Did Burkina Faso’s army just troll everybody?

Way back in 2000, the Burkinabé constitution was amended to limit presidents to two five year terms in office; previously they could be elected to unlimited seven year terms. This should have marked the end of President Blaise Compaoré’s time in office, since he had seized power in a coup all the way back in 1987, but it was decided that Compaoré would be grandfathered in to the new system. Somehow Compaoré managed to secure the right not only to serve out his full seven year term (he’d been re-elected in 1998 so his term didn’t end until 2005) but to run for an additional two five year terms after that. So he won re-election in 2005 and again in 2010, and perhaps you won’t be totally shocked to learn that there was some alleged funny business involved both times.

Skip to this past June. Compaoré’s time in office, even under the ridiculously generous terms of the 2000 constitutional amendment, was coming to an end by any measure. So his ruling party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress, “called upon” the President to organize a nationwide referendum over whether the constitution should be amended again to get rid of that pesky two term limit. Compaoré, with total reluctance I’m sure, decided that a referendum was a great idea, because obviously the voices of the people should be heard or whatever and plus he’s gotten pretty good at rigging elections by now (read this for an account of some of Compaoré’s less savory acts while in power). Parliament scheduled a debate over the proposed referendum for October 30.

Well, as it turns out, the voice of the people kind of came to parliament on October 30, and it said “get this guy the hell out of office already.” Protesters flooded the streets of the capital Ouagadougou, pulled down at least one statue of Compaoré, and demanded his resignation. They were undeterred when security forces began firing into the crowds and unimpressed when the government hastily declared that the whole referendum thing was going to be dropped, ha ha, we were just having a laugh you guys, ah, April Fools? Compaoré hilariously tried to pretend that the unrest was about parliament, so he declared that it would be dissolved and a transitional government formed, with him obviously at the head. To his credit, that master plan lasted almost a whole day before Compaoré had to resign and (probably, it’s not clear yet) flee the country.

Success, right? Yeah, about that. See, Compaoré left, but his army was still there and still in pretty good shape. The chief of the Burkinabé armed forces, General Honoré Nabéré Traoré, who had already been tapped to manage the transitional government under Compaoré’s authority, now simply assumed the mantel of head of state. This was not exactly what the protesters had in mind, one assumes, and opposition leaders began to decry the fact that the autocracy they were protesting had basically been replaced in a military coup. I guess even people in the army kind of hate Traoré’s guts (probably because he was seen as a close Compaoré loyalist), because he was quickly supplanted as interim leader of the country by Lieutenant Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida, who had been deputy commander of the presidential guard. Check out Siddhartha Miller’s piece at Africa Is a Country for the surreal way the Traoré-Zida transition was dealt with in real time on the radio.

Just an aside, but have you noticed how military coups tend to eventually install colonels (think Gaddafi, Nasser, Peron, etc.) rather than generals as the new heads of their states? Elizabeth Dickinson took a crack at this curiosity for Foreign Policy a few years ago, and she offered a couple of reasons for it. First, colonels have just the right combination of distance from the regime and authority within the army to come out on top of a coup. Generals are usually close to the national leadership, either recruited from the leadership’s close allies or carefully cultivated by the leadership in order to turn them into allies rather than potential threats. Lower ranked soldiers lack the money, education, and authority to lead a coup. Like Baby Bear’s porridge, colonels are just right for pulling something like this off. The other factor is motivation; see, it turns out that in a lot of kleptocracies, the thieving goes all the way down the chain of command. Sergeants skim money from privates’ pay (such as it is), lieutenants skim from sergeants, and on up until you get to generals skimming from colonels. For the colonels, Dickinson’s theory goes, this skimming bites a lot harder at the ego than it does at lower ranks, so it’s the colonels who really build up a lot of resentment at the elites above them.

Anyway, shockingly the protesters weren’t satisfied with Zida either, so the protests continued. Foreign voices began to be heard, with the U.S., U.N., African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) all voicing their displeasure with what was now undeniably a coup, and calling for a quick return to civilian rule (well, “return,” because Compaoré’s rule was only “civilian” in the most specific definition of the term). Zida was quick to assure the public that the formation of a transitional government would move “fast,” but it was (deliberately, one assumes) vague about the details. The military’s official position? “Power does not interest us.” OK then. And, lo and behold, it took less than two weeks for the military and various political factions to cobble together a transition plan, one that would see a civilian president (who would be barred from seeking reelection) selected by committee. That president would then appoint a prime minister, who would form the government.

Burkina Faso’s interim president was selected and sworn in yesterday. It’s 72 year old Michel Kafando, who had briefly served as foreign minister in the 1980s and more recently served as Burkina Faso’s U.N. ambassador from 1998-2011. Today he selected the prime minister who would appoint the cabinet that would manage the country and the transition to elections next year. And who did he pick?

Why, look at that! It’s Lieutenant Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida! What a coincidence, huh? Hooray, civilian rule!

Hey, congratulations, Totally Civilian Prime Minister Lieutenant Colonel Zida! (via)
Hey, congratulations, Totally Civilian Prime Minister Lieutenant Colonel Zida! (via)

Obviously this bears watching over the next several months, to see if Zida is running the country because he’s really The Best Man for the Job, or if he’s attempting to set himself up to follow in Compaoré’s shoes.

One reason why the unrest in Burkina Faso matters is that, as you might note from this map (via):

burkina faso map

Burkina Faso sits right in the middle of the ongoing West African Ebola outbreak, which has lately been threatening to really spread into Mali. Ebola thrives on the collapse of social services and order, so the threat to both in Burkina Faso is of genuine concern. Another reason this is important is that Burkina Faso also happens to sit smack in the middle of some major terrorist hotbeds. You’ve got Nigeria just a country away, Mali right there to the north, Niger…so, yeah, kind of a central hub for that as well. Compaoré had been a loyal U.S. ally, and Zida, who has trained with the U.S. army, presumably will be as well. France has been basing special forces in Burkina Faso for operations in Mali, and U.S. drone flights over Mali and Nigeria have been taking off from Burkina Faso airfields.

What’s happening in Burkina Faso also matters if you care about freedom and whether or not people are able to exercise it around the world. It may be, as Ken Opalo suggests, that once the speed bump of the military transition is past, the ouster of the basically dictatorial Compaoré will, in the long run, be a good thing for democracy in Burkina Faso and Africa as a whole, as other heads of state see that gaming the system to extend their time in office is likely to backfire on them. Zachariah Mampilly in the Washington Post sees the Burkinabé protests as part of a third wave of popular uprising against illiberal governments. The first wave, in the 1950s and 60s, saw nationalist governments toppling, then copying, colonial regimes. The second, in the 1980s and 90s, saw demands for democracy bring opposition parties to power who then created the illusion of democratic governance while still effectively ruling in one-party or autocratic systems. This third wave offers the prospect of real, fundamental change, but it remains to be seen if it can succeed where the first two waves eventually failed:

Yet, the ongoing wave of African protests is faced with a profound political crisis. Independence and democratization, both offered as resolutions to the continent’s structural woes, have brought little improvement to the African masses. And despite all the talk of “Africa Rising,” the challenges remain severe. After more than a decade of positive growth across Africa, little wealth has trickled downward to the vast majority of people. Instead, as the World Bank notes that Nigeria — often promoted as the paradigmatic example of Africa’s new economic prowess — represents “a puzzling contrast between rapid economic growth and quite minimal welfare improvements for much of the population.” The 2012 Occupy Nigeria uprising, one of the largest in the country’s history, is emblematic of the current wave. Though it flamed out after two spectacular weeks, during its brief existence, the movement threatened the entire political and economic structure of the country, sending shudders through both national and global elites.

3 thoughts on “Did Burkina Faso’s army just troll everybody?

  1. Thanks for explaining that colonel thing, it hadn’t exactly been keeping me up at night but I had been wondering off and on for some decades now.

    This talk about a putative third wave of protests gets me remembering the late nineties and the idea, commonplace in some circles, that what developing countries needed was a good dose of Western friendly dictatorship that would grow the economy and create the rising middle class that would overthrow the dictator when the time was ripe for democracy and self governance. That doesn’t seem to have worked out the way the Kaplans, for instance, swore that it would.

    1. Oh, sure the “Pinochet was good” argument. Not only does it usually not work out, but the people who make that argument, oddly enough, never seem to be happy to see the dictator get overthrown. Not sure why that is.

      1. Besides which, rarely are their own children thrown out of helicopters in the kind of dictator friendly control operation that sits uncomfortably next to the Washington Consensus. Unfortunately for everyone else, it doesn’t have to work out – it just has to work out long enough for certain people and their cronies to make a fortune and slip away with the goods.

        I may have mentioned this before, but George W Bush had this kind of reputation in Argentina back when his Dad was President.

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