Burkina Faso: A Revolution Out of the Blue?

PDF downlaodMona Sachter*

POMEAS OP-ED, 16 December 2014

While protests beginning in Tunisia and sweeping over the Middle East sparked interest from media outlets around the world, a recent African uprising has been widely sidelined by Western media. On October 31, 2014, protests toppled President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso who had been in power for 27 years.

Something substantial had happened there: in a country ravaged by poverty and with a history of military coups, the people had brought down a long-standing ruler. This short article will examine two questions: Where did this movement come from? And what is its future?

Burkina Faso, called Upper Volta until 1984, reached independence from France in the 1960s. A stable government, however, could not be found easily – coup d'états led by military leaders were more common than elections. In 1983, Colonel Thomas Sankara, leftist and revolutionary, became president and immediately implemented a far-reaching series of reforms ranging from mass-vaccinations to the promotion of women's rights. Only three years after his inauguration, Sankara, alongside 11 other military strongmen, was killed in a military coup led by Blaise Compaore – a former ally and friend. Supported by Paris and Washington, Compaore turned his reputation as a meddler into one of a mediator and peace broker. While accused of interfering in the 2002 rebellion in neighboring Ivory Coast, Compaore had proven to be a trustworthy negotiator in the recent conflicts in Togo, Guinea and Mali1. In similar fashion, he served as a valuable partner for the West in its fight against Islamist militants in the Sahel region2.

While having acquired a reputation as a regional broker, Compaore failed to develop Burkina Faso economically. In spite of increasing its GDP by more than 50% over the past seven years3, Burkina Faso remains one of the poorest countries even in Sub-Saharan Africa. While its GDP fell far below the average of other Sub-Saharan countries in 2013, the wedge between Burkina Faso and its neighbors has also increased in the past seven years4. Despite acceptable economic growth, Compaore had not managed to thoroughly develop the country. According to the latest UNDP numbers, Burkina Faso is of the lowest scoring countries in the Human Development Indexes. On average, its children are enrolled in school for an average of 1.25 years, and more than four-fifths of its population is living in multidimensional poverty5. Given these conditions, protests against the long-standing and autocratic ruler Blaise Compaore were inevitable.

In recent years, Burkina Faso has witnessed a string of smaller protests. In 2008, people went to the streets in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, to protest high living costs and food prices. The government reacted with force but eventually lowered the income tax to appease the impoverished citizens6. Three years later, the death of a student in police detention sparked fresh protests. By April 2011, the uprising included soldiers mutinying over unpaid wages as well as teachers and police demanding higher wages. Instead of giving into the demands, the Compaore Administration closed all national universities and cut off student funding. Given the widespread protests, Compaore implemented further changes. Within the next months, Compaore replaced his Prime Minister, security chiefs, and regional governors while appointing himself Defense Minister. The policemen responsible for the student's death were sentenced, and the notoriously corrupt head of the customs office was dismissed7. These changes in personnel could not appease the public's dissatisfaction with the system. In summer 2013, the next round of protests against Compaore's plans to run for another term were violently dispersed with tear gas.

When in October 2014 Compaore's plans to alter the constitution and extend his rule turned more palpable, the people went to the streets again. After two fierce days of protests, during which the Parliament was set on fire, Compaore decided to step down, and Colonel Isaac Zida was selected as transitory chief8. Amidst growing fears that Zida would hold on to his newly gained power, a convention of opposition politicians, military, tribal and religious leaders, as well as Senegalese, Nigerian and Ghanaian mediators9 agreed on an interim civilian government and a transition plan with general elections in November 2015. Under pressure from the UN and the AU, Colonel Zida handed over power within the proposed time frame. Former Foreign Minister and military frontrunner Michel Kafando was elected as transitional president by a specially convened commission on November 17, 201410.

Having examined what has happened, let us turn our attention to the future. Will Burkina Faso manage to establish a lasting and robust democracy? What we can judge from afar, the signs are positive: the military has handed over power to civilians within the time frame proposed by the transition plan. Second, civil society, as well as religious and opposition leaders, have taken part in the process of drafting the transition plan and electing an interim president. Third, the African Union, the United Nations, and neighboring governments seem to support and assist Burkina Faso on its path to democracy. Fourth, the interim president and prime minister are not allowed to stand in the elections next year. The chances of them clinging on to power are moderate. As we have seen in Egypt, the long-term consequences of political change shall not be judged too quickly. A public revolution does not necessarily lead to democracy, and a new democracy does not necessarily sustain itself. Although the signs are in favor of the Burkinabe people, the military is not likely to give up its power too easily. Only time will show if Burkina Faso will follow the Egyptian or the Tunisian path – in other words, if it will fall back into old patterns of authoritarianism or develop democratically.


1.Blaise Compaoré, the African peacemaker who faced rebellion at home. Benjamin Dodman, France 24, 31 October 2014.
3.World Bank. GDP per capita (current USD). Burkina Faso, Sub-Saharan Africa (developing countries), 2005 to 2013.
5.United Nations Development Programme. Human Development Reports: Burkina Faso.
6.Freedom House. Burkina Faso 2009.
8.Army clears protesters, fires warning shots in Burkina Faso. Nadoun Coulibaly and Joe Penney. Reuters, 2 November 2014.
9.Einigung auf einjährige Übergangsphase. FAZ, 0 November 2014.
10.Burkina Faso appoints Michel Kafando as transitional president. Reuters in Ouagadougou. The Guardian, 17 November 2014.

*Intern at Istanbul Policy Center