Can Burkina Faso’s Military Put the Country on the Path to Democracy?

Burkina Faso Lt. Col issac Yacouba Zida leavse a government building after meeting with political leaders in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on November 4, 2014.

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Burkina Faso Lt. Col issac Yacouba Zida leavse a government building after meeting with political leaders in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on November 4, 2014.

After years of resentment toward American influence in the troubled West African nation, a U.S.-trained lieutenant colonel is in charge of assembling a new government. By Molly Rapaport

Ça chauffe moins pour le moment au Burkina. Things have cooled off in Burkina Faso, where massive protests three weeks ago led to the October 31 resignation of Blaise Compaoré. Blaise, as he is known colloquially, was president for twenty-seven years and intended to remain in power. When his proposed constitutional revision, which would have allowed him to run again in 2015, went to the National Assembly for a vote, hundreds of thousands of Burkinabe citizens protested. Their message, reinforced by burning the parliament building and tearing down a statue of Blaise, was crystal clear. Protest signs combined the president’s name with that of a terrible virus (making “Ebolaise”), and Burkinabe entreated their fellow citizens to “disinfect” themselves.

And they did—Blaise ultimately resigned. With French assistance, he fled to Côte d’Ivoire before moving to Morocco. Place de la Nation, a major gathering point in Burkina’s capital of Ouagadougou (known as Ouaga), is now Place de la Révolution. Ouaga denizens cleaned up their streets.

Following Blaise’s departure, Burkina recovered quickly. Power settled in the hands of Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida, second-in-command of Blaise’s presidential guard, who was not concerned by the African Union’s threat of sanctions if he did not transfer power to a civilian within two weeks. Luckily, within that deadline, the constitution was reinstated, a transitional charter was signed by diverse Burkinabe leaders, and on Tuesday, former ambassador to the United Nations Michel Kafando was sworn in as interim president. He will lead Burkina’s transition until elections in November 2015. Zida, for his part, has assumed the post of transitional prime minister, and has been busy at work firing the heads of public corporations close to the Compaoré regime. Zida’s next job will be to appoint a transitional government, and it is rumored that military personnel could occupy several of those posts.

Despite the Burkinabe military’s continued prominence in the transition, the United States never labeled it a coup. Blaise had become a U.S. ally, and as part of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, the United States has trained Burkinabe troops. Additional U.S. presence in Burkina comes from the diplomatic community, over one hundred Peace Corps Volunteers, and a U.S. military base from which it launches surveillance drones. U.S. recognition of a coup would have required withdrawing this aid from Burkina.

As Burkina prepares for elections next year, observers should remain focused on what Blaise’s departure means for the average Burkinabe who overthrew him. While he received praise for maintaining stability and holding elections, Blaise cannot call his tenure a success. Burkina’s GDP grew considerably – 6.5 percent in 2013 – but the corruption of the president and his entourage kept the country poor. GDP per capita in 2013 was just $1,500, the majority of roads are unpaved, and access to electricity, which itself is unreliable, is far from universal. The quality of education remains low and not even a third of the population is literate.

Clearly, this did not dampen Burkinabe spirits. It was thrilling to witness the courage of Burkinabe protestors, and the photos were powerful. Burkinabe care about their country, and about democracy; when the army took over following Blaise’s departure, they protested that too. Kafando and Zida have daunting jobs ahead of them and an invested populace to whom they must answer—and the United States should make sure they do.

At first, the United States called for power to be transferred to a civilian, and on Sunday, the U.S. ambassador spoke on French radio about the importance of a democratic transition. But the United States can—and should—support this process with more than words. Many Burkinabe appreciate American culture but not what they perceive to be hypocritical American policy toward their country—rhetoric about democracy accompanied by a partnership with Blaise. This is an opportunity for the United States to rectify that, and a recent visit to Ouaga by Bisa Williams, deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, suggests the United States is paying close attention. It should take advantage of this moment and work with Burkinabe to build a democratic government that truly serves its people.

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