On Tuesday, October 28, 2014, tens of thousands of citizens of Burkina Faso gathered in its capital city, Ouagadougou, and its second biggest city, Bobo Dioulasso, to protest proposed changes to its constitution regarding term limits. A vote was planned for Thursday, on whether to extend the current limit of two terms to three. This vote is extremely controversial: Current President Blaise Compaoré, who came to power in a coup in 1987, has ruled the country for 27 years. Allowing him to run for election in November 2015 could extend his reign for another five years. In Ouagadougou on Wednesday, citizens angry over the possibility that parliament might make it possible for Campaoré to stay in power indefinitely set fire to the parliament and forced legislators to postpone the vote that had been set for Thursday, October 30, 2014 to decide the constitutional issue.
A History of Autocracy in Burkina Faso
The West African country has been plagued by dictators, autocracies and coups in the past. At independence on August 5, 1960, Maurice Yaméogo, leader of the Voltaic Democratic Union (Union démocratique voltaïque), became the country’s first president. Shortly after assuming power, Yaméogo banned all political opposition, forcing mass riots and demonstrations that only came to an end after the military intervened in 1966. Lt. Col. Sangoulé Lamizana and a collection of military elites took control of the government and subsequently dissolved the National Assembly as well as suspended the constitution. Lamizana stayed in power until November 1980 when the military overthrew the government and installed Col. Saye Zerbo as the new president. Two years later, Col. Zerbo’s government was overthrown by Maj. Dr. Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo and the Council of Popular Salvation (CSP—Conseil du salut du peuple). Although it promised to transition the country to civilian rule and provide a new constitution, the Ouédraogo regime banned all political organizations, including opposition parties. There soon arose a political struggle within the CSP. The radicals, led by Captain Thomas Sankara, eventually overthrew the government in August 1983, and Capt. Sankara emerged as the country’s new leader. In 1984, the Sankara government changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso and introduced many institutional reforms that effectively aligned the country with Marxist ideals.
On October 15, 1987, Capt. Blaise Compaoré, a former colleague of Sankara’s, killed Sankara and several of his confidants in a successful coup d’état. In 1991, Campaoré was elected president in an election in which only 25 percent of the electorate participated because of a boycott movement organized and carried out by opposition parties. In 1998, he won reelection for another seven-year term. As president, Campaoré reversed all the progressive policies that Sankara had implemented.
President Blaise Compaoré’s Time in Power
In 2000, the country’s post-Cold War 1991 constitution was amended to impose a limit of two five-year consecutive terms on the presidency. However, Campaoré’s supporters argued that because he was in office when the amendments went into effect, they did not apply to him and, hence, he was qualified to run for re-election in 2005. Despite the fact that the opposition fielded several candidates, Campoaré won 80.35 percent of the votes cast in the 2005 presidential election. And, in the presidential elections held in November 2010, he captured 80.2 percent of votes.
Over more than a quarter century in power, Campaoré has used an unusual formula to achieve relative stability in Burkina Faso—authoritarianism mixed with traces of democracy. The complex governance system has relied primarily on Campaoré’s dominant and charismatic political power and has failed to build sustainable institutions—specifically, those capable of maintaining the rule of law and enhancing peaceful coexistence in his absence.
Constitutionally mandated presidential term limits strengthen the rule of law and provide a significant level of stability and predictability to the country’s governance institutions. In response to the efforts by Burkinabé members of parliament to change the constitution to enable Compaoré to secure another term in office, U.S. government officials have recently stated that “democratic institutions are strengthened when established rules are adhered to with consistency.” On his part, Campaoré has proclaimed that his main and immediate concern “is not to build a future for myself—but to see how the future of this country will take shape.” If this is indeed true, then he should exit gracefully from the Burkinabé political scene and henceforth serve as an elder statesman, providing his country’s new leadership with the advice and support that they need to deepen and institutionalize democracy, as well as enhance economic, social, political and human development.
Insisting, as President Campoaré has done, that the constitution be changed so that he can seek an additional term in power not only destroys the country’s fragile stability but also sends the wrong message to citizens about the rule of law—while citizens must be law-abiding, the president does not have to abide by the country’s settled law; if the law stands in the way of the president’s personal ambitions, he can simply change the law to provide him with the wherewithal to achieve those objectives. Such behavior from the country’s chief executive does not augur well for deepening the country’s democracy, an objective that is dear to many Burkinabé. The question to ask President Campoaré is: How do you want history to remember you? As a self-serving political opportunist who used his public position to accumulate personal power and wealth, at the expense of fellow citizens, or as a public servant who led and directed his country’s transformation into a peaceful, safe and productive society?