The current crisis in Burkina Faso largely comes down to one fact: Blaise Compaoré, the president of the landlocked West African state, came to power in a 1987 coup d'etat, and -- despite a 2000 constitutional amendment that limits presidents to two five-year terms -- had led the country ever since.
In theory, 2015 was due to be Compaoré's last year in office: While courts had decided the term limit amendment didn't take affect till 2005, he would now have been in the president's office for two terms. Compaoré, however, didn't show any signs of leaving. On Thursday, Burkina Faso's parliament was due to vote on changing the constitution to allow Compaoré to extend his 27-year-long leadership.
That vote has not happened. Instead, protesters in Ouagadougou, the country's capital, set the parliament on fire. State television and radio stations were overrun and broadcasts taken off air.
Thursday's protests were the remarkable culmination of unrest that have seen hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets this week. The state response was harsh, with tear gas and even live bullets shot at the crowds to try and control them. By early evening, Compaoré had announced he was dissolving the parliament and declared a state of emergency. Contradicting him, Burkina Faso's army chief made his own later announcement that the government had been dissolved: The country's military appears to have sided against Compaoré. On Friday, Compaoré announced his resignation.
It's a chaotic situation, and while the final result of these confrontations is still unclear, they may well have broader consequences for the region.For one thing, Compaoré may have a relatively low profile internationally, but he has also been one of West Africa's most important regional leaders. The former soldier has a history of supporting foreign rebel groups and in recent years, he has played a role as a mediator in conflicts in Ivory Coast or Mali. Notably, he was an important ally for America: A U.S. base in Ouagadougou, operating since 2007, operates as a hub for a U.S spying network in the region, with spy planes departing from the base to fly over Mali, Mauritania and the Sahara, tracking fighters from the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
However, Compaoré was also one of a number of sub-Saharan African leaders who have stayed in power for decades. There's also Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, who has been president since 1979, and José Eduardo dos Santos, president of Angola, who also assumed office that year. Paul Biya, president of Cameroon, has been president since 1982 (and was prime minister for seven years before that). Yoweri Museveni of Uganda entered office one year before Compaoré in 1986, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe also took the president's office in 1987, though he had been prime minister since 1980.
Many of these countries share similar problems. "African leaders like Blaise Compaoré who remain in power for long periods of time claim their leadership helps to foster stability, democracy and economic growth," Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a Senior Advisor at the United States Institute of Peace & Senior Fellow and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs writes at African Arguments, "But this statement does not align well with the facts." Carson points to problems in particular with human rights and corruption.
And while most other African leaders can't quite compete with the stalwarts mentioned above, they may one day. Since 1990, the reelection rate in 1990 has been a huge 75 percent, and many incumbents, like Compaoré, have found ways to get around constitutional limits on their time in office. In an insightful post at the Monkey Cage blog from earlier this week, Ken Opalo, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University, noted that a significant number of leaders had tried similar tactics, and many succeeded:
Since 1990, 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have had leaders try to rewrite their constitutions to do away with term limits. Seven (64 percent) of these leaders succeeded (Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Togo, and Uganda). Three failed (Malawi, Nigeria, and Zambia), in the face of erstwhile opposition from legislatures. In one instance – Niger in 2010 – attempts by President Mamadou Tandja to extend term limits resulted in a coup.
More importantly still, Opalo noted, other leaders are hoping to try a similar tactic.
These include the presidents of Angola, Burundi, Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. With the likely exception of Liberia and Sierra Leone, presidents in these countries seem poised to alter their respective constitutions and stay in office.
Many of these countries, like Burkina Faso, have young populations who are disillusioned by the establishment.
Some observers now wonder if the situation in Burkina Faso could ultimately be the spark for something bigger. "In Burkina Faso now it looks like citizens are making forceful demands for respect of democratic rules," Pierre Englebert, a Professor of African Politics and Development at Pomona College explained in an e-mail. "That would be an unusual degree of political ownership. And it might well give hope to movements elsewhere, first of all in the Democratic Republic of Congo where things have also been coming to a boil."
Notably, Vital Kamerhe, leader of Congo's Union pour la Nation Congolaise, has tweeted a message of solidarity for Burkina Faso's protesters, saying they are in the "same struggle." And while many analysts are hesitant to make the comparison, some Burkinabè protesters have likened the protest to the Arab uprisings that began in 2010. "October 30 is Burkina Faso’s black spring, like the Arab spring,” Emile Pargui Pare, an official from opposition party the Movement of People for Progress, told the AFP.
Either way, the comparison with the Arab Spring might not be a good thing: Like the protests in the Arab world, even if Burkina Faso's protests end up being successful in their immediate aim, they may also carry with them a lot of risks and uncertainty. "If Burkina became lastingly unstable that would be bad news as it would make it more vulnerable to criminal and terror groups that are still active in the region," Englebert explained.
So far, the United States has been supportive of the protests, despite its relationship with Compaoré's government. "We believe democratic institutions are strengthened when established rules are adhered to with consistency," NSC Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said in a statement, that made pointed reference to Compaoré's 27 years in office. But Compaoré has left no clear path for his successor. It's unclear what happens next.
Update: This post was updated October 31 2014 to include reports of Compaoré's resignation.