Has Military Intervention Created a Constitutional Crisis in Burkina Faso?

On Friday, October 31, 2014, President Blaise Campaoré, who had ruled Burkina Faso for the last 27 years, was forced out of office. The resignation and subsequent military takeover of the government has created instability and questions over leadership in the country—especially since the constitutional line of succession has been broken by the insertion of military leaders. The power of the military is clear, especially since it has already influenced a second change in leadership. This interruption, subsequent transition and suspension of the constitution, then, have seriously threatened the strength of the rule of law and the future of the Burkinabé government.

President Campaoré Resigns and Flees to Côte d’Ivoire

The violent demonstrations that eventually forced President Campaoré to flee with his family into exile in Côte d’Ivoire could have been avoided had he not considered himself above the law. The impetus for the mass demonstrations was his attempt to change the country’s constitution in order to secure for himself another five-year term in office. Campaoré’s initial reaction to the violent demonstrations was to dissolve the government but retain his position as president until new elections were carried out to select a new government. He also agreed not to seek another term in office. The opposition, however, insisted that he resign. Interestingly, in his resignation statement, issued shortly before he fled the country, President Campaoré called for “free and transparent” elections to be held in 90 days to form a new government.

Shortly after the president’s resignation, General Honoré Traoré, Campaoré’s aide de camp, proclaimed himself president of the republic. This immediate military intervention into Burkinabé politics betrays either a lack of appreciation for constitutional democracy or a willful attempt by the military to take advantage of the instability occasioned by the planned constitutional changes to maximize their corporate interests. But, could someone who had risen to the head of the Burkinabé military have such little understanding of and appreciation for the constitutional order? In announcing that he had assumed the office of head of state, Traoré actually stated as follows: “In line with constitutional measures, and given the power vacuum . . . I will assume as of today my responsibilities as head of state.”

Importantly, there is no provision in the constitution of Burkina Faso for the head of the military or some other military officer to assume the powers of the president in case of a vacancy in the office. Succession, in the case of a vacancy in the presidency of the republic, is governed by Article 43 of the Constitution of Burkina Faso, 1991, which states that, in a case like this, the functions of the presidency should be performed by the president of the senate.

The People Reject General Traoré and Colonel Isaac Zida Emerges as New Leader

After Traoré’s quick takeover, the leaders of the protests rejected the government headed by such a close and trusted advisor of the ousted president, claiming it would not represent a full and effective break with the painful past, especially the attempted constitutional changes. In fact, according to Al Jazeera, many of the protesters proclaimed that “[t]he general is linked to Campoaré, and they don’t want anyone linked to Campaoré to lead the country.”

Thus, early on Saturday, November 1, 2014, Colonel Isaac Zida declared that the army had taken control of the state to prevent further violence and that he had assumed the functions of head of state, leading what he referred to as a “peaceful transition”—one that would guarantee the “continuity of the [Burkinabé] state.” He, however, was extremely vague, providing few details, especially regarding how long this transitional government would stay in power or if the elections planned for 2015 will be held. Again, it is difficult to imagine that Zida, like Traoré, was not aware that the resignation and subsequent exit of the president from the political scene did not call for military intervention in the political system. In fact, a military officer of his standing should have had enough familiarity with the constitution to be aware of Article 43.

Oddly, the protesters appeared to have accepted the leadership of Zida, who is said to have been the deputy head of Campaoré’s elite presidential guard. It appears that the deciding factor in the struggle between the two men to assume the position of head of state was acceptance by the military: In a statement issued early on Saturday, November 1, 2014, the military indicated that Zida had been unanimously elected by military chiefs to lead the post-Campaoré transitional government. But, again, in making this decision, were these military leaders not aware of Article 43 of the constitution, which sets out the succession procedures in case of a temporary or permanent vacancy in the presidency? If, indeed, they had knowledge of the provisions of Article 43, then why did they interfere with what should have been a constitutionally mandated succession?

The Constitutional Crisis and the Quickly Changing Role of the Military

The international community has called on all sides in the Burkinabé political crisis to follow “constitutionally mandated” procedures for the transfer of power. The international community (especially the African Union) is asking the Burkina Faso military not to exploit the constitutional crisis for its own benefit but to respect the desire of the majority of Burkinabé for democracy and peaceful coexistence. That, of course, calls for respect by all Burkinabé, including the military, for the constitution.

The president’s resignation in itself did not create a constitutional crisis in Burkina Faso. The Constitution of 1991 specifically anticipates the resignation or incapacitation of the president and prescribes procedures for succession. According to Article 43, if the president is temporarily incapacitated and is incapable of carrying out his or her duties, “his powers shall be provisionally exercised by the Prime Minister.” As noted above, in this particular case, where the president has resigned and created a permanent vacancy in the presidency, the constitution states that the functions of the presidency should be performed by the president of the senate.
The military should not have intervened—military intervention in the country’s political system actually created what is fast becoming a major constitutional crisis. The military has suspended the constitution and, without the guidance provided by it, the military is now governing the country extra-constitutionally through decrees. The military can end this unfolding crisis by restoring the constitution and handing power back to a civilian regime, led, as prescribed by their constitution, by the president of the senate. The latter will, of course, serve as a transitional head of state until elections are completed in 2015 to select a permanent president. International organizations, including especially the African Union, support this approach—on November 3, 2014, the AU issued a statement asking the Burkinabé military to exit the political system and hand power to a civilian ruler.

But what about the riots and violence that had enveloped the city of Ouagadougou and were gradually spreading to other cities? Should the army not have been called upon to quell the riots and bring about peace? In virtually all countries, including Burkina Faso, the police—not the army—should be the institution enforcing the law and maintaining order. There is no indication that military intervention was necessary to bring the rioting under control or that it actually did. Most of the people participating in the riots voluntarily stopped their activities after the president resigned and left the country.

However, what the army did was interfere with the constitutional process and in doing so, actually created this constitutional crisis—shortly after declaring himself head of state and leader of the transition, Zida suspended the constitution, as noted above. Although Zida has assured the people that the military will strive to quickly return Burkina Faso to democratic governance, such guarantees appear hollow, especially given the military’s past history of intervention—every time the Burkinabé military has intervened in politics, it has remained in power for a very long time, 27 years in the case of the Campaoré-led intervention of 1987.

Article 43 of the Constitution of Burkina Faso also states that elections should be held between 60 and 90 days after a vacancy has been declared in the presidency. Zida, who is now the de facto head of state in Burkina Faso, has stated that his would be a transitional government and that it would seek input from all stakeholders to organize and undertake democratic elections to choose a new government. However, the constitution, which would have provided the necessary guidelines for carrying out such elections, has been suspended. In addition, he has closed the country’s borders and imposed a general curfew, which severely restricts the right of citizens to live freely. Such restrictions could have a significant impact on economic activities and negatively affect what is already a relatively fragile economy. These initial draconian and extra-constitutional measures do not augur well for an early exit of the military from politics and the return of constitutional rule to the country. If history teaches us anything about the military and Burkinabé politics, it is that this military, like the one that intervened in 1987, is likely to stay in politics much longer than the 90 days needed to elect a new civilian government.

[1], [2] This is in line with the constitutional amendment of June 11, 2012 (Loi No. 033-2012/AN du 1 juin 2012).