The vote on the controversial bill to change the Burkina Faso constitution to allow President Blaise Compaore to run for a third term was scheduled for yesterday, 30 October, but ended up not taking place.
As members of Parliament were about to start examining the bill, they were forced out by protesters who stormed the building and set it on fire. Protesters then marched on the presidential palace to ask Compaoré to leave.
In spite of the present confusion in Burkina Faso, it appears that the country is heading towards a political transition in which Compaoré’s role is uncertain.
Last night, Compaoré declared a state of emergency and pledged to open talks with the opposition. The head of Burkina Faso’s armed forces, General Honoré Nabéré Traoré, later announced the dissolution of the National Assembly and the creation of a national transitional government, to last a maximum of 12 months.
This statement, which failed to mention anything about the president’s departure, did little to reassure the protesters. Indeed, General Traoré is considered close to Compaoré: the president had appointed him as head of the army after the mutinies of 2011 that shook the government. Late yesterday evening, Compaoré, in an address to the nation, said he had ‘taken the full measure of the strong aspiration for change’ of the population, announced his withdrawal of the controversial bill and cancelled the state of emergency.
The president called once more for talks with opposition parties, and proposed to lead the transition until elections are held. He vowed that he would then hand power over to the next democratically elected head of state. Compaoré has therefore not stepped down, and it is unclear who is currently in charge.
The events of the past couple of days were triggered by the government’s announcement, on 21 October 2014, of its intention to submit a bill to the National Assembly to amend Article 37 of the constitution.
The article limits the number of presidential terms to two, and the proposed amendment would have given the head of state the possibility to be re-elected twice. This would have allowed Compaoré – who has been president for 27 years, and is currently in the last year of his second term – to run for president in 2015.
Following this announcement, protests were reported in Ouagadougou on 21 and 22 October. Skirmishes and clashes intensified on 27 October in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, the second largest city, between the security forces and opponents to the constitutional amendment. Zephirin Diabré, the leader of the opposition, called for a march on 28 October. Taking place in Ouagadougou and other parts of the country, media have described it as historic given the sheer number of people who were mobilised.
The proposed bill, which was to be voted on yesterday, was not the first attempt to amend Article 37. Indeed, the president had initially attempted to establish a bicameral Parliament, as per the constitution, by setting up a Senate, the members of which would have been appointed by the president.
This would have enabled Compaoré to strengthen his majority in Parliament and proceed with the revision of the Article 37. This initiative was received negatively, however, which prompted the president to postpone the establishment of this institution in October 2013.
Faced with this failure, the idea of changing the constitution by holding a referendum emerged in the ranks of the presidential majority. Objection to this had led to a mediation attempt, which was initiated in January 2014 by the former president Jean Baptiste Ouedraogo. More recently, Compaoré himself had initiated a dialogue between government and the opposition. The latter failed on 6 October. The additional attempt to change the constitution by means of a vote at the National Assembly illustrated the determination of the president to achieve his goals, but was seen by the opposition as one devious move too many.
The population taking to the street might be explained by the fact that, this time, Compaoré was perhaps about to succeed in his attempt to change the constitution. Indeed, the third strongest party, the Alliance for Democracy and Federation/African Democracy Rally (Alliance pour la démocratie et la fédération/Rassemblement démocratique africain, or ADF/RDA), had agreed to support the bill.
With this support, Compaoré could count on 99 votes: 70 from the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (Congrès pour la démocratie et le progrès, CDP), 18 from ADF/RDA, and 11 from the Convention of Republican Forces (CFR). If voting instructions were to be followed by the deputies of these parties and parliamentary groupings, the bill would have received more than 96 votes, which is the majority needed to adopt the bill without having to call a referendum.
Over the past few days, Burkina Faso’s external partners have also voiced concerns. The reservations expressed on 28 October by the United States and France, as well as the call on 29 October by the European Union to abandon the project, did not prevent Compaoré from attempting to amend the constitution. Those statements might nonetheless have been interpreted by opponents to the constitutional amendment as support, even if passive, thereby lending some legitimacy to their struggle.
Burkina Faso was considered one of the stable countries in a region that remains troubled by security, political and health crises. In addition, Compaoré’s role as a mediator in some conflicts has made his country an important regional and international partner in resolving crises in West Africa.
As West Africa prepares for an important electoral year – with five presidential polls scheduled in 2015 in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Nigeria and Togo – the political violence of the past few days in Burkina sets the wrong example for the region, and is a reminder of the risks inherent in electoral processes. Nonetheless, the evolving situation in Burkina Faso will hopefully serve as a wake-up call for presidents who are considering tailoring the constitution to suit their own interests, in West Africa and beyond.
Written by Tity Agbahey, Junior Fellow, Ibrahim Maiga, Junior Fellow, Fatimata Ouedraogo, Junior Fellow, William Assanvo, Senior Reseracher, Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni, Office Head, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Dakar