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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
Why the World’s Newest Country Has Only Known Conflict
Why the World’s Newest Country Has Only Known Conflict
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

Op-Ed / Africa

Why the World’s Newest Country Has Only Known Conflict

Originally published in World Politics Review

Few nations have seen their dreams and hopes dashed as quickly and ruthlessly as South Sudan. As the country approaches its 10-year anniversary, the risk of a return to full-blown conflict is never far away.

Few nations have seen their dreams and hopes dashed as quickly and ruthlessly as South Sudan. A mere two years after thousands thronged the streets of the capital, Juba, to celebrate independence from Sudan’s autocratic rule, the country descended into a brutal civil war. The fallout between President Salva Kiir and Vice President-turned-rebel Riek Machar, and the subsequent fighting, exerted a terrible toll. Between 2013 and 2018, up to 400,000 people were killed and 4 million—a third of the country’s population—displaced, amid numerous reports of ethnic-based atrocities like rape and massacres.

The world’s youngest country is now approaching its 10-year anniversary, and while the war has quieted thanks to a fragile 2018 peace deal, the risk of a return to full-blown conflict is never far away. South Sudan still faces an insurgency in the south of the country and rampant localized violence elsewhere. Ethno-political tensions remain high and could be unleashed again by the next presidential election, which was originally scheduled for 2022 but is likely to be delayed. Moreover, amid the constant efforts to halt violence, avoid the further deterioration of a dire humanitarian situation and keep the sputtering peace deal on track, both external partners and many South Sudanese themselves seem to have lost sight of any vision for longer-term stability.

Maintaining the peace deal and getting the country past the presidential poll—which would likely pit Kiir against Machar, who has returned to the position of vice president under the terms of the 2018 agreement—are the most immediate hurdles. But any hope for stability demands a reset of South Sudan’s ill-suited, winner-take-all political system that fuels the ongoing tensions among elites.

Despite the fact that its divisions and vulnerabilities were apparent at independence a decade ago, both South Sudanese and outsiders downplayed the new country’s political woes, and especially its ethnic cleavages. South Sudanese had fought a long war against Sudan, but also, more often than not, against each other. Kiir and Machar, for example, fought on rival sides between 1991 and 2002, mobilizing fighters from their respective Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups.

At independence, the country’s political system, which vests enormous power in the presidency, offered few mechanisms for the inclusion of rivals. This meant those locked out of power had few incentives to believe in the new state rather than rebel against it. The scramble for power and resources dominated politics in Juba and, as Kiir and his clique monopolized both, the scars of decades of infighting reopened.

Conflict soon flared, while several peace agreements and cease-fires collapsed—notably in 2016 when Machar, then vice president, fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo on foot after fighting erupted in Juba—before the 2018 pact brought a bit of respite. Kiir and Machar finally formed a unity government in February 2020. But they have achieved little beyond a delicate cease-fire, as most of the provisions of the agreement languish unfulfilled. These include the unification of forces supporting the two rivals into a single national army, the establishment of a new National Assembly, the creation of a transitional court of justice, and economic reforms. On top of all that, South Sudan still has to deal with the insurgency in its southern Equatoria region led by Thomas Cirillo, a former senior military officer who has not signed the peace agreement. Localized violence in other places rages unabated.

With this uneasy arrangement in place and ethno-political tensions so deeply rooted, the risk of a new collapse exists at every turn of the road. No turn looks more dangerous than the next presidential election, whenever it is held. Even if they seem to have lost the confidence of a significant part of their respective support bases, Kiir and Machar still look intent on facing off. The poll, if it ever occurs, could be a fatal blow to the peace agreement, given that the winner could lock the loser and his coalition out of any share of power.

Ultimately, the country will need to revisit its political model to avoid remaining stuck in cyclical bouts of conflict.

Given the current level of tensions, rival factions will surely contest nearly every step in the leadup to the poll, so foreign diplomats in South Sudan should refrain from putting pressure on the government to rush into a potentially destabilizing election. Crucially, regional powers like Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, which are the main guarantors of the 2018 peace deal, will also need to push for some form of pre-election deal that ensures a share of power to the losers.

Such an outcome could avert a violent breakdown around the vote, but it still would not resolve South Sudan’s many problems. Ultimately, the country will need to revisit its political model to avoid remaining stuck in cyclical bouts of conflict. The existing centralized state butts up against the harsh realities across the country. South Sudan still lacks roads or basic institutions, and peaceful governance is impossible without broad accommodation across its diverse patchwork of communities and groups. As the International Crisis Group argues in a recent report, instead of a king-of-the-hill system, South Sudan could evolve toward a more consensual form of governance. This would give the country’s notorious elites in Juba, as well as its beleaguered but divided population, a sense of shared interest.

What would this look like? One way to begin solving exclusionary politics is by institutionalizing power-sharing at the heart of the state. Several options exist, including a presidency that rotates among ethno-political groups or regions, formally slotting government positions for runners-up or instituting diversity quotas at all levels of political and public life. None of these options would address all the challenges the country faces, but they may at least help reduce the deadly stakes of the central power struggle.

Beyond power-sharing in Juba, devolving power and resources to regional and local authorities could also reduce the temperature of national politics. Decentralization, enshrined in South Sudan’s constitution but hardly implemented over the past decade, is increasingly back in fashion among the country’s thinkers and politicians. Striking the right balance will be critical if the country heads in this direction, as decentralization can also push conflict and corruption to the local level. But devolving power and resources could also help resolve raging local conflicts by empowering local officials and opening avenues for conflict resolution outside the political gridlock in Juba.

The prospects of such changes happening soon are limited, though, to say the least. The challenge of reform lies less in imagining new options than in persuading self-interested elites to adopt them. This challenge goes beyond Kiir and Machar, although the two are likely to remain unconstructive actors at the center of the country’s political stage for some time to come. Yet even when these archrivals are finally out of the equation, the country will still likely lack state institutions and infrastructure, in addition to being bitterly divided, awash in guns and in need of broad consensus to avoid more rampant bloodshed.

Faced with such grim prospects, other South Sudanese leaders and their external partners must seize every opportunity to push for improvements, even if gradual. Reform-minded South Sudanese politicians should push for constitutional reform and champion an inclusive national conference to chart a path away from the zero-sum politics that define the status quo. External partners should be ready to push in that direction and support such initiatives, including financially. If South Sudan’s peace deal again collapses, external mediators could also assess whether efforts to patch things back together again can also go some way to address these underlying structural questions and make peace more durable.

For now, the scale of South Sudan’s challenges contrasts frighteningly with what seems politically possible to fix, and progress in that direction will undoubtedly be halting. But persistence toward a broader settlement is the only way for South Sudan to salvage the dreams that so animated its independence celebrations a decade ago.