Here we go again: protesters in Ouagadougou. EPA/STR
Burkina Faso grabbed the world’s attention last month with a remarkable popular uprising, in which hundreds of thousands of Burkinabé forced the resignation of long-serving president Blaise Compaoré. Commentators immediately began to predict that the events could touch off a movement in other states where presidents had outstayed their welcome.
But the idea that the actions would quickly be paralleled in other African countries did not give due credit to Burkina Faso’s very particular past and political culture. This uprising was part of a long history of mass public protests in a nation with a very strong and active civil society.
Recent events resonate with many of the country’s most significant political changes. Ever since it became independent in 1960, when it was called Upper Volta, Burkina Faso’s politics have run along these lines.
In 1966, for example, when the then president, Maurice Yaméogo, announced a new austerity budget, trade unions responded by organising mass strikes. They met aggression and tear gas but continued to take to the streets. When it was clear that the president was unmoved by their demands, the unions called for the military to take over.
Soon, the army chief of staff, Colonel Lamizana, announced he had ousted Yaméogo. This was Burkina Faso’s first coup, celebrated by much of the civilian population.
Nearly ten years later, when Lamizana was still in office, mass demonstrations demanded a return to civilian constitutional rule. They were partially successful: Lamizana dissolved his government and formed a new one consisting mostly of civilians. Then, in 1980, general dissatisfaction with the political system once again led to mass demonstrations, which triggered a coup.
Taking to the streets
Compaoré entered politics alongside the army captain and revolutionary Thomas Sankara, through a military coup in 1983 which had strong support among the civilian youth and working class. Sankara was president from 1983 until his assassination in 1987, at which point Compaoré took power. Accusations of involvement in Sankara’s murder haunted him during his 27 years in office. In spite of the length of his presidency, he was never able to act as an absolute ruler.
The 27-year itch: Blaise Compaoré EPA/Stephanie Lecoq
Some of his most significant challenges came in the form of mass demonstrations. And crucially, Compaoré’s overall response to escalating protests was to give some form of concession—by doing so, he could claim to be responding to the people.
Witness the mass demonstrations of 1998-99, which followed alleged government involvement in the death of the popular journalist and activist Norbert Zongo. The demonstrators’ demands for accountability escalated into calls for improvement of social conditions and checks on government power. This movement, armed with the slogan trop c’est trop (enough is enough), lasted for months and indeed gained momentum. Even opposition leaders at the time were astonished by the turnout of tens of thousands.
To calm the growing anger, Compaoré created a council to advise on government reforms. One of its recommendations was presidential term limits, which were added to the constitution in 2000. It was the proposition to change those limits which was to spark the 2014 uprising.
Compaoré again faced a serious threat to his position in 2011, when mass demonstrations erupted across the country after another suspicious death. As in 1998-99, the movement quickly broadened to include grievances about the cost of living and the poor economic state of the country.
Compaoré’s quarter century in office became a key topic of debate during that unrest, which also lasted months and spread throughout the country. Things turned more violent in 2011 than during the 1998-99 strikes and eventually Compaoré offered up further concessions—among them food subsidies and increased salaries for the civil service and military.
"The Burkinabé way"
Demonstrations are also a part of Burkinabé military culture. Burkina Faso has one of the highest rate of mutinies on the continent. In my own interviews with Burkinabé soldiers in Ouagadougou, I asked a soldier why the 2011 mass mutinies were not put down with force sooner. He explained that the routine of public protest, ultimately resolved by negotiation, was simply “the Burkinabé way”.
That diagnosis is borne out by history. Compaoré accepted demonstrations, both among the military and civilians, and was generally able to negotiate an end to them. He knew mass demonstrations would follow the vote to ratify the constitution but misjudged his ability to manage the situation.
Compaoré tried his old tricks during this crisis and quickly conceded to the demands to call off the vote to change the constitution. But the momentum had already moved beyond the issue of presidential term limits to calls for his removal from office.
The events that led to Compaoré’s fall were extraordinary in their scale. They also betrayed remarkable civilian courage, with demonstrators facing live fire from the security forces. Yet the events should also be seen as a continuation of “the Burkinabé way”. The country’s society has a remarkable ability to mobilise for political change, drawing on extensive experience—and this is not something easily replicated.
Mass demonstrations have always been part and parcel of Burkina Faso’s political culture and we certainly haven’t seen the last of them. If the country’s future leaders want to succeed, they will have to be able to handle more.