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Burkina protest

Popular uprising in Burkina Faso

By Dr. Denis Foretia (article published here

Events in Burkina Faso at the very least represent a recalibration of the political dynamics and geopolitics especially for francophone sub-Saharan Africa. It can be argued that this is indeed the first time in recent memory that an African dictator, steeped in the FrancAfrique network, has been successfully forced out of power through a popular uprising and without the carnage of a civil war. That President Blaise Compaore was quickly forced out of power highlights a growing problem for many African autocrats but most especially for those in francophone African countries.

When you look at the Africa of today there is no denying that democratic reforms have been spearheaded for the most part by Anglophone countries where electoral democracy has gradually taken root. Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia and many Anglophone countries have had genuine democratic transitions. On the other hand Togo, Chad, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Guinea and other francophone countries still struggle to register significant democratic progress. In fact, the Senegalese people in 2012 attempted unsuccessfully to prevent then president Abdoulaye Wade from seeking a controversial third term. Luckily he lost that election to Macky Sall in the second round.

The popular uprising in Burkina Faso therefore represents a genuine inflection point for francophone Africa. The success in toppling a long-sitting president reveals major, concurrent changes in the geopolitical and socioeconomic realities in most francophone African countries.The growing youth population in Africa poses a very important security challenge. The UN estimates that more than 65 percent of the African population is below the age of 35. In Cameroon for example, more than 75 percent of the population has only known a single president. The youths for the most part are highly educated, technologically savvy, extremely well connected to social media platforms but with very high rates of unemployment, which invariably translates to extreme frustration with the political elite and government. Aided by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the pervasiveness of video-enabled smartphones, an incident in one remote part of the country can become a nationwide movement overnight as Burkina Faso aptly demonstrated. Governments in francophone Africa are indeed finding it very difficult to adapt in this new fast-paced information society.

Faced with growing international consensus on democratic rule as well as growing pressure from its citizens, the French government is now increasingly unlikely to undertake a military intervention in one of its former colonies to re-instate or support a dictator, something that happened in 2008 with President Idriss Deby of Chad. As a matter of fact, it is now common knowledge that the French through multiple contacts had pressured Former President Compaore against initiating the constitutional change that accelerated his downfall. This unwillingness by the French to prop-up long-serving allies is a significant policy shift that does not bode well for other African leaders contemplating such constitutional changes.

The events in Burkina Faso also reminds us that old tricks in usurping democratic progress through constitutional change may be difficult to implement in the Africa of today. Just six years ago the Cameroonian president, now 32 years in office, was able to successfully amend the constitution to eliminate term limits paving the way for his eventual re-election in 2011 in a country with an extremely fragmented and complicit opposition. It would however be a colossal mistake for him to seek another term in 2018. It is also now widely accepted that presidential term limits is a critical factor in any functioning democracy. In fact, Alexander Baturo in his book “Democracy, Dictatorship, and Term Limits” shows us that presidential term limits are most in need in countries where democracy itself is most at risk. For presidents in francophone Africa – in Benin, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, currently contemplating constitutional changes to prolong their rule, the demise of Blaise Compaore should serve as a wake-up call. Longevity in power is now, more than ever before, akin to autocratic rule.

Africa in the last decade has witnessed a gradual transition from military takeovers to civilian revolts as the preferred means of expressing discontent with autocratic regimes as was seen in Senegal in 2012. The role of the military has however remained quite influential. The military, as seen in Burkina Faso, Egypt and Tunisia, is increasingly unwilling to defend these regimes by crushing popular uprisings. This tendency to support popular revolts has been fostered by the threat of sanctions from regional bodies such as ECOWAS and the African Union as well as the threat of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Although the African Union has been consistent with its sanctions policy in recent years, it is imperative that the AU takes this policy a step further – against constitutional changes that eliminate presidential term limits and other changes that undermine effective democratic transitions.

While the “politics of the belly” as explained by Jean-Francois Bayart remains pervasive in most African countries today, the events of the last five years lead me believe that Africa, especially Francophone Africa, is now in a new era. A new post-strongmen era where ruthless dictators and kleptocratic regimes are forced out by popular discontent, and where the army and international financiers are increasingly unwilling to come to their rescue. Indeed, not all politics is local anymore.

Dr. Denis Foretia is the Co-chair of the Denis & Lenora Foretia Foundation and a Senior Fellow at the Nkafu Policy Institute.

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