Burkina Faso: Successful political transition improves long-term stability

15 Dec 2015

Burkina Faso: Successful political transition impr...

Roch Marc Kabore’s election as president brings to a close more than a year of political turmoil in Burkina Faso, improving the country’s long-term prospects for stability.

Under Kabore’s presidency the influence of civil society groups will continue to grow at the expense of the military, placing pressure on the president to address long-running concerns around corruption and human rights abuses.

Gold mining regulations are unlikely to see significant changes, though the new authorities will seek to diversify the economy away from cotton and gold mining, which have been badly affected by commodity price falls.

Increasing political stability 

The election of Roch Marc Kabore of the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP) with 53.5 percent of the vote on 1 December brings fresh hopes of political stability to the country, following a year of turmoil. The election marked the first democratic transition of power since Burkina Faso gained independence from France in 1960, and the poll witnessed few instances of electoral violence or fraud. Kabore’s nearest rival Zephirin Diabre, who won 29.7 percent of the vote, has accepted Kabore’s victory peacefully and there have been few initial signs of opposition to Kabore’s presidency.

Prospects for political stability over the coming months will be further increased by the significantly reduced role of the military in politics. Of greatest significance was the disbandment of the powerful Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP) in October 2015. The RSP enjoyed considerable political influence during the 27-year presidency of Blaise Compaore, up until he was forced from power in a popular uprising in October 2014. Efforts by the transitional government to reduce the RSP’s influence triggered a failed coup in September 2015, after which the regiment was forcefully disbanded by other units of the army. The demobilisation of the most powerful section of the armed forces removes the main rival sphere of power to civilian rule in Burkina Faso, while also removing the means by which former allies of Compaore could seek to overthrow the new president.

A break from the past?

Despite serving for 25 years in Compaore’s government and only leaving the deposed Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) party in early 2014, Kabore’s presidency is likely to bear few resemblances to that of the ousted president. Unlike his predecessor, Kabore faces significant pressures from a more active and vocal civil society, which includes groups like the Balai Citoyen that played a key role in the ouster of Compaore. These groups will continue to engage in protests in the year ahead to demand anti-corruption reforms and the curbing of the military’s power. Although this dynamic will increase the likelihood of street protests and confrontations with police, they also reduce the likelihood of a return to authoritarianism in the immediate term.

Key determinants of how far Kabore plans to break from the Compaore regime will be how aggressively he pursues the leaders of September’s failed coup, as well as the investigations into the deaths of former President Thomas Sankara in 1987 and journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998. The transitional government charged three soldiers over the murder of Zongo, while also charging General Gilbert Diendere, who led the September 2015 coup attempt, with the murder of Sankara. These cases will be the focus of popular attention during the first months of Kabore’s presidency, and his willingness to proceed with investigations and refrain from interfering in the judiciary will be a key measure of his willingness to tackle corruption, particularly among members of the Compaore government. Any effort to influence the investigations would be viewed as political interference by the old networks of the CDP and would likely incite protests, particularly in Ouagadougou and Koudougou.

Kabore policy to focus on diversification

Significant amendments to mining policies are unlikely in the first 24 months of Kabore’s presidency. The transitional government ratified a new mining code in mid-2015, abolishing a 10 percent tax break on mining company profits and obliging companies to pay into a local development fund. The new code enjoys wide popular support, but was not as well received by mining companies, which had previously benefitted from lower corporate tax rates than elsewhere in West Africa. Kabore will be keen to avoid further amendments which may deter new investors at a time of low commodity prices, particularly as Burkina Faso lacks other competitive advantages such as direct access to the sea or a robust infrastructure network. He may also delay the implementation of provisions of the mining code viewed as more controversial by industry stakeholders while commodity prices remain low.

Instead, Kabore will likely seek to diversify the economy and reduce the dependence on the mining and cotton sector, which jointly comprise 70 percent of exports but have fallen in value due to the slump in commodity prices. Diversification will likely lead to a greater focus on the Strategy of Accelerated Growth and Durable Development (SCADD), which was adopted in 2010 but has lost momentum since early 2014 amid increasing political turmoil. The plan includes an increased emphasis on agriculture and the construction of tens of new food processing factories in Loumbila, northeast of Ouagadougou, while also repairing those that have been neglected for years. The renewed focus on agriculture may result in tax breaks for agricultural investors over the first year of Kabore’s presidency, though such moves have yet to be announced.

Kabore will also be under pressure from civil society groups to step-up corruption prosecutions of individuals and businesses linked to Compaore’s government, which could lead to the review of contracts signed under the previous administration. The transitional government pledged to review gold mining exploration permits in November 2014, though this project stalled amid efforts to pass the new mining code, and Kabore’s government is likely to restart this initiative in the next year. Companies with unused concessions will be most vulnerable as the government looks to boost mineral exports and respond to claims that between 50-60 percent of permits are idle. Businesses with mines already in production are unlikely to be affected in the immediate term. 

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