Troops face protestors on October 30, 2014 in Ouagadougou. Hundreds of angry demonstrators in Burkina Faso stormed parliament before setting it on fire in protest at plans to change the constitution to allow President Blaise Compaore to extend his 27-year rule. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

Yet another long-standing African strongman was toppled amid widespread revolt.  Joining the ranks of Moammar Qaddafi of Libya, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso is the latest African ruler to be swept out of power at the hands of the masses. His decision to seek an extension on his term limits precipitated widespread protests that forced the leader of 27 years to cede power on Oct. 31 and flee the country.

Compaoré’s ouster amid revolt is the latest installment of autocrats’ rising vulnerability to revolt – a trend we identified in an earlier Monkey Cage post and accompanying Washington Quarterly article. Using data from political scientist Milan Svolik covering 1946 to 2008 and our own updates through 2012, we showed that coups have unseated a declining proportion of autocrats since the end of the Cold War (a finding also identified here and here) and that revolts – defined as leader exits accompanied by mass protests, uprisings, strikes, or riots – have emerged to fill the void. The percentage of autocrats ousted amid revolt has tripled from 4 percent to 12 percent since the end of the Cold War. And from 2010-2012, a quarter of autocrats who lost power did so via revolt.  Indeed, according to political scientist Zachariah Mampilly, Compaoré’s ouster is part of a larger wave of revolts across the African continent.

These changing dynamics imply that today’s autocrats must shift their survival strategies.  While elites may continue to be a threat for autocrats, the mass protests that the world witnessed in the Arab Awakening and the earlier “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet space imply that contemporary dictators can no longer ignore mass interests. Compaoré’s ouster is in many ways a reflection of his inability to adjust to this new reality.  After nearly three decades of engaging in traditional strategies for control (most notably elite cooptation), he appears to have underestimated the power of mass mobilization in today’s times.  As Rinaldo Depagne, the director of ICG’s West Africa program, put it, “With nearly a million people in the streets [in a country of 17 million], any sensible politician would have withdrawn their proposed bill.” Compaoré underestimated the threat of the masses and perhaps his security services willingness to defend the status quo – a miscalculation that cost him his job.

It is reasonable to expect that other authoritarian leaders around him are taking notes and adjusting their survival strategies to reflect this new reality. In the near term, a number of African incumbents will face the decision of whether to extend their term limits and are likely to factor public dynamics into their decision making to a greater extent than they would have otherwise. In Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza is likely contemplating whether to capitalize on a loophole in his constitution and extend his term limit, set to expire in June 2015. In the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou N’Guesso’s term limit expires in 2016 (he has ruled the ROC since 1979 with the exception of a five-year break between 1992 and 1997) and in Rwanda, Paul Kagame’s term limit expires in 2017, although he would have to start the process of extending his tenure by late 2016.

The most immediate question looming in Burkina Faso is what next?  At the moment, the military is at the helm, having taken control on Nov. 1, despite the Burkinabe Constitution’s stipulation that the National Assembly should assume power in the event of a presidential resignation. The military’s decision to intervene sparked additional mass protests (resulting in the death of at least one citizen), as well as a strong rebuke from the African Union. The military has promised to cede power to a civilian transitional government and the opposition and civil society groups agreed to a transition timeline that provides for new elections in one year. It still remains to be seen whether the military will agree to the transition plan and, if so, whether it will stay out of politics in the future. Recent events in Egypt serve as a good reminder that militaries do not always make good on their promises. In this current state of flux, it is difficult to gauge the prospects for a smooth democratic transition.

The data we used in our earlier post, as well as data on the extent of violence associated with authoritarian regime transitions, however, can offer insight into Burkina Faso’s future. First, the extent of violence associated with a revolt affects prospects for democratization. When protests that oust dictators are accompanied by violence, the chance that democracy follows the ouster declines. The data indicate that democracy follows 75 percent of nonviolent revolts, 60 percent of revolts that involve under 25 deaths, 41 percent of revolts that involve more than 25 but under 1000 deaths, and none of the revolts that involve more than 1,000 deaths. This means that mitigating any future violence associated with the transition is likely to impact Burkina Faso’s trajectory. One reason to think greater violence (and the related lower chance of democracy) may be in store was the death of a protester at the hands of the military on Nov. 2, indicating that since taking control, the military is not afraid to use force against citizens if needed.

The pattern of entry (Compaoré seized power in a coup in 1987) and exit (revolt) in Burkina Faso also sheds light on the country’s likely trajectory. From 1946 to 2012 there were 12 instances of dictatorships coming to power via coup and exiting via revolt.  Of these, only a third democratized (Ecuador in 1966, Haiti in 1990, Bangladesh in 1990, and Sudan in 1964). And the democracies these regimes ushered in were for the most part short-lived, with Haiti’s only lasting one year before the military seized control.  It is possible that the types of environments that enable autocrats to seize power through coups are more resistant to democratization in the face of revolts than those in which they are propelled into power via other means, like a stolen election.

As a final point, Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world (a situation perhaps made only worse by Compaoré’s tenure). Even if it does democratize in the near future, existing research tells us that its poor socio-economic conditions will only increase the odds of breakdown.

These trends do not depict an optimistic trajectory for Burkina Faso. Yet, even if democracy does not take root in this instance, the ability of the masses to express their discontent with their leadership in a meaningful way suggests, at least, that future Burkinabe politicians can no longer ignore them.


Erica Frantz is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bridgewater State University.  She specializes in the politics of dictatorship and is a collaborator on the NSF-funded Autocratic Regimes Data Set.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a member of the U.S. intelligence community. She specializes in the political dynamics of autocracies, democratization and political instability.