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Burkina Faso revolution; The land of upright men on the road to democracy

The national parliament set on fire during street riots in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso October 30th 2014. Picture: Day Donaldson, Flickr
The national parliament set on fire during street riots in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso October 30th 2014. Picture: Day Donaldson, Flickr

As a landlocked country with few natural resources, the West African nation of Burkina Faso has struggled in many aspects since its independence from France in 1960.  Political turmoil characterized Burkina Faso in its early years of independence. Although the nation has been relatively stable since the 1980s, this October the country was shaken by a huge popular uprising. What lead the people to take to the streets and where does the country stand today?

Located in the middle of the dry and harsh Sahel region, just south of the Sahara desert, Burkina Faso faces challenging conditions for agriculture and the establishment of an industrial base has proven difficult. Add decades of political instability, corruption and military coups and it results in a nation suffering from rampant poverty and socioeconomic problems. It is then not surprising to find “The Land of Upright Men”, as Burkina Faso translates to in two indigenous languages, at the very bottom of many economic rankings including the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

For the past 27 years, Burkina Faso has been ruled by President Blaise Compaoré. The story begins in 1987 when Compaoré led a coup against his friend and colleague Thomas Sankara, a radical left-wing political leader. Sankara was one of the most characteristic African leaders, even named by many “Africa’s Che Guevara”. His legacy still today attracts attention and supporters in Burkina Faso and other African countries. Sankara was famous for his extreme anti-imperialist ideas, and was a great opponent of imported goods from the Western world. He was also given a lot of recognition for his commitment to women’s rights and his social reforms for improved economical justice. But he was also criticized for his authoritarian ways and he was exceptionally radical. Albeit popular he had powerful enemies who did not agree with his extreme ways. Thus, while being a minister and a friend to Sankara, Blaise Compaoré planned a coup and Thomas Sankara was killed in mysterious circumstances in October 1987.

Blaise Compaoré with U.S Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in September 2013. Picture: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo, Chuck Hagel Flickr
Blaise Compaoré with U.S Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in September 2013. Picture: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo, Chuck Hagel Flickr

Compaoré has since then used unconventional methods to remain in power such as several amendments to the constitution in order to extend his rule, suspicious landslide wins in doubtful elections, giving limited space for opposition and only allowing a restricted form of critical journalism. Internationally Compaoré had a very particular position; at the same time as he was an ally to the U.S and France he was also a great friend to the previous Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi was in fact a huge financial partner and even funded many infrastructure projects in Burkina Faso. Voices were raised in the country accusing Compaoré of turning the power into a personal patrimony; where power was exclusive to a few men who profited at the people’s expense.

Thus it was with relief the people received the announcement that the president would eventually step down and presidential elections would take place in November 2015. With growing frustration in the recent years and an increased pressure on President Compaoré, this was the time for change and the entire nation could feel it. However, in October the president announced that he refused to step down and yet again attempted to adjust the constitution in order for him to stay in power. The rage of the people knew no bounds as people from all social classes took to the streets and demanded change. Students, lawyers, farmers and teachers could all be seen together shouting and protesting; the revolution was a fact. As the masses of people grew larger and larger on squares and streets, more anti-riot police and other security forces were sent out to take control of the situation. But the amount of people was too great and there was no lack of courage; several photos show citizens who take on the armed police single-handed.

The security forces lost control of the situation and government institutions and the state television and radio were taken by protesters. When the parliament was stormed and burned down on October 30th there were no doubts that the uprising was of great magnitude. On Friday October 31, after just a few days of protests, this resulted in President Blaise Compaoré’s resignation. He fled the country in an army convoy. Compaoré left in quite a hurry and left behind personal luxurious assets spread out across the country. Not least the huge presidential palace in the capital city Ouagadougou. The announcement of the resignation and the escape of the President was met by cheering crowds in the cities.

Burkina Faso is one of the world’s poorest countries, but the hope for a change for the better among the people has grown after the revolution. Picture: Eric Montfort, Flickr
Burkina Faso is one of the world’s poorest countries, but the hope for a change for the better among the people has grown after the revolution. Picture: Eric Montfort, Flickr

A temporary military rule was established with Lieutenant Col Isaac Zida in the lead. The people and the international community put immediate pressure on Zida to, as quickly as possible, institute civilian rule. It was important for the people in Burkina Faso to highlight the fact that this was not a coup, but a popular uprising. The military rulers have so far taken it seriously and a transitional government was successfully put together on November 16th. The former ambassador to the United Nations Michel Kafando was elected president and Lt Col Zida prime minister of the interim government. Until elections can be organized next year this transitional government will lead the country and hopefully maintain stability.

The upcoming year will be one of the most important for not only Burkina Faso, but for the entire West African region. If it all develops smoothly, Burkina Faso can be a role model and inspire other nearby countries. The international community, including the United Nations, is following the situation closely to make sure the transitional government carries out the task correctly. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon himself urges dialogue within the transitional government and between all the stakeholders. After all, this development could be a major game changer in international relations which is greatly needed in this world with countless civil wars and conflicts. This was a revolution of the people, and the people of Burkina Faso have longed deserved change for the better.

Alexander Edberg Thorén

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