The situation in Burkina Faso remains extremely volatile since the military seized power on 31 October amid a popular uprising against President Blaise Compaore. The military does not enjoy the support of the vast majority of protesters and is itself beset by divisions that could threaten political stability. The timeline of the transition process is unclear, but popular concerns that the military will fail to deliver on its pledge to restore democracy means there remains a high risk of further violence in the next 12 months. The unrest will severely disrupt the parliamentary process, delaying key legislation, including the delivery of a new mining code.
Rival factions compete for power
Tensions over the 27-year rule of President Blaise Compaore had been building for several years, amid popular anger over corruption, political repression and the president’s attempts to amend constitutional term limits. Since the beginning of 2014 there have been repeated opposition protests over the president’s attempts to amend the constitution, but the situation escalated last week as parliament began debating a bill to review term limits. On 30 October protesters stormed parliament and set fire to the building, leaving some 30 dead in the ensuing clashes with the military. Although the government withdrew the bill the same day, further protests involving 100,000 people continued in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso on 31 October, forcing Compaore to announce his resignation and flee to neighbouring Ivory Coast.
The military has since struggled to fill the power vacuum created since Compaore left office. In the 24 hours that followed Compaore’s departure, two rival military leaders declared themselves in charge of the country. Armed forces chief General Honore Traore made the initial claim immediately after Compaore resigned, declaring he had dissolved the National Assembly and the government with the aim of restoring constitutional order within 12 months. However, this was overruled when Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida appeared on national radio the following morning and proclaimed himself head of state. This dispute appears to have been resolved by a further military statement issued later the same day, which declared support for Zida, and allegedly included the signature of Traore, although concerns persist over divisions within the leadership of the armed forces.
The military takeover has provoked widespread anger among the protesters that ousted Compaore, who accuse the military leadership of hijacking the uprising. On 2 November, thousands of protesters gathered at the Place de la Nation in Ougadougou to condemn the military takeover, only to be forcibly dispersed by soldiers. Further unrest was also reported at the headquarters of state-owned RTB Television, where opposition leader Saran Sereme and retired army general Kwame Lougue – who is popular among protesters – had gathered to attend a rally, amid reports that they planned to make independent claims to lead the transitional government. That rally was also quickly broken up, with soldiers firing into the air to disperse the crowds, leaving one dead. On the evening of 2 November Zida appeared on television saying that he had met with members of the opposition and pledged to install a transitional body led by a consensus leader, with the military overseeing the process. He also said the military was not interested in holding onto power and had only dispersed protesters to restore order.
Uncertain transition process
The continuing power struggle is indicative of the challenge now facing Burkina Faso as it looks towards what will likely be a long and violent transition process. The statement issued by Zida makes no clear pledge to install a civilian leadership and the military’s continued dominance of government will remain controversial among the protesters. The constitution states that in the event of the president’s resignation, power should pass to the president of the Senate and elections should be held within 60 to 90 days. However, the army has dissolved the constitution and the legislature, and it is now unclear how the transition process will unfold.
Much will depend on how far the military lives up to its pledge to engage a broad cross-section of civil society in the transition process and interim government. Neither Zida nor Traore enjoy widespread support among the protesters and are closely linked to the Compaore regime. Although the involvement of some opposition figures, notably Sereme and Lougue, would lend legitimacy to the transitional authorities, this would be unlikely to pacify the diverse range of interests of the protesters, who include trade unionists, opposition politicians, traditional and religious leaders, and defecting soldiers.
Of particular significance will be the military’s ability to maintain cohesion within its own ranks. Discontent over low pay has been building for several years, leading to repeated mutinies among the rank-and-file. Compoare’s tendency to allocate far greater resources to his elite presidential guard, the Régiment de la securité présidentielle (RSP), bred considerable resentment and continues to foment mistrust of Burkina Faso’s new authorities. Although the majority of defecting soldiers have returned to barracks, many remain deeply suspicious of Zida, who was a commander in the RSP, and his role in government will likely remain a source of division.
The potential for factionalism within the military and the continued calls for protests means there is a strong risk of further violence in the months ahead. Zida’s announcement of a “transition body” has failed to disperse protesters who continue to demand democratic change. However, it is unclear what sort of compromise could satisfy all parties, not least as the military would struggle to organise fresh elections within the 90-day timeframe of the previous constitution amid the current unrest. A prolonged transition process would likely lead to further clashes between protesters and the military and increase the risk of mutinies within the armed forces.
The ongoing unrest presents significant challenges for businesses operating in Burkina Faso. Checkpoints at strategic points around the capital, notably Place de la Nation, disrupt travel, while the airport and land crossings have been closed and a curfew is in place in many areas. Although the gold mining sector, which accounts for 70 percent of exports, is primarily located in remote areas away from the main protests hubs in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, without a clear transition process in place there is a risk border controls will disrupt supply chains. The ousting of Compaore also raises the prospect of a review of state-tendered contracts by future administrations, while some 50 new mining projects in the pipeline will now likely be delayed. These concessions were due to be awarded after a new mining code was passed by parliament, but this will now be postponed until after the elections, meaning the new code could be delayed until at least the end of 2015.