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Burkina Faso: Nine Months to Complete the Transition
Burkina Faso: Nine Months to Complete the Transition
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Supporters of President-elect Roch Marc Kabore watch election results at Kabore's campaign headquarters in Ouagadougou, 1 December 2015. REUTERS/Joe Penney
Briefing 116 / Africa

Burkina Faso: Transition, Act II

Burkina Faso’s democratically elected new government faces great challenges to deliver on justice, socio-economic needs and regional security. To succeed, authorities must resist the temptation to establish a new one-party hegemony. Instead, they should engage in social dialogue and political reconciliation, military reform, and friendly relations with neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.

I. Overview

Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s victory in the 29 November presidential election shows that Burkinabes aspire as much to change as to continuity. A former heir apparent to Blaise Compaoré, Kaboré symbolises both the stability of the former regime and, given his split from Compaoré, the desire for change. The new government must deliver on many challenges: major socio-economic needs, demands for justice, the fight against corruption and impunity, army reform and growing regional threats. The government will have to refrain from triumphalism, recognise the formidable challenges ahead and, most importantly, resist the temptation to recreate a Compaoré-like system of one-party hegemony. Without this, Burkinabes will massively return to the streets, as in October 2014 and September 2015, which could plunge the country back into crisis.

For now, however, a sense of relief is in order: the long and fragile transition was completed peacefully. By organising the free and fair 29 November elections, the transition fulfilled its principal purpose. It did not, however, manage to resolve all outstanding issues of the Compaoré years: economic crimes and acts of violence committed under the former regime have gone unpunished. The September 2015 attempted coup allowed the country to rid itself of at least the presidential guard (RSP). While the RSP’s dissolution is another step toward dismantling the Compaoré system, it does not solve the thorny issue of the future of the former regime’s partisans. The real transition – the one that should lead to the consolidation of democracy and the introduction of a new form of governance – begins now, with the installation of the new authorities.

The grace period will not last. Dire budgetary realities mean the new president will struggle to meet immediately the population’s high expectations, especially their socioeconomic demands. The presence of violent extremist groups in neighbouring countries is another threat. The October 2015 attack on a gendarmerie post in the west of the country, the first of its kind in Burkina Faso, is evidence of the worsening security environment. The inauguration of new authorities could be followed by a rapid deterioration of the social climate, which, combined with regional security threats, could create an explosive cocktail and block the new government’s scope for action. Furthermore, the September coup attempt demonstrated that the armed forces remain a key actor in the country’s political life. The military’s ability to interfere in political affairs, a constant feature of Burkina Faso’s history since 1966, did not disappear with the RSP’s dissolution.

The political class will eventually have to solve its own disputes. It will be particularly difficult for some of Compaoré affiliates to accept the accession to power of their ex-comrades-turned-enemies of the Movement of People for Progress (MPP) – founded in January 2014 as an outgrowth of the former ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) party. This animosity could generate further tensions, especially if the new government succumbs to the temptation of a witch hunt against members of the former regime, and if some Compaoré followers choose destabilisation as their strategy to demonstrate that they remain a force to be reckoned with.

If Compaoré associates decide to use neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire as a rear base, as was allegedly the case during the September coup and the foiled attack against the Ouagadougou military prison last December, relations between Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire could rapidly deteriorate. The bone of contention between the two countries has grown over the last two months. In addition to the suspected involvement of some Ivorian dignitaries in the September coup, the Ivorian authorities have so far ignored an arrest warrant against Compaoré issued on 4 December by a Burkinabè military court.

The October 2014 uprising that ousted Compaoré after 27 years in power marked a major upheaval in Burkina Faso, and the September 2015 coup was the first aftershock. Despite the peaceful elections, the country is not immune to future trouble as it opens a new chapter of its history. Many short- and long-term measures could be adopted to reduce the risk of future instability.

  • The new authorities should organise a constructive dialogue with unions, and quickly adopt social appeasement measures, focusing on youth and the country’s poorest regions.
  • The new authorities should rapidly begin to reform the army and develop a global defence and security strategy through the publication of a white paper. Army reform should be carried out under parliamentary supervision and the commission in charge of it should include civilians and retired military officers.
  • The role of the National High Council of Elders should be constitutionalised, as was recommended by the reconciliation commission, so that its function as an institution supporting the resolution and prevention of social and political crises is fully established.
  • Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso should continue to strengthen their relationship as part of the 2008 Friendship and Cooperation Treaty. Ivorian leaders should move past their political ties with former Compaoré regime officials and make Burkina Faso’s stability a priority, if necessary by cooperating with Burkina Faso’s courts.
  • Burkina Faso’s international partners should stay mobilised to provide adequate financial assistance, in particular to help the government deal with social demands. This support is particularly important given Burkina Faso’s position as one of the last islands of stability in an increasingly troubled region.

Dakar/Brussels, 7 January 2016

Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida presents the Burkinabe flag to interim civilian President Michel Kafando in Ouagadougou, on 21 November 2014. AFP/Sia Kambou
Report 222 / Africa

Burkina Faso: Nine Months to Complete the Transition

Three months after Blaise Compaoré’s departure, Burkina Faso’s transition is moving forward in an uncertain context. The provisional government, with the help of its international partners, should initiate urgent reforms and ensure the October 2015 elections allow for peaceful, democratic change.

Executive Summary

Blaise Compaoré’s resignation on 31 October 2014, the day after a historic insurrection, came as no surprise. Growing old and out of touch with reality, his regime has given way to an uncertain transition, led by a military-civilian government that must work with provisional, weak institutions. The government has nine months to organise presidential and legislative elections scheduled for 11 October 2015. International partners must help Burkina Faso achieve this goal, while maintaining a dialogue with the army to ensure it does not remain in power at the end of the transition. They also must not repeat the mistake of turning a blind eye to poor governance and supporting the Compaoré regime to safeguard their own strategic interests.

Burkina’s four key actors – the army, the former political opposition, civil society and citizens – have agreed on the necessity of a peaceful and inclusive transition to stabilise the country. Lieutenant-Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida, a member of Compaoré’s former presidential guard, is the most powerful figure. Although the military has shown worrying signs of authoritarianism, Burkina is not governed by a junta. The army’s power is limited by a charter that requires it to share executive power with civilians, including President Michel Kafando. The military must also take into account a mobilised civil society and population as well as a vigilant international community that is providing the financial aid necessary for the survival of the current government.

However, three contradictions threaten the future stability of Burkina Faso: the tension between aspirations for a radical change of governance and the realistic or reformist desire for stability; the contrast between the short time available to complete the transition and the enormity of the task at hand; and the difficulty of organising elections and implementing reforms at a time when the government lacks funds. Finally, poor management of the dissolution of the former presidential guard, the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), could pose a serious threat to the transition. Without consultation on this issue, elements from this elite unit, the best armed in the country, could react with violence.

After 27 years under a semi-authoritarian regime, popular expectations for change are high. Another risk that could derail the transition is increasing discontent if these expectations are not met. Justice should be served in the 1998 murder of Norbert Zongo, a journalist who was investigating the unresolved murder of David Ouédraogo, the driver of Blaise Compaoré’s brother. This case symbolises the abuses of the Compaoré regime and its resolution has been a longstanding demand of civil society. The improvement of living conditions is also a key demand of the people in one of the poorest countries in the world.

The government will not be able to simultaneously act on all fronts. As of late, it has pandered to popular demands by promising future reforms, but the more significant the promises, the harder it will be for the government to abide by them. Blaise Compaoré’s departure does not mean that Burkina Faso is out of the woods. Several measures are needed to guarantee the country’s stability during the transition.