional, religious and social divides, possible. Those divides do exist in Burkina Faso but there is also a strong political and revolutionary culture since the time of the idealist President, Thomas Sankara (1983-1987). In a number of Central African countries, especially those with strategic valuable natural resources and strong ethnic or regional cleavages, it is not clear that mobilisation against third term bids can be carried out the same way as in Burkina Faso. Democratisation progress has been hampered and still faces serious obstacles in most of the natural resources-rich African countries because of the strong capacity of incumbent rulers to buy political support at home as well as friendly external partners. In countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo, Angola, Gabon or Cameroon, the political tradition of concentration of power and resources in the hands of the presidents makes it particularly easy for governing elites to prevent or break any significant collective action, which might threaten the status quo. The manipulation of ethnic diversity by ruling powers is an additional tool that complicates the task of those who try to create large and cohesive movements in favour of substantial democratic changes. But as violent demonstrations in Kinshasa in last January showed, as well as increasing pressures on the president of Burundi, Pierre Nkuriziza, to not seek a third term, including open opposition within his party, things are changing even in Central Africa. Ruling powers can no longer manipulate laws as they please. Young urban African populations may not yet be able to formulate their political, economic and social claims in a coherent and efficient manner, but they no longer buy the argument of stability preserved by never-ending presidential rules and accept the blatant inconsistency between formal democratic systems and political practices. A former West Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, Gilles Olakounlé Yabi formed the WATHI, a citizen-focused multidisciplinary think tank on West African political, economic and societal issues, in December 2014. Gilles Yabi’s blog is available at http://gillesyabi.blogspot.com.
    This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 4, Issue 3 (April/May 2015).
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