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Burkina Faso: With or Without Compaoré, Times of Uncertainty
Burkina Faso: With or Without Compaoré, Times of Uncertainty
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
CrisisWatch 2018 February Trends & March Alerts
CrisisWatch 2018 February Trends & March Alerts
Report 205 / Africa

Burkina Faso: With or Without Compaoré, Times of Uncertainty

If President Blaise Compaoré fails to manage his departure well, the country could face political upheaval in an increasingly troubled region.

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Executive Summary

For the first time since 1987, succession is being openly discussed in Burkina Faso. Under the current constitution, President Blaise Compaoré, in power for more than a quarter century, is not allowed to contest the presidency in 2015. Any attempt to amend the constitution for a fifth-term bid could provoke a repeat of the 2011 popular uprisings. However, even if Compaoré abides by the constitution and leaves power in 2015, his succession may still prove challenging as he has dominated the political scene for decades, placing severe restrictions on political space. International partners must encourage him to uphold the constitution and prepare for a smooth, democratic transition.

Preserving Burkina Faso’s stability is all the more important given that the country is located at the centre of an increasingly troubled region, with the political and military crisis in neighbouring Mali possibly spilling over into Niger, another border country. Burkina Faso has been spared similar upheaval so far thanks to its internal stability and robust security apparatus, but deterioration of the political climate in the run-up to 2015 could make the country more vulnerable. A presidential election is also due in 2015 in Côte d’Ivoire, a country with which Burkina Faso has very close ties. This special relationship and the presence of a significant Burkinabe community in the country mean that a political crisis in Ouagadougou could have a negative impact on a still fragile Côte d’Ivoire.

Burkina Faso also holds significant diplomatic influence in West Africa. Over the past two decades under Blaise Compaoré’s rule, the country has become a key player in the resolution of regional crises. The president and his men have succeeded, with much ingenuity, in positioning themselves as indispensable mediators or as “watch-dogs” helping Western countries monitor the security situation in the Sahel and the Sahara. A crisis in Burkina Faso would not only mean the loss of a key ally and a strategic base for France and the U.S., it would also reduce the capacity of an African country in dealing with regional conflicts. The collapse of the Burkinabe diplomatic apparatus would also mean the loss of an important reference point for West Africa that, despite limitations, has played an essential role as a regulatory authority.

There is real risk of socio-political crisis in Burkina Faso. Since coming to power in 1987, Blaise Compaoré has put in place a semi-authoritarian regime, combining democratisation with repression, to ensure political stability – something its predecessors have never achieved. This complex, flawed system is unlikely to be sustained, however. It revolves around one man who has dominated political life for over two decades and has left little room for a smooth transition. In fact, there are few alternatives for democratic succession. The opposition is divided and lacks financial capacity and charismatic, experienced leaders; and none of the key figures in the ruling party has emerged as a credible successor. If Compaoré fails to manage his departure effectively, the country could face political upheaval similar to that which rocked Côte d’Ivoire in the 1990s following the death of Félix Houphouët-Boigny.

Another threat to Burkina Faso’s stability is social explosion. The society has modernised faster than the political system, and urbanisation and globalisation have created high expectations for change from an increasingly young population. Despite strong economic growth, inequalities are widespread and the country is one of the poorest in the world. Repeated promises of change have never been fulfilled, and this has led to broken relations between the state and its citizens as well as a loss of authority at all levels of the administration. Public distrust sparked violent protests in the first half of 2011 that involved various segments of the society, including rank-and-file soldiers in several cities.

For the first time, the military appeared divided between the elites and the rank and file, and somewhat hostile to the president, who has sought to control the defence and security apparatus from which he had emerged. The crisis was only partially resolved, and local conflicts over land, traditional leadership and workers’ rights increased in 2012. Such tensions are especially worrying given the country’s history of social struggle and revolutionary tendencies since the 1983 Marxist-inspired revolution.

Blaise Compaoré’s long reign is showing the usual signs of erosion that characterises semi-autocratic rule. Several key figures of his regime have retired, including the mayor of Ouagadougou, Simon Compaoré – not a relative of the president – who managed the country’s capital for seventeen years; and billionaire Oumarou Kanazoé, who until his death was a moderate voice among the Muslim community. In addition, the death of Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi, a major financial partner, was a blow to Compaoré’s regime.

President Compaoré has responded to these challenges with reforms that have not met popular expectations and have only scratched the surface. Further, he has remained silent on whether he will actually leave office in 2015. He has concentrated power, in the country and within his Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) party, in the hands of a small circle of very close allies and family members, including his younger brother François Compaoré, who was elected to parliament for the first time on 2 December 2012. The president’s silence and his brother’s political ascent continue to fuel uncertainty.

President Compaoré has less than three years left to prepare his departure and prevent a succession battle or a new popular uprising. He is the only actor capable of facilitating a smooth transition. By upholding the constitution and resisting the temptation of dynastic succession, he could preserve stability, the main accomplishment of his long rule. Any other scenario would pave the way for a troubled future. Similarly, the opposition and civil society organisations should act responsibly and work to create conditions for a democratic process that would preserve peace and stability. International partners, in particular Western allies, should no longer focus exclusively on Compaoré’s mediation role and the monitoring of security risks in West Africa; they should also pay close attention to domestic politics and the promotion of democracy in Burkina Faso.

Dakar/Brussels, 22 July 2013


CrisisWatch 2018 February Trends & March Alerts

The latest edition of Crisis Group's monthly conflict tracker highlights dangers of escalating conflict in Bangladesh, Cameroon and Syria. CrisisWatch also notes deteriorated situations in Tanzania, Guinea, Maldives and Venezuela, among others.

February saw a twofold deterioration in the Syrian conflict – the Assad regime stepped up its brutal bombardment of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, and regional and global powers increased their direct interventions in Syria, raising the risk of worse fighting in coming weeks. Elsewhere political polarisation between governments and opposition movements was rife. In Bangladesh, the conviction of opposition leader Khaleda Zia sparked protests, which could worsen if she is barred from participating in elections, while in the Maldives the government launched a crackdown on the judiciary and declared a state of emergency. In Venezuela, formal talks between the government and the opposition broke down, deepening the political impasse. In Guinea, alleged electoral fraud in local elections sparked opposition-led protests and violent clashes with security forces, while in Tanzania the killing of two opposition politicians highlighted shrinking political space. In Cameroon, deadly clashes between security forces and Anglophone separatists continued and could well worsen around senatorial elections planned for 25 March.

In February, the conflict in Syria grew yet more abysmal. First, the regime unleashed a horrifying bombardment on Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel-held area near Damascus, reportedly killing hundreds. Rebels also shelled parts of the capital under regime control, causing more deaths. With the UN’s and Russia’s efforts to organise ceasefires having scant effect and regime forces launching a ground offensive, the suffering is likely to continue. Second, outside actors – regional and global adversaries sucked into the conflict – directly confronted each other, significantly raising the risk of more damaging fighting among Syrian and non-Syrian forces in coming weeks. In the north west, Turkey pursued its fight against affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Afrin district; fighting there will likely intensify if it pushes closer toward the city itself. In the east, a strike by U.S. forces against pro-regime forces, killing scores of Russian mercenaries, could augur worse clashes along the Euphrates. Elsewhere, Israeli jets bombed Iranian targets in response to growing tensions on Syria’s southern border. As we have argued, to prevent a new phase in Syria’s war involving Israel, Russia should act as broker to bolster the de-escalation agreement that keeps Iran-backed forces away from Syria’s 1974 armistice line with Israel.

In Bangladesh, tensions between the ruling Awami League and main opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) increased as BNP leader Khaleda Zia was found guilty of corruption charges and sentenced to five years in jail, prompting protests across the country. There are fears that the confrontation could worsen if Zia’s petition for bail is rejected and she is barred from contesting elections later this year. As we note in a new report, Bangladesh’s earlier political polarisation helped create conditions for a jihadist resurgence. Another violent election cycle, resulting from the Awami League’s marginalisation of the BNP – including Zia’s conviction in February – would again benefit the jihadist fringe. Rather than cracking down on political rivals, the government should be building political consensus on how to tackle Bangladesh’s security threats.

In the Maldives, President Abdulla Yameen defied the country’s Supreme Court after it overturned the prison sentence of exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed and ordered the release of other jailed opposition leaders, saying their trials had been “politically motivated”. The government arrested two Supreme Court judges and declared a state of emergency, which the UN’s human rights chief condemned as an “all-out assault on democracy”.

In Cameroon’s Southwest and Northwest regions, clashes between Anglophone separatists and security forces and attacks by both sides left at least 28 dead, including security forces, armed separatists and civilians. The confrontation, which started as protests by Anglophone teachers and lawyers, is rapidly morphing into an armed insurgency. In this fraught atmosphere, senatorial elections planned for 25 March could spark more violence. A direct dialogue between the government and Anglophone community leaders is critical to calm the crisis, particularly ahead of October presidential polls.

Local elections in Guinea, the first since 2005, triggered violence after the opposition accused President Condé and the ruling party of manipulating the vote. Anger over the polls and intensifying strike action led to clashes between opposition supporters and strikers on one side and security forces on the other that left at least ten people dead. In Tanzania, the killing of two opposition politicians marked a deterioration in a climate of rising political repression.

Formal talks aimed at ending the standoff between Venezuela’s government and opposition broke down on 7 February following the government’s unilateral announcement in January that it would hold early presidential elections in April. The Lima Group of fourteen nations that has been pushing for a solution to the Venezuela crisis expressed its “firm rejection” of the election plan, saying that the election would lack legitimacy and credibility without adequate guarantees.

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