Burkina Faso Citizens Reclaim Their Democracy


Richard Joseph and Rachel Beatty Riedl

On October 31, Blaise Compoaré, president of Burkina Faso, was forced to resign after days of mass protest. He had been in power for 27 years and was seeking to change the constitution to run again. But the Burkinabe people said Enough! They wanted change – they took to the street, torched the parliament, and brought an end to Campaoré’s rule. Soon thereafter, the country’s military settled on Lt. Colonel Isaac Zida to lead an interim government. But this action sparked further protests and insistent demands that the military yield power to a civilian transitional government. AfricaPlus presents commentaries based on a radio interview with Richard Joseph and an op-ed by Rachel Beatty Riedl. They both situate the Burkina Faso upheavals in the context of struggles to “claim democracy” in Africa.[1]

Compaoré Falls, Sankara Remembered

Jerome McDonnell, WBEZ: Professor Joseph, tell us why Burkina Faso is important?

Richard Joseph: It is one of those countries that fall below the radar for reasons having to do with their local politics but also geopolitics. Burkina Faso is back on our radar and needs to stay there. Very briefly, Burkina Faso is a country that possesses one of the most vibrant civil societies in Africa. Unfortunately, as in Senegal, it also has many political groups. Labor unions, civic and professional organizations are very important. It is a country that went through several attempted democratic transitions, but also experienced periods of instability. Almost every two years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a different military government seemed to emerge; and then something very important happened in 1983. A group of four junior officers took control of the country and put forward an exciting agenda. One of the four was Colonel Thomas Sankara. Unfortunately, the only one left standing four years later was the most ruthless of them all, Blaise Compaoré.


Protesters Rally Against Campaoré.

JM: Thomas Sankara was called the Che Guevara of Africa by some. He was a Marxist, he looked to Cuba for a model, he had all these aspirations that people at the time thought were going the wrong way.

RJ: I personally wouldn’t use Che Guevara because I don’t associate Sankara with guerrilla war, as is the case with Guevara. It is true that he took inspiration from the Cuban revolution and other radical movements. I associate Sankara more with Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, and even some historic figures like Kwame Nkrumah. Sankara was very dynamic, very exciting. His ideology was eclectic, radical, somewhat socialist, pan-African, and nationalist.

JM: He was for the rights of women, for all sorts of reforms for healthcare and education – his vaccination program was a big inspiration for people.


Col.Thomas Sankara.

RJ: That is correct. He could be called a democratic populist. He really believed in what democracy is supposed to be – power to the demos, the people. And so his government was very open to the participation of Burkinabe, especially the poor and rural dwellers. Unfortunately, when Blaise Compaoré initiated the clash that led to Sankara’s death, on October 15, 1987 – a very sad day in modern Africa – all of that got shut down. One of the things that is little known about Compaoré is that he was an important figure in the Muammar Qaddafi-Charles Taylor network. His involvement was significant in terms of the provision of arms for the violent conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

JM: Now, Qaddafi wanted to use Burkina Faso to help bring Charles Taylor to power. Sankara wouldn’t do it, but Compaoré did.

RJ: All such details will now be unraveled. Compaoré has been a chameleon – he turned around and became a darling of the West. Of course, with regard to the West’s new security agenda regarding Islamism, Compaoré became a favorite of international security agencies. Basically, he has covered up his trail. Yet he has two sets of questions to answer. The first concerns Liberia. When an international tribunal is set up in Liberia, the involvement of Blaise Compaoré will be revealed. [2] Second, Compaoré will have to answer for what went on in Burkina Faso. There now exists “international jurisdiction”; and a precedent has been set within Africa when Senegal brought Hussein Habré, the former president of Chad, to trial for human rights abuses. It is good news that Compaoré fled the country. Hopefully, Burkina Faso will now make a transition to an elected civilian government. However, the world is not finished with him. There is no immunity today for war crimes and gross violations of human rights.

JM: Thomas Sankara had this economic attitude that “we need self-sufficiency”, “we need to do things ourselves and not what the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) want”. It seems like Compaoré was the opposite. He let the World Bank and IMF in and the country didn’t do anything.

RJ: Let us face it, Burkina Faso is a landlocked country. It has a number of minerals, some gold, but it is not a case of oil, or copper on the scale of the Congo. It has a lot of agriculture – its cotton is wonderful. But the model (of the International Financial Institutions) did not work in Burkina Faso the way it is working, for example, in Rwanda. For a period there were some improvements, but what spurred the protests were widespread poverty, inflation, unemployment – the gamut of economic problems. So Burkina Faso is not a Work Bank/IMF success story.

JM: What do you make of Ghana? The example of Ghana is so interesting here. Jerry Rawlings seems a lot like Thomas Sankara. Rawlings was able to bring about some economic development and build some democracy, and walk away at the end. Ghana seems like the shining star of West Africa.

RJ: I was very much involved in these countries. I spent a lot of time, from 1986-1994, in West Africa as a Ford Foundation program officer and a Carter Center fellow, so I had a lot of experience on the ground during these upheavals.

JM: You were telling me you played soccer with Thomas Sankara?

RJ: I certainly did, and thankfully Compaoré was on the other side. Sankara was laughing and joking while Compaoré was all business.

Back to Ghana. Unfortunately Ghana is going through a difficult period at present. Its economy is on the skids. I was there this past March visiting with my eldest son and family while he was on sabbatical from Case Western University We can look at Rawlings and Museveni in Uganda, at some of these military rulers who came in very much left-wing oriented, very much authoritarian, and who made the shift to the West because they saw the Soviet Union was faltering. The West presented an economic model they could buy into. Western financial agencies came in and said: “You do the right thing on the economic front, open up your markets, and we won’t insist too much on democratization”. They did not say this openly, but that was clearly part of the package. So, most of these countries went in that direction.

In the case of Ghana, it had a very sophisticated political background. Dr. Adu Boahen, a distinguished professor of history, should not be forgotten. He stood up to Rawlings on the basis of what Ghana was about. He criticized the “culture of silence”. He affirmed that Ghana had a deep commitment to a democratic constitutional system. He was the one who ran against Rawlings in the 1992 elections and “lost”, but those elections had great irregularities. Rawlings, to his credit, did some important things. Yet he had no intention to bring into being a pluralist democracy. Step by step, however, in response to emerging Western pressure, worldwide democratic transitions, and the determined efforts of political groups in Ghana, Rawlings was forced to change course. What is hopeful about Burkina Faso is the potential of a vibrant society that was suppressed under Compaoré. For instance, there have been many journalists and civic actors who suffered. A now famous one, Norbert Zongo, was killed in December 1998.[3]


Blaise Campaoré at the White House, Photo by Amanda Lucidon.

While progress was made in some areas, the Compaoré years were not a happy experience. Today, Burkinabe society is rallying, similar to what happened in Senegal. The Senegalese rallied against the misrule of a democratically-elected president, Abdoulaye Wade. Wade was eventually defeated in elections in 2012 and, with external help, forced out of office. Burkina Faso is surrounded by six countries with a democratic agenda. We should keep our eyes on Benin which initiated the democratic awakening in West Africa. It is the Beninois who convened in February 1990 the first sovereign national conference that led to the reclaiming of democracy in Africa. Benin’s elected president since 2006 is Yayi Boni. The population has been conducting regular protests because they see Boni wanting to remove term limits.[4] It is a very attractive thing to do! Term limits are one of the great accomplishments of Africa’s post-1989 democratic transitions. One by one, elected rulers are trying to discard them.

JM: Museveni did it.

RJ: Yes, Museveni did it, but Chiluba failed in Zambia and so also did Obasanjo in Nigeria. But there have been more successful removals than retentions.[5] This is a critical issue. African leaders today, after being elected to office, declare they are going to uphold the constitution. When they reach their second term, they start thinking: “Hey, I like this position. I want to stay on as long as I can”. Such was the case with Compaoré. In 2010, he declared he had only completed one elected term under the 2005 constitution, that is, after 23 years as president! He sought to change the constitution to run for a “third term” of another five years in 2015. The Burkinabe revolted against this absurdity.

Rachel Beatty Riedl: Building an Enduring Democracy

The path to elections and democratic stability in Burkina Faso is very uncertain. A power vacuum at the center makes this transitional stage particularly volatile. What is the possibility for this West African country to emerge from the upheavals more enduringly democratic? I will provide some reflections based on my studies of African democratic transitions.

Transitions from one regime type to another, for example, from autocratic rule to democracy, are frequently associated with high levels of conflict, even when the ultimate result is a stable democracy. [6] The transitional phase creates the possibility for greater contestation, whether a new authoritarian regime emerges or a fledgling democracy is initiated. The uncertainty of the transitional period keeps people from recognizing the potential of new forms of representation arising from the power vacuum. That is currently the case in Burkina Faso since the toppling of Blaise Compaoré.


Lt. Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida, center, declared himself acting head of state with the support of the military.

In my book, Authoritarian Origins of Democratic Party Systems in Africa[7], I examine democratic party systems established during the last thirty years. Through historical research and quantitative analysis, I demonstrate that where authoritarian incumbents were swept out of office, the power void offered opportunities for greater reform of the political system. Revised rules of the game created opportunities for new political participants in the founding elections. Open and competitive transition elections can therefore result in volatile but also more representative regimes. Over the long-term, there may be weakly institutionalized party systems. However, such transitions offer the opportunity for meaningful contestation and alternation in power.

The key lesson is that vibrant democracies can emerge out of power vacuums, and can withstand high levels of electoral volatility and seemingly disorganized party competition. The foundation of pluralistic competition resides in a robust civic order and system of political rights. Key examples of this mode of transition can be seen in Benin (1990-1), Mali (1991), Zambia (1991-2), and Malawi (1993-4). All these countries can be regarded as democratic overachievers in view of their low levels of economic development, high ethnic heterogeneity, and weak state capacity. Despite moments of crisis, they have all pursued a democratic path since the founding elections.

Mali’s temporary democratic breakdown in 2012 can be attributed to state weakness and regional insecurity, rather than the electoral volatility of contending political players. The inability of the Malian government to project its power effectively over its expansive territory exacerbated the Northern separatist movement’s advance and the subsequent military coup in 2012.[8] The Sahel Research Group’s Oumar Ba demonstrates how cyclical patterns of Tuareg rebellions are connected to the failure of the Malian state to exercise effective authority and provide state services in the northern region.[9] The re-introduction of democratic elections in 2013, following the French-led armed intervention, focused on the restoration of territorial sovereignty and the conduct of transparent and credible elections.

In 1990, the 17-year tenure of long-serving President Mathieu Kérékou in Benin was ended following political protests and the formation of a transitional government, a courses being sought in Burkina Faso. Though Kérékou took part in the founding elections, he and his ruling Parti de la révolution populaire du Bénin (PRPB) were stripped of the power to determine the new rules of party competition prior to the elections and constitutional debates. He was subsequently defeated at the polls by an independent candidate, Nicéphore Soglo, a former World Bank senior official. Since that time, each of Benin’s newly elected-presidents has run as an independent candidate. Although Benin has one of the highest degrees of electoral volatility in the world, its constitutional and pluralist democracy has endured for a quarter-century.

In each of Benin’s electoral cycles, new parties emerge. They often begin by opposing the governing coalition, joining, and defecting again. These shifts usually reflect parliamentary battles for positions or access to state resources. While these practices should theoretically make it difficult for voters to hold the governing party accountable, in fact, new parties and candidates enable the electorate to choose from a representative set of political players.

An alternative to this scenario is that the initial stages of democratic openings may be highly controlled by authoritarian incumbents who determine the new rules of the game and shape the coherent opposition. This process can be seen in the Ghanaian democratic transition from the late 1980s. Where authoritarian incumbents – such as Jerry Rawlings and the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) – have strong social support, their tight control of the transition process can result in institutionalized and coherent competitive party systems.

Rawlings and the PNDC were able to delay the formation of opposition parties until just weeks before the founding multiparty elections in 1992. They also established high barriers to new party registration. Yet, these practices contributed to the subsequent alternation in power of two well-institutionalized parties over the ensuing years.

African transition processes demonstrate that it is possible for well-organized, deeply-entrenched authoritarian parties to serve as building blocks for stable democratic competition.This was one of the seemingly paradoxical findings of my research. The crux of the political transition is not the collapse of the ruling party. Rather, it can be the construction of a competitive system around it. New institutional guarantees can permit the emergence of opposition parties and allow citizens to freely express their political preferences.

In the case of Burkina Faso, the military must soon step aside and allow a participatory transitional body to craft a new system. This argument has significance for foreign policy and democracy promotion. The African experience of the past quarter-century has taught us that strong and enduring political parties can have deep historical roots in the preceding authoritarian regimes. New political parties are shaped according to a different process. The transitional dynamics can yield an alternative form of representation, competition and organization. This is the challenge and opportunity ahead for Burkina Faso.

While democracy assistance programs often focus on building strong political parties, a more contextually-relevant approach suggests a different course. Emphasis should be placed on the quality of the electoral system and the expansion of political rights during the transition period and subsequent elections. The central aim is to build a secure and open political landscape.

Democracy, in the language of political scientists, reflects “bounded uncertainty”.[10] Democracy-building requires allowing uncertainty to thrive within the bounds of political order and civic rights. This understanding renders the transition underway in Burkina Faso very important for its people, West Africa, and the democratic struggles worldwide.



 Rachel Beatty Riedl is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University.





[1] The interview was conducted by Jerome McDonnell of WBEZ/NPR, Chicago: http://www.wbez.org/programs/worldview/2014-11-03/political-unrest-burkina-faso-111046 and http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/11/05/vibrant-democracies-emerging-from-power-vacuums-give-hope-for-burkina-faso/ Both texts have been edited. On “claiming democracy”, see https://africaplus.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/claiming-democracy-are-voters-becoming-citizens-in-africa/

[2] Charles Taylor was sentenced in May 2012 to 50 years imprisonment for atrocities in Sierra Leone, but he has not yet been tried for war crimes in his own country, Liberia.

[3] The killing of Norbert Zongo by government operatives in Burkina Faso in December 1998 is reminiscent of the gruesome murder, in October 1986, of Nigerian journalist Dele Giwa during the reign of General Ibrahim Babangida.

[4] Beninois have been conducting Red Wednesday protests, symbolized by wearing red clothing items, to show opposition to any attempt by Boni to extend his presidential term beyond 2016.

[5] See Crawford Young, The Postcolonial State in Africa: Fifty Years of Independence, 1960-2010 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).

[6] Jack Snyder, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict (Norton, 2000).

[7] Cambridge University Press (2014).

[8] See Bruce Whitehouse’s AfricaPlus essay on Mali politics: https://africaplus.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/the-power-is-in-the-street-the-context-of-state-failure-in-mali/

[9] “Tuareg Nationalism and Cyclical Pattern of Rebellions,” http://sahelresearch.africa.ufl.edu/files/Ba_Tuareg-Nationalism_final.pdf

[10] See the classic essay by Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl, “What Democracy is…and is not”, Journal of Democracy (1991).

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