Prolongation of power
Term limits were removed in 2014 by former president Blaise Compaoré in an attempt to extend his 27 years in office. Compaoré had come to power in a military coup in 1987, and despite introducing some initial democratic reforms – such as the establishment of term limits – his rule was highly authoritarian in nature. During his presidency, the country remained one of the world’s least developed and, apart from the ruling elite, few saw their circumstances improve substantially over the decades.
Compaoré’s gambit to remove term limits backfired. Large-scale popular protests broke out, quickly making his rule untenable and forcing him to resign. The military stepped into the vacuum he left, but continued protests and mediation from ECOWAS led to a power-sharing deal and a transitional government consisting of both civilians and the military. Despite an attempted coup by Compaoré loyalists in September 2015, the elections scheduled for November that year went ahead successfully. The winner was Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, a former prime minister under Compaoré who had left the former leader’s party in protest over the removal of term limits. A central electoral promise of Kaboré’s had been the establishment of a new constitution – the one the Burkinabe people were supposed to vote on in the latest referendum.
The successful ousting of Compaoré seems to have given dissenting Burkinabe voices more confidence in their power, and protests have continued during Kaboré’s time in office. This is not without due cause – while the situation in the country has improved, it has happened slowly, and Burkina Faso is ranked in the bottom 5% of countries in the Human Development Report. The infrastructure is poor, corruption is pervasive and poverty remains high. Standards of governance have improved moderately, but problems remain here as well, not least regarding corruption and transparency. Plenty of reforms remain on President Kaboré’s to-do list – the now-postponed referendum would have been an important step towards addressing them.
The primary reason for postponing the referendum was the worsening security situation in the country, which led to President Kaboré to declare a state of emergency at the end of 2018. The state has lost control to Islamist insurgents in parts of the north and east of the country, and the capital Ouagadougou has also been the target of terror attacks, perhaps most notably in March 2018 when the army headquarters and French embassy were targeted with explosives and shootings. The two major groups responsible for these are Ansarul Islam, a domestic jihadist group with ties to ISIS, and JNIM, a merger of several jihadist groups operating in the Sahel affiliated to al-Qaeda.
The government’s response to the situation has been largely ineffectual. After Compaoré was ousted, parts of his security forces were dismantled and never replaced. There are significant rivalries among the remaining security agencies, including among the intelligence services, crippling efforts to formulate coordinated policies. Furthermore, the military’s response to the insurgency has often involved cracking down indiscriminately on populations suspected of supporting the militant groups, which only seems to have increased local support for the militants, to the point where they can now openly gather in villages and preach to, and trade with, the local population.
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