Does Burkina Faso presage further upheavals in sub-Saharan Africa?

Will Burkina Faso's democratic trajectory serve as a precursor to a wave of protests sweeping across sub-Saharan Africa?

Grace Favrel
24 February 2015
Ousted Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaore. Flickr/Ashton Carter. Some rights reserved.

Ousted Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaore. Flickr/Ashton Carter. Some rights reserved.

Last October 31, Blaise Compaore, the President of Burkina Faso, was ousted from power after two days of violent protests that culminated in setting fire to the national assembly and other government buildings. Tens of thousands of people, mainly young men and women, took to the streets of Ouagadougou to demonstrate against President Compaore’s attempt to repeal the term limit contained in article 37 of the constitution and extend his 27-year rule.

As the democratic trajectory of Burkina Faso echoes that of several countries in the region, many analysts are wondering whether a wave of protests will now sweep across sub-Saharan Africa.

The failure of constitutional reform

The uprising in Burkina Faso underscores the failure of constitutional reform. In November, young people tired of waiting for a constitutional order that was promised to the citizens of Burkina Faso more than two decades ago and unable to affect change through the ballot box decided to take the matter into their own hands.

Moves towards multi-party democracy in the early 1990s led to the adoption of a constitution in 1991 that was supposed to turn the page to the authoritarianism that had followed independence and guarantee the separation of powers, the rule of law and respect for fundamental liberties.

While the constitution led to the establishment of cosmetic democratic procedures, the constitutional reform did not succeed in creating an institutional balance of power. Several reasons explain why constitutionalism did not take hold in Burkina Faso. Chief amongst others is the absence of competitive political processes, which did not allow the emergence of independent institutions that would be able to protect the constitution. Although there have been several successive elections since 1991, the combination of an unfavourable electoral system, abuse of incumbency and co-optation tactics have limited the capacity of opposition parties to effectively challenge the ruling party through electoral processes. In effect, the one-party system of the post-independence era has been replaced by a dominant party system in which the ruling party dominates institutions that should be the custodians of the constitution, such as the constitutional court and the parliament.

Second, constitutional reforms have been conceded rather than initiated by the ruling elite. In Burkina Faso, the constitution was never perceived as a blueprint for democracy, but rather as a document that reflects short term political bargaining. The issue of term limit is a case in point. It was first introduced in the 1991 constitution, then repealed in 1997 and finally reintroduced in 2001 to respond to popular demand.

The risk of protests becoming contagious is real. The conditions for popular uprising exist in several African countries. 

Round up of at-risk countries

Widely covered by the media across the continent, the uprising has most likely sparked apprehension among several African presidents, particular in Togo, Burundi, Rwanda and the two Congos, where as in Burkina Faso, a 'big man' is trying to cling on to power.

In Togo, the Gnassingbé family has ruled the country for more than four decades. While opposition parties are allowed to operate, the electoral system helps ensure that the Gnassingbé family remains in power. Mass protests were organised when Faure Gnassingbé was installed as president after the death of his father in 2005. Since then, tensions have been rising between the opposition and the ruling party. In the last two months the country has been riddled by protests as people mobilised by opposition parties are demanding constitutional reforms, including the adoption of a term limit and the modification of the electoral system.

In Burundi, the ruling CNDD-FDD has tightened its grip on power since the shambolic 2010 elections that were boycotted by most opposition parties and marred by violence. In control of all the institutions, the party has moved to muzzle the press and civil society organisations.

Meanwhile, political violence and extrajudicial killing continue to be reported. Despite failing to win parliamentary approval to repeal the constitutional two-term limit by one vote, president Nkurunziza has not ruled out running for a third term. As the country prepares for general elections in 2015, the opposition is once again calling for a boycott.

While violence and insecurity persist in some part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, endemic corruption has kept the resource-rich country one of the poorest nations in the world. Citizens have seen very little improvement since Joseph Kabila succeeded his father 13 years ago. According to article 70 of the constitution, presidents can only serve two five-year terms. Article 220 prohibits the revision of the term limit, yet president Kabila’s party has on many occasions alluded to a possible constitutional revision to permit president Kabila to seek a third term.

In neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville, president Denis Sassou Ngesso, who first came to power in 1997 with military support, is about to finish his second term under the 2002 constitution, which limits presidents to two seven-year term. In early 2015, the ruling party has expressed the need to revise the constitution to reflect changing circumstances in the country.

President Kagame of Rwanda has also hinted at a possible constitutional revision and a repeal of the term limit. Under the 2003 constitution, the president can only serve up to two seven-year terms. In contrast with its neighbour, president Kagame’s bid to seek a third term has met almost no opposition at home. Yet, as the region attracts international attention, president Kagame might well face pressure from the international community, particularly from Rwanda’s closest ally, the United States, to abide by a term limit.

The implications of the Burkinabe’s uprising for sub-Saharan Africa

The risk of protests becoming contagious is real. The conditions for popular uprising such as unaddressed political grievances, inequities and youth unemployment exist in several African countries. While it is impossible to predict with any certainty if mass protests will shake the region, two near certain developments must be kept in mind.

First, many presidents will attempt to stifle dissent before addressing demands of political reform. Often, they will reach deep into their bag of tricks to pre-empt or counter the risk of protests.

Some presidents will seek to influence existing networks of mobilisation. In the best-case scenario, this will result in political dialogue. In the worst-case scenario this could lead to intimidation and attacks on political parties, civil society organisations and the media. Political bargaining is already being tried out in the DRC. In an attempt to rally opposition parties to his bid to revise the constitution, President Kabila has recently nominated a new government of national unity.

Some presidents might try to balance the requirements of the constitution with their thirst for power. We could see the emergence of ruling tandems, where a sitting President gives way to a protégé but remains the de facto leader of the country. President Kagame has ruled the country from the back seat before and if pressured may well repeat the experience. Other president might concede power to a family member.

Second, the fall of certain regimes in sub-Saharan Africa is fraught with many more potential dangers than the revolution in Burkina Faso. In the long term, democratic societies are more peaceful than authoritarian societies. However the vacuum that will follow the fall of certain regimes will create a lot of instability in the short term. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have a recent history of civil war. A combination of ethnic tension, high circulation of arms and instability could prove quite explosive. In addition, the lack of strong opposition structures means that revolutions risk being hijacked by armed groups or the army.


The uprising in Burkina Faso may well presage further upheavals. Just as Russia and China have learnt many lessons from the Arab Spring, so did African leaders. The risk of violent repression should therefore not be underestimated. Some leaders will be able to stem the tide of discontent by using their political capital, law enforcement agents and international sympathy. But for some, the crisis of confidence will just be too big.

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