Foreign Policy Blogs

Burkina Faso: The Black Spring blossoms

Compaore and Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon in 2013 - (c) Flickr

Compaore and Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon in 2013 – (c) Flickr

With Western leaders occupied by rising tensions in Ukraine and the Middle East, it appears that the emergence of uprisings on the African continent has largely been overlooked. The recent protests in Burkina Faso and the subsequent overthrow of Blaise Compaoré on Oct. 31 from his 27-year reign, illustrates the far-reaching social and political changes taking place in Africa. As the population’s voice has increasingly grown louder since the Arab Spring, so have their demands for accountable leadership and a new, more democratic political sphere. Are we witnessing the nascent cries of a new social contract in Africa and if so, what should the West do?

Blaise Compaoré seized power during a coup in 1987 and has since remained the former French colony’s strongman, guiding it through economic reforms, steering it clear of regional conflicts and working with global powers in a seemingly never-ending fight against terrorism. While throughout this period Compaoré has been increasingly viewed a symbol of stability in a region plagued by volatility, during recent years his regime has become the dead ringer of authoritarianism adorned with democratic decorations hiding his corrupt, exclusionary and autocratic tendencies.

This flawed social contract between Compaoré and his population worked for almost three decades. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was his attempt to unilaterally re-write the constitution in order to remove the limit on consecutive presidential terms. As a young and increasingly angry population took to the streets in late October to protest and set fire to the parliament in the capital, Ouagadougou, the president embarked on a final ditch attempt to hold on to power. He vouched to drop his plans for constitutional change and arrange for a transfer of power, but stopped short of resigning from his post. With the chants of the protestors growing louder, Compaoré finally stepped down and fled to neighboring Ivory Coast on Oct. 31.

A Western scare

For the West, the fall of the first African regime has widespread implications with regards to its policies in the region. Burkina Faso, for all its democratic inadequacies, has served as a key partner in Europe’s and the U.S.’ anti-terrorist efforts. A prescient report by the International Crisis Group (IGC) from July 2013 pointed out that “a crisis in Burkina Faso would not only mean the loss of a key ally and strategic base for France and the US, it would also reduce the capacity of an African country in dealing with regional conflicts.”

Indeed, the country is home to a French military base, which has served as the West’s forward bastion against al-Qaeda’s allies in Mali and Boko Haram. Moreover, the United States has increasingly used Burkina Faso’s strategic position in West Africa to monitor the security situation in the region and to launch counterterrorism efforts.

Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, operated “as a key hub of the US spying network” where under the guise of the Creek Sand surveillance program, a military base was established. Manned with U.S. spy planes tasked with patrolling the region, searching for fighters from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the outpost’s importance grew considerably after jihadists declared Mali’s northern provinces “an independent Islamist state.”

The overthrow of Compaoré is certainly a cause for concern for the West and its planned operations in the region. However, one U.S. military official slyly remarked that, given its support for the country’s own anti-terrorist operations, as well as the millions of dollars in foreign aid doled out annually, they should be able to work together no matter who holds the reigns of power.

It doesn’t stop there

Despite this somewhat positive perspective, Western powers with strategic interests on the African continent should not simply to write off Compaoré’s overthrow as a fluke. The incident has wider implications for the rest of the region, as Burkina Faso was not the only African state hiding its authoritarian tendencies behind a shabby veil of democracy.

In light of the people’s uprising in Burkina Faso, Djibouti, also dubbed a key strategic partner for U.S. and Western forces, may be up next. As I’ve written before on FPA, the country’s strongman, Ismail Omar Guellah (IOG), has been in power for 15 years and has already changed the Constitution once in 2010 to allow him to run for a third term. Reports indicate that Guellah will to rewrite the constitution again to get rid of term limits altogether, a development that has already sparked protests across the country. On November 3, the Opposition Youth Movement filled the streets of Djibouti city demanding free, fair and transparent elections, demands that have been remarkably absent in the country’s past. In the run up to the 2011 elections, reports indicate that opposition forces were harassed, as the government banned demonstrations and undertook arbitrary arrests. Similarly, the country is mired by human rights abuses with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa, Mrs Reine Alapini-Gansou, stating that the elections were “marked by an increase in arrests, police and judicial repression, and all forms of threats against independent journalists and opinion leaders.” It comes as no wonder then why the country’s citizens have started to rise against their leader and demand for his resignation.

Long time coming

In many African analyses, the historical role of ideologies is often overlooked. The current state of affairs on the continent is a remnant of the Cold war struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which used the region to fight a drawn-out war by proxy. For example, Burkina Faso was the home of Thomas Sankara, a Marxist revolutionary dubbed the African Che Guevara that was backed by Moscow. He ruled the country for four years with an iron fist before being killed in the coup that brought U.S.-backed Compaoré to power. Sankara has since been elevated to a mythical status, haunting the October protests, as many rioters held up signs with “Sankara lives”. In one of its first acts, the transitional government announced on Nov. 22 that they would conduct a DNA investigation into the alleged remains of Sankara and shed more light into the way he met his end. Given the revolutionary’s popularity, it is by no means a fait accompli that Compaoré will be replaced with a like-minded, pro-Western ruler.

Up until now, African leaders have run unchallenged, and have used their strategic positioning to fight terrorism as a pretext to ensure Western backing. However, today both Compaoré and Guellah, along with a handful of other African leaders, are starting to see their grip on their populations weaken. In many quarters, the poor state of Africa’s economies is blamed on the passive continuation of neo-imperial policies by a corrupt political class. Therefore, a new social contract has to be engineered that is mindful of the multiple cleavages ripping apart the emergent African middle class. This time, both the U.S. and Europe have to make sure they will be on the right side of history.