The following is a guest post from New York University political scientist David Stasavage. Follow him on Twitter @stasavage.


Blaise Compaoré — the recently ousted president of Burkina Faso — lasted a long time. After helping the now legendary Thomas Sankara come to power through a coup in 1983, Compaoré then ousted Sankara in 1987, an act that many have not forgotten.

Compaoré’s subsequent tenure as Burkina Faso’s head of state would last for 27 years.  He was unseated last week through a combination of massive popular protests in Burkina’s capital, Ouagadougou, and intervention by the military. For the moment, power in Burkina Faso is claimed by Lt. Col. Isaac Zida, though this may quickly change.

The trigger for Compaoré’s fall was an attempt to modify Burkina Faso’s constitution so that he could run for a further term of office. He had already used this technique with success in the past. As we noted in a previous Monkey Cage post, constitutional revisions of this sort have been common in Africa in recent years. The question some people are asking today is what recent events in Burkina Faso mean for the rest of the continent.  Will they prompt other leaders who have overstayed their welcome to hesitate before trying to artificially extend their terms? Will this in turn help Burkina Faso and other African nations to climb out of desperate poverty?

Consider first the question of whether recent events in Burkina Faso could lead to a wave of protest in which long-serving leaders are deposed or withdraw. In approaching this question, the author of a recent blog post from this newspaper presented the following map, and then asked whether recent events in Ouagadougou might help spark a regional wave.

It is clear from this map that some leaders in Africa have been around for a very long time. This is much longer than would be common in other world regions. But when we take a closer look, we see that it may not be that helpful to lump “Africa” together as a single region. Most of the continent’s longest-serving leaders are located in central and southern Africa. There’s little doubt that among these countries, the presence of abundant oil revenues have favored long tenure for leaders in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Angola. Oil is a commodity that is in much shorter supply in the West African region where Burkina Faso is located.

Now take a look at Burkina Faso’s own West African neighborhood. There are six countries that have a border with Burkina Faso. Starting from the north this includes Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast and Ghana. Today the six presidents of this group of countries have been in power for an average of only four years. Within this group of six, leadership turnover has been assured either in a good way (by competitive elections and respect for term limits) or in a bad way (by civil conflict and/or military takeover).

Burkina Faso wasn’t always such an outlier in terms of presidential longevity. Consider the situation in 1989. This was two years after Blaise Compaoré came to power and just prior to a wave of democratic transitions that occurred in Africa and elsewhere. In 1989, the six presidents in Burkina Faso’s neighbors had been in charge for an average of 17 years.

What happened next was that democratic elections, popular protest or just death from natural causes led to leadership transitions throughout West Africa, except in Burkina Faso. The implication is that recent events in Ouagadougou are unlikely to spark a regional wave. Instead of leading a wave, Burkina Faso today is joining a club that its neighbors joined some time ago.

The next question is what membership in this club of more frequent leadership transitions is likely to mean for human development. It is certainly plausible that having a leader as well entrenched as Compaoré might not be a good thing for poverty. A New York Times article from this past week summed up this view in the following manner.

When Mr. Compaoré took power, the country’s population ranked among Africa’s poorest, and it has remained so, with widespread illiteracy and no large, educated middle class.

So, how in fact does Compaoré’s record in poverty reduction compare with that of his neighbors? To ask this we can see how some basic human development indicators have changed between 1989 and today in Burkina Faso compared with Mali, Niger, Benin, Ivory Coast and Ghana. We’ll leave out Togo since that country did not experience a post-1989 transition until 2005. We can think of the five neighbors as providing a sort of counterfactual, suggesting what might have happened had Compaoré chosen or been obliged to relinquish power at an earlier date.

It turns out that in terms of change in basic human development indicators, Burkina Faso has performed about the same as the average of its neighbors. Based on data in the World Bank’s African Development Indicators, 36 percent of Burkinabè households that did not have access to an improved water source (e.g. a well) now have access to it. The relevant figure for its neighbors is 21 percent. About 30 percent more Burkinabè children complete primary school today, whereas in its neighbors 35 percent more do so.

Out of 1,000 infants born in Burkina Faso today, 23 fewer die before their first birthday than was the case in 1989. In its neighbors, 38 fewer infants die on average. Data from the more reliable Demographic and Health Surveys suggest a similar pattern. According to this same source, one area where Burkina Faso has performed worse than the regional average is with rural electrification. We should remember that these statistics are indicators that may depend on government action as well as developments beyond government control. To the extent they do say something about the Compaoré regime, it would be that in terms of changes in poverty (not levels), it performed at about the regional average, or maybe slightly worse.

One reason that the Compaoré regime performed at about the regional average is that the experience of its neighbors varied widely. For some, such as Ivory Coast, the shift after 1989 to multiparty elections and more frequent turnover was associated with conflict and stagnating development. In Niger, an alternation of military and civilian rulers produced the same result. For others, such as Benin, Ghana and Mali (up until 2012), the new era saw a large reduction in levels of poverty.

The key question for Burkina Faso today is not whether it is about to lead a regional wave. As the country transitions away from the Compaoré era, the question is instead which one of its neighbors will Burkina Faso resemble?

As we think about where Burkina Faso is headed next, the most important example for optimists comes from what occurred in Mali in 1991. The similarities with Burkina Faso today are striking. In 1991 in Mali, Gen. Moussa Traoré had been in power since a coup that he orchestrated in 1968. Large-scale popular protests led to the overthrow of Traoré and the establishment of a transitional military government under Amadou Toumani Touré, or ATT as he came to be known to his fellow citizens. Touré presided over the drafting of a new constitution and a multiparty presidential election in 1992. However, he willingly relinquished the presidency and did not run in the election.

A telling picture from the time shows how Touré instead stood in line to vote, as a normal citizen, dressed in civilian clothes rather than fatigues. As a result of this stance, Touré would become known by Malians as “the soldier of democracy.” Following his actions, Mali entered into an era of democratic stability and development that was halted only in 2012 by a combination of a northern insurgency and a military coup.

Optimists can hope that in Burkina Faso, either Col. Zida, or another military figure who supplants him will make the same choice that ATT made in Mali. Unfortunately, actions such as these may not be the norm for those who are just tasting power for the first time.