It’s too soon to tell whether the power struggle in Burkina Faso will ultimately move the country in a positive direction or simply result in more of the same for the impoverished African nation.
Last week, Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso’s long-serving president, resigned and fled to Ivory Coast following two days of mass protests after he attempted to extend his 27-year rule by amending the constitution.
The following day, the military appointed Lt. Col. Isaac Zida as provisional head of state, drawing accusations of that a coup had taken place from opposition politicians, the African Union and Western powers, all of which want to see a swift return to civilian rule.
Zida replied by stating that Burkina Faso’s army will quickly cede power to a transitional government and appoint a new head of state.
Under Burkina Faso’s constitution, the head of the National Assembly should take office if the president resigns, with a mandate to organize elections within 90 days. However, the army has dissolved the legislature and suspended the constitution.
The African Union, whose democratic charter binds its 54 member states to take action against coups on the continent, piled more pressure on the Burkina military on Monday, giving it an ultimatum to hand back power to a civilian administration within two weeks or face sanctions, according to the Daily Telegraph.
France, Burkina Faso’s former colonial power, also called for the nation’s leaders to reach a rapid agreement regarding a transition to an interim civilian head of state and elections.
Burkina Faso has a long history of military interference in government affairs.
The nation gained its independence from France in 1960, initially taking the name Upper Volta. The 1960 constitution provided for election by universal suffrage of a president and a national assembly for five-year terms, but the nation’s first president, Maurice Yaméogo suspended all political parties besides his own and was eventually overthrown by the military in 1966 following civil strife.
After the coup, the country’s constitution was suspended, its National Assembly dissolved and Lt. Col. Sangoulé Lamizana installed as head of government backed by the military. The army remained in power for four years until 1970, when citizens ratified a new constitution that established a four-year transition period toward complete civilian rule.
However, Lamizana remained in power throughout the 1970s as president of military or mixed civil-military governments. After conflict over the 1970 constitution, a new constitution was written and approved in 1977. Lamizana was re-elected by open elections in 1978.
Lamizana’s government faced problems with the country’s traditionally powerful trade unions, and in November 1980, Col. Saye Zerbo overthrew Lamizana in a bloodless coup. Zerbo established the Military Committee of Recovery for National Progress as the supreme governmental authority, doing away with the 1977 constitution.
Zerbo also encountered resistance from trade unions and was overthrown two years later, in November 1982, by Maj. Dr. Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo and the Council of Popular Salvation.
Factional infighting developed between moderates in the Council of Popular Salvation and the radicals, led by Capt. Thomas Sankara, who was appointed prime minister in January 1983.
The internal political struggle and Sankara’s leftist rhetoric led to his arrest and subsequent efforts to bring about his release, directed by Compaoré, then a captain in the army. This release effort resulted in yet another military coup d’état in August 1983.
Sankara took power following the coup and his government began to implement several much-needed programs, including mass-vaccinations, infrastructure improvements, the expansion of women’s rights and anti-desertification projects.
However, in October 1987, Sankara and 12 other officials were killed in a coup organized by Compaoré.
Compaoré would go on to win four “mostly questionable” elections, and largely maintained power and public support by playing the “It’s either me or chaos” card, according to CBS News.
So after more than half a century of independence, Burkina Faso can claim perhaps one free and independent election (1977), although it’s likely Lamizana had the vote rigged.
Even its first president, Yaméogo, was appointed to the position of president of Upper Volta Council of Government when Upper Volta was still a French possession. He simply assumed the title of the nation’s first president when the country became independent.
Each subsequent leader has come about as the result of a coup.
One can understand the current frustration of citizens, who saw through Campaore’s attempts to manipulate the nation’s constitution to ensure that he would be able to remain in power.
Whether Burkina Faso is able to finally break the cycle of self-imposed strongman leaders who have largely held the sub-Saharan nation back for decades remains to be seen. However, there seems little question that the nation’s impoverished status – Burkina Faso ranks No. 181 in the Human Development Index among 187 countries listed – is at least partly attributable to its despotic government.
(Top: Strife in Burkina Faso last week, prior to resignation of President Blaise Compaoré. Photo credit: Reuters.)