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Burkina Faso’s popular revolution fraying at the edges

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In this commentary, Valérie Arnould reflects on the implications of the recent changes to the electoral law in Burkina Faso for the country’s transition process. She cautions that a desire to bring the past regime to account should not come at the cost of a genuine democratic transformation.

This commentary appeared in African Arguments on 17 April 2015.

(Photo credit: Egmont Institute)


Burkina Faso’s popular revolution fraying at the edges

The ousting of Burkina Faso’s long-standing President Blaise Compaoré in October 2014 raised high hopes for a democratic transition in the country. Compaoré was removed following street protests against his attempt to push through constitutional revisions which would have enabled him to run for another presidential term. A relatively orderly political transition was organised – albeit one heavily controlled by the army – which saw the appointment of former diplomat Michel Kafando as transitional president and deputy commander of the Presidential Guard Isaac Zida as prime minister. But recent changes introduced to the electoral code, which block former regime loyalists from participating in the upcoming presidential and legislative elections in October 2015, raise concerns that little has in fact changed as to how politics is conducted in Burkina.

The reform of the electoral code, which was adopted by the transitional parliament on 7 April and signed by President Kafando on 10 April, needs to be understood as part of broader efforts to build popular support for transition authorities. The ‘Burkinabé revolution’ was heavily – though not exclusively – driven by the streets, mobilised by opposition parties as well as grassroots movements such as Le Balai Citoyen, the Mouvement Burkinabé des Droits de l’Homme et des Peuples and student associations. Conscious that street protests were not only driven by a ras-le-bol with Compaoré, but also countrywide discontent over growing inequality, high unemployment, corruption and cronyism, the transition leaders are acutely aware that their legitimacy rests on addressing these popular discontents.

A number of populist measures were consequently taken to ‘appease the streets’ and signal a clear break with the past, such as the (re)opening of investigations into the assassinations of late President Thomas Sankara and journalist Norbert Zongo, two highly emblematic cases which had come to haunt the Compaoré regime. A number of old regime loyalists were also removed from key positions in state institutions, and most recently former mines minister Salif Kaboré and former minister of industry Arthur Kafando were arrested on corruption charges. The transitional parliament’s adoption of an anti-corruption law, and the convocation of a national forum on the judiciary, further constituted highly symbolic means of signalling government responsiveness to citizens’ demands. Notwithstanding ongoing socioeconomic unrest as illustrated by the general strike action on 8 April and growing unrest in the mining sector, this strategy has largely been successful in maintaining positive momentum for the transitional regime.

In keeping with these populist measures, the transitional authorities have defended the electoral code reform as a necessary measure to ‘protect the spirit of the revolution’ and end the long-standing impunity enjoyed by old regime elites. They further argue that attempts at unconstitutional changes of power constitute a political crime sanctioned under the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance (articles 23 and 25). The new code provides that “any individual who supported unconstitutional changes that undermine the principles of democratic change, including the principle of limited presidential terms that led to an uprising or any other form of protest” will be ineligible to run in the 2015 elections. The measure is one that seems to carry widespread support amongst Burkinabé civil society and therefore enjoys a degree of legitimacy.

Nevertheless, there are a number of challenges regarding the democratic validity of this legislative change. First, introducing exclusion criteria for the elections goes against the spirit of the transition charter, which is explicitly founded on the principles of inclusion, reconciliation, and dialogue. While the exclusion may be defended on principled grounds, in practice one might wonder whether a strategy of revenge, provocation, and exclusion, rather than one of appeasement and inclusion, is the most effective way of guaranteeing a legitimate electoral process, especially in light of the fact that the likely electoral weight of the former ruling party and most of its members (apart from Djibril Bassolé) is probably low.

Second, and maybe more importantly, the vagueness of the provision leaves the door open to arbitrariness in the implementation of the law. It is unclear on what basis determinations will be made about which individuals fall under the scope of the exclusion provision. Only those who made public declarations in favour of a revision of article 37 of the Constitution? Any individual who expressed some form of support for Compaoré? Or all members of the former ruling party? Making such determinations is particularly arduous in the present case as no actual unconstitutional change occurred – only an intent to do so – making identifying individual responsibilities very tricky. Moreover, it is not yet clear who will make the determination about which individuals fall under the exclusion criteria (the electoral commission, the interior ministry, an independent commission?).

Lastly, in the spirit of fairness it is unfortunate that the revised electoral code does not restate that the transitional president, government, and president of the transitional parliament are also excluded from running in the 2015 elections. While this is already enshrined in the transition charter, reasserting this principle could have helped dispel suspicions of partiality and political revanchism and instrumentalisation which now surround the electoral code reform.

The main concern is whether the reform, rather than constituting the expression of a will for justice and political redress, in fact reflects the perpetuation of long-standing practices aimed at limiting and controlling the political space. The persistence of such practices is a real possibility as many of today’s key political figures are drawn from political circles that have operated within the Compaoré system over the past decades. It remains an open question whether these individuals, which include leading candidates for the upcoming presidential elections Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and Zéphirin Diabré, are genuinely disposed to introducing far-reaching changes in political governance in Burkina. Prime Minister Zida’s reaction to recent strikes – which he branded as ‘creating an environment of anarchy’ aimed at destabilising the transition process – constitutes a worrying signal that political space for contestation of the new regime is limited.

The adoption of populist measures to boost the transitional regime’s legitimacy should further be viewed with a critical eye as they also divert attention from the more undemocratic aspects of the ‘Burkinabé revolution’. Prominent amongst these is the role of the military, which successfully managed to capture the transition process and today retains significant political control. Alongside the appointment of Zida as prime minister, the military also obtained 25 seats in the transitional parliament and controls key ministerial posts including defence, mining and the interior ministry.

The future role of the military constitutes one of the most pressing yet also delicate challenges the country faces, made even more complex by ongoing internal power struggles within the security forces. While much has been made of the exclusion of civilian officials tied to the Compaoré era, the question of the participation of members of the security forces in upcoming elections and the post-transition political landscape is being evaded, despite demands by civil society groups that changes to the electoral code also include more stringent conditions on the eligibility of military officials in elections. A clarification of the balance of civil-military relations in Burkinabé politics is essential if the transition process is to succeed.

While Burkina Faso has so far managed to maintain stability in the post-Compaoré era, which in itself is no mean feat, important challenges remain. The recent reform of the electoral code, though perceived as legitimate by many Burkinabé, nevertheless raises concerns about the persistence of illiberal practices. While care should be taken to redress the excesses and injustices of the Compaoré era, it is equally important to prevent the ‘new-old elite’ from exploiting the ‘Burkinabé revolution’ to entrench its power and enforce a return to undemocratic politics.

Dr. Valerie Arnould is Senior Research Fellow at the Africa Programme at Egmont – the Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, where she specialises on security, political and justice dynamics in francophone Africa. She is also a Research Fellow at the School of Law, University of East London.