At the end of 2015, Burkina Faso inaugurated its new President R.M. Christian Kaboré. That ended the transition to democracy that was begun in November 2014, when after popular uprisings forced President Blaise Compaoré to resign. The country’s citizens have high expectations for the new administration. But it faces serious domestic and international challenges.
1. Security is urgently important after the Jan. 15 terrorist attacks.
Just a week ago, al-Qaeda attacked the Splendid Hotel and the Cappucino Café in Ouagadougou, the nation’s capital. These attacks are unprecedented — and since there were no such attacks during the long reign of ousted President Blaise Compaoré, the new regime is now under pressure to prove it can guarantee security and order.
In December, the Transitional Government began to reform the army and security forces after the failed coup perpetrated by the elite presidential guard (RSP) in September. The RSP was suspected of operating as the private army for Compaoré. The al-Qaeda attacks therefore underscore the urgency of transforming the army into an effective security force for the entire country. Not only will the new government be focusing on this reform, but so will foreign donors such as France and the U.S., which has stationed Special Forces against terrorism in the Sahel region in Burkina Faso.
But the fight against terrorism is only one of the critical challenges facing the new administration, which many Burkinabé expect to bring substantial change in Burkina Faso.
2. The November 2015 elections did not substantially change the political landscape.
Kaboré owes his election, in part, to the fact that he had become the fiercest opponent of Compaoré. But it will not be easy to break with the practices of Compaoré’s 27-year semi-authoritarian regime. For all that time, the bureaucracy has suffered from nepotism and lack of accountability. Even politicians who position themselves today as actors of change — including Kaboré and influential members of his political party, the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP) — were prominent members of Compaoré’s regime. Will we see a U-turn in their behavior?
3. The new administration is saddled with prosecuting crimes perpetrated during Compaoré’s reign.
The military coup that brought Compaoré to power also assassinated President Thomas Sankara on October 15th, 1987. Journalist Norbert Zongo was assassinated on December 13th, 1998, presumably by Compaoré’s regime. Human rights and civil society organizations expect the new administration to continue the prosecution launched by the Transitional Government. But since these crimes are presumed to have been committed by Compaoré’s regime, his supporters perceive the prosecution as revenge, which could further exacerbate tensions within the already fragile Burkinabé society.
The new administration has to find ways to achieve both justice and reconciliation.
4. Kaboré’s administration inherits a country with high levels of poverty and a large population of disenchanted youth.
A 2009 household survey estimated 47 percent of Burkinabe live in poverty. In 2014, UNDP ranked the country 181 out of 187 on the Human Development Index. Access to clean water, schooling, primary health care, and food self-sufficiency, for instance, remain major concerns for most Burkinabe.
The former Compaoré regime’s failure to deliver basic public goods was a major source of discontent, especially among the youth. More than 65 percent of Burkina Faso’s population is under 30. Burkinabe youth, mostly students, fearlessly took to the streets and forced Compaoré’s resignation. The new administration will have to find ways to quell discontent and at the same time provide incentives to the youth for participating actively as proponents for advocating new policies and establishing democracy in Burkina Faso.
5. The new administration will have to rebuild relations with neighbors, especially with allies of former president Compaoré in Togo and Côte d’Ivoire.
Togo’s president Faure Gnassingbé was Compaoré’s close friend, and offered asylum to Fatou Diendéré, wife of General Gilbert Diendéré, who led the foiled September 2015 coup. The international arrest warrant issued against Fatou Diendéré is a source of tension between Togo and Burkina Faso.
Compaoré – who found refuge in Côte d’Ivoire – also faces an international arrest warrant. Furthermore, a phone-leak scandal involving Burkina Faso’s former Foreign Minister Djibril Bassolé and Côte d’Ivoire’s parliamentary president, Guillaume Soro, implicates Côte d’Ivoire in the September coup. The international arrest warrant issued against Soro has become a serious and open point of contention between Burkina and Côte d’Ivoire.
And yet there are three reasons for optimism.
First, Kaboré enjoys political legitimacy both at home and abroad. He won elections proclaimed free and fair by the international community and he did so in the first round with more than 53 percent of the votes. He is more likely to enjoy international support both for development and the fight against terrorism in which the country has been driven in by the recent attacks.
Second, Kaboré has emerged from nearly 25 years in Compaoré’s regime as a conciliatory figure in politics in Burkina Faso. He played a decisive role in helping the Compaoré regime negotiate compromises with the political opposition and the business community.
Third, Kaboré’s platform is a kind of “New Deal” program structured around five pillars: institutional reforms, including the drafting of a new constitution; a new development model based on strengthening human capital; promotion of information and communication technologies; strengthening private entrepreneurship and reducing unemployment; and reduction of socioeconomic inequalities.
We cannot be sure that Kaboré will deliver on his political agenda. However, the same citizens who forced president Compaoré to resign will likely continue to pressure the new administration to increase access to basic needs and improve governance.
Arsène Brice Bado is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Laval University and former fellow of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Follow him on Twitter at @bricebado.