On Sunday 29 November, Burkina Faso organized successful presidential and legislative elections. They marked the end of a one-year-political transition and a step in consolidating the country’s democratic achievements over the last year. There are now opportunities for a veritable democratic breakthrough.
The favorite Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrès (MPP) won 53,49% of the votes cast, followed by Zéphirin Diabré of Union pour le Progrès et le Changement (UPC) who scored 29,65%. The losing candidates were soon to recognize their defeat and congratulate the newly elected president. Most importantly, Diabré accepted the result and did not contest the elections.
In this article written just days after the elections, I put the elections in perspective and discuss opportunities for the newly elected president Kaboré and his government, as well as for the National Assembly.
After having chased Compaoré from power on 31 October 2014 the country’s social and political forces agreed upon a Transition Charta on 13 November 2014. During the two weeks between 31 October and 17 November Lt-Col Isaac Yacouba Zida of the President’s Security Forces (RSP) took over as Head of State, and many feared that the military takeover would last. In other words, the purpose of the Transition Charta was to get institutions in place that would be capable of governing Burkina Faso and prepare for elections after three decades of Compaoré-rule. Michel Kafando, a retired diplomat, became Transition president, and Isaac Yacouba Zida Prime Minister. Hence, it initially looked as if the RSP had kept the control, but soon it became clear that Zida was not acting on behalf of RSP, but had emancipated himself. Finally, the publicist and civil society leader Chériff Sy became Speaker of the 90 member strong Transition Parliament.
The particularity with the Transition Charta was that neither the President, the Prime Minister nor other members of the Transition government were eligible in the 2015 elections. The same applied to the Transition MPs as well. Hence, for the first time in Burkina Faso’s history the power-holders preparing elections would be out once the results were known.
Over the last year, the Transition has ruled in a context of imminent threats from the military arm of ex-president Compaoré, that is, the RSP led by General Gilbert Diendéré. On 30 December, RSP-soldiers protested and threatened the Transition for reducing allowances for this elite force. On 4 February, RSP-soldiers prevented the government council to be held and Prime Minister Zida – by then already seen as a traitor of his former brothers in arm – had to seek refuge at the Palace of Mogho Naaba, the traditional king of Ouagadougou. On 29 June, an alleged attempt of RSP to assassinate Prime Minister Zida was dismantled, leading to an open crisis between the Transition and the RSP. President Kafando had to call in respected political, religious and traditional authorities to appease the RSP. On 16 September, the RSP took hostage of the president and government and then declared the coup d’état under the leadership of General Diendéré the following day.
Yet, the coup failed due to popular resistance and civil disobedience. The strength was the unity and defense of the country against the coup-makers. Civil society organizations, trade unions, political parties and many ordinary Burkinabe citizens took to the streets to protest or found other ways of resisting. Thanks to the popular determination, the regular army intervened and the international community maintained pressure. The turning point was Burkinabe’s courageous and well-organized resistance. The control and discipline of protesters was incredible. Attempts to revenge the RSP-soldiers were avoided. Instead, those caught by the population were brought to the gendarmerie. The widespread protests meant that the whole country mobilized against the coup.
General Diendéré and the other coup-makers are now under arrest and the judgment is likely to take place quite soon. The legal pursuits of these pending affairs are key issues for the new president. The outcome of these cases is likely to be a test to see if the slogan “nothing will be as before” has more bearing than revolutionary rhetoric.
The coup d’état nevertheless diverted attention from flaws of the Transition, including corruption and power abuse, and of supporting certain political parties and candidates. In particular, voices have denounced the strong links between the Transition rule and the MPP. On one hand, it is not surprising that those evinced from power attack their former party comrades in MPP for “kidnapping the Transition”. On the other hand, the Transition has been all but exempt from problems and questionable decisions, something that has been denounced by civil society and what is nowadays called “la ruecratie” (street power). The rapid allocation of public markets to private bidders are worrying signs of continuous corruptive practices of power-holders. Similarly, the new electoral law voted on 7 April rendered ineligible all those political actors who supported the modification of the constitution to allow Compaoré to stay in power. For many, it was a law made to serve the interests of Kaboré’s MPP. It should be noted, however, that this electoral law does not exclude political parties, but puts the individual political responsibility to the fore. It introduces a political morality in the midst of what many see as the politics of the belly.
Beyond the presidential elections, the legislative elections are also very important for consolidating the democratic achievements. Zéphirin Diabré stated after having accepted his defeat in the presidential elections: “The struggle continues for the triumph of the true change.” This statement indicates that Diabré’s outstanding experience of opposition politics between 2012 and 2014 will be an asset and present challenges to the newly elected president.
On 2 December, the preliminary results of the legislative elections were published. The MPP had won 55 seats and UPC 33 seats. This means that the MPP will get not get an absolute majority and that a true opposition politics is possible in parliament. The third political force is Compaoré’s party CDP, whose party machine mobilized to score 18 seats.
Civil society will continue to remain an important watchdog the coming years. The notion of “ruecratie” is indeed real in contemporary Burkina Faso and one can expect little mercy with future power holders who seek to take advantage of their positions. As an MPP-politician told me: “we fear the coming mandate”.
Taken together the successful elections in Burkina Faso crown the hopeful and inspiring political process that ended the power of Blaise Compaoré and opened up for several democratic achievements. This bears hopes for a true change, and veritable democratic breakthrough, not so much because of the victory of Roch March Christian Kaboré but because of three other circumstances. First, there is a new parliament with no party holding absolute majority. Second, there is a strong and active civil society. Third and perhaps most importantly, people now expect real political change in a Burkina Faso where “nothing should be as before”.
Sten Hagberg is Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Chair of the Forum for Africa Studies at Uppsala University. He has done research in Burkina Faso since 1988, and is currently conducting research on municipal politics in Burkina Faso and Mali.