The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Four reasons why Burkina Faso’s long-ruling dictator fell

Former President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, photographed just after having cast his vote for the 2010 presidential elections in Ouagadougou, the capital city. (Damien Halleux Radermecker/Flickr)

“I believe there is no alternative to democracy for us in Africa […] No other form of government will serve the purpose of Africa”, said former President of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo when I met him in Morocco during the Atlantic Dialogues one week (on October 24) before the downfall of Burkina Faso dictator Blaise Compaoré.

Unfortunately, too many African leaders still try to override democratic rule, which regularly leads to repression, extrajudicial killings, and violent and unconstitutional political changes. Former dictator of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, is the most recent leader to have overestimated his power. His miscalculation abruptly ended his 27 years of rule, one year before elections.

Blaise Compaoré tried to modify the Constitution and remove the presidential term limits so that he could run again in 2015. Before Compaoré resigned from the presidency, some analysts mistakenly predicted “Compaoré will have his way.” But the determination of citizens hungry for democratic change prevented the vote in the National Assembly on Compaoré’s constitutional reform project. Angry citizens burned the parliament and other government buildings, and the army took over, forcing Compaoré to resign and seek refuge in Cote d’Ivoire.

Since the uprisings began in Burkina Faso, political scientists writing in the Monkey Cage have been asking: Why did Blaise Compaoré fall so easily and quickly and what does all of this mean for democratic development in Burkina Faso and Africa?

In a 2013 paper written for the Stanford Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, I provided a systematic framework explaining the key drivers of democratic transition processes in sub-Saharan Africa.

In fact, four main factors explain Compaoré’s downfall: the slow-moving democratization process, extreme popular mobilization, divided security forces, and weak support of regional and international partners.

1) Slow-moving democratization.

A model by Bratton and van de Walle explains rapid democratic transition in Africa through three steps: political protest, political liberalization and democratization with founding elections.  This path was followed by Benin, Cape Verde, and South Africa. The founding elections in countries experiencing rapid transition were democratic.

But what about countries whose first elections were not democratic? In my paper, I extended the Bratton and van de Walle model by proposing a long-term transition, which I call the slow-moving or incremental democratization model.  Under this model, democratization will occur but initially, the regime will remain authoritarian, even if in some cases elections are relatively competitive. The second step will be the slow-moving or incremental development of democratic institutions through contestation, participation, and competition until a critical juncture occurs as is currently unfolding in Burkina Faso.  The critical juncture offers an end to the authoritarian leadership and provides the country a window of opportunity to hold free, fair, competitive and meaningful elections.

2) Extreme popular mobilization.

Compaoré’s earlier successful circumvention of the rules so that he could run for a third term in office taught his political opponents and citizens of Burkina Faso he would continue in his quest to hold onto power. Opposition leaders called for civil disobedience against Compaoré’s referendum and the people responded even more strongly than expected – to the point of burning public institutions and requesting the resignation of Compaoré, even after his withdrawal of the constitutional amendment to extend his eligibility to rule.

3) Divided security forces. 

Burkina Faso’s security forces began to have internal divisions in 2007, particularly between the police and the army. In 2011, the police and army joined their efforts in a protest against the government.  Worse for Compaoré, the protest become a mutiny, lead by the elite of the military, the presidential guards. The loyal military forces repressed the mutinying soldiers, and 566 were dismissed with criminal charges. Humiliated, some factions of the security forces dissatisfied by Compaoré rule waited for a window of opportunity to oust him and take revenge. The mass protests to his constitutional amendment to extend his time in office presented such an opportunity.

4) Weak international support.

Finally, Compaoré miscalculated the support of the international community, especially from France and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).  As Compaoré was France’s “point man” and symbol of “FrancAfrique” in West Africa, the political discourse of both France and numerous ECOWAS leaders were rather moderated, not firmly opposed to his attempt to remove the two-term limit.  In fact, on October 23, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius, answering a question related to the position of France, said that “Burkina Faso is a important partner for France and plays a vital role in the stability of the region and resolving crises. It is essential that it considers its own future in a consensual and appeased way.” Compaoré misinterpreted the French statement as indirect support. He kept pursuing his constitutional amendment until it was too late.

Burkina Faso now faces numerous challenges. First, article 43 of the constitution stipulates the president of the parliament – not the head of the army – was supposed to lead the transitional government. On November 2, thousands of citizens protested against the military coup. The protests signified that the fall of Compaoré was insufficient – the citizens are committed to a real democratic transition and are pressuring the army to prevent the institutionalization of another form of authoritarian government. On November 3, the African Union gave a two-week ultimatum to the army to hand power over to civilian rulers, and Lt. Col Zida announced he would hand over power to a civilian after forming a unity government. There are currently plans for elections to be held in 2015. As Obasanjo said – himself having failed to lift term limits in Nigeria – there is “no alternative to democracy for us in Africa.”


Landry Signé is assistant professor of political science at the University of Alaska Anchorage, fellow at the Stanford University’s Center for African Studies, and chairman of the Global Network for Africa’s Prosperity.