In recent years, the West African country Burkina Faso turned heads when popular protests prevented then president Blaise Compaoré from discarding constitutional term limits and eventually forced him to resign. This entirely unexpected outcome raised important questions. How did this wave of public protests and the resulting civilian-led transition prevail over a longtime president and overcome a subsequent pro-Compaoré coup attempt to derail the progress the activists had achieved? What characteristics enabled this public mobilization to be so massive, persistent, and convincing compared to the failures of similar movements elsewhere on the continent?

Nina-Kathrin Wienkoop
Nina-Kathrin Wienkoop is a doctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. She also coordinates the Movements and Institutions Working Group at the Institute for Social Movement Studies in Berlin.

The success of the mobilization was mainly due to a combination of three factors: 1) a united coalition that brought together a diverse cast of opposition figures and former Compaoré allies, 2) a new youth-based movement that drew upon the country’s long legacy of social activism, and 3) the catalyzing motivation of Compaoré’s attempt to tighten his own grip on the country indefinitely, which made this perhaps the last realistic chance to end his rule. While Burkina Faso’s striking transformation has not fully eradicated the vestiges of nondemocratic rule, the country’s experience holds valuable lessons for other African populations seeking to impede authoritarian entrenchment.

The Popular Insurrection in Burkina Faso

Like many other countries in the early 1990s, Burkina Faso adopted a constitution that set up democratic institutions and norms: political parties were allowed to operate, elections were held regularly, and a parliament and courts were set up. The country’s 1991 constitution included presidential term limits, although this provision was removed for a time in 1997 before being reinstated. However, Burkina Faso’s apparent democracy was undermined by informal practices that sustained then president Compaoré’s grip on the country’s politics, giving the regime an entrenched semiauthoritarian character. Generally speaking, while constitutional term limits are not a democratic panacea, they can serve as a minimal mechanism for helping prevent unchecked personal rule in hybrid regimes.

In 2014, when Compaoré celebrated his twenty-seventh anniversary in power, Article 37 of the constitution barred him from seeking another term in the elections scheduled for the following year. But his party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), soon began maneuvering to remove this obstacle. As the 2015 election approached, Compaoré’s attempt to remove term limits ignited mass protests. At the end of October 2014, a million people marched through the streets of Ouagadougou and set the National Assembly on fire. In total, nineteen people were killed during the protests, and approximately 500 others were injured.

These demonstrations effectively prevented the assembly from voting on a proposal to remove the presidential term limit. In response to burgeoning public pressure, Compaoré withdrew his amendment and announced that he would not run again in the upcoming election, but this concession proved to be too little, too late. He resigned and fled to neighboring Côte d’Ivoire the next day, opening the door to a political transition. In November 2014, activists continued to apply pressure to ensure the transition would not fall into the hands of the military. A civilian-led transition was announced, with clear objectives, sound institutions, and a time limit: elections were to be held within one year.

Eloïse Bertrand
Eloïse Bertrand is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. She is the co-founder of AREA Consulting, a small company that provides research and analysis services in and on Africa, and is based in Ouagadougou.

The transition, however, did not proceed unimpeded. The old guard’s most forceful effort to reverse Compaoré’s ouster came in September 2015 when a group of soldiers from the presidential guard (known as RSP) that remained loyal to him staged a military coup. They disrupted the weekly government council on September 16, 2015, arresting then transitional president Michel Kafando, then prime minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, and two ministers. Although the soldiers managed to lock down the center of the capital, protesters spilled into the streets of peripheral suburbs and erected barricades as a sign of resistance. The RSP struggled to maintain its grip on the capital, and it had no control over the rest of the country, where protests spread quickly. Ignoring a national curfew, youth occupied public squares at night.

The protesters denounced a mediation attempt by the regional bloc known as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), whose proposal was seen as overly accommodating of the coup’s perpetrators. Indeed, their crisis resolution proposal included amnesty for people involved in the coup and provisions that would have allowed Compaoré’s close allies to compete in the upcoming election, contrary to a newly adopted electoral law. The Burkinabè population resisted these terms, as well as ECOWAS’s apparent accommodation of the coup leaders’ power grab.

Instead, crowds of demonstrators began converging on the army barracks, cajoling their peers in uniform to take matters into their own hands. Young officers stationed across the country started converging on the capital to force the RSP to reverse course. The coup finally folded on September 23, 2015, as the transition institutions were restored and the RSP was officially disbanded. Elections, though delayed, were successfully held on November 29, 2015. Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP) was elected with 53.5 percent of the vote in what appeared to be the freest, most transparent elections in Burkina Faso’s history.

A Diverse but United Front

The mobilization to uphold Burkina Faso’s constitutional term limits despite Compaoré’s ambitions resulted from the convergence of three distinct forces: new civil society actors, the existing political opposition, and defecting elites from Compaoré’s party.

While Burkina Faso has long had a rich, diverse range of civil society actors, the term-limit issue brought to prominence a plethora of new organizations (such as the Collective Against the Referendum and the Citizens’ Resistance Front). A new social movement called Balai Citoyen (the Citizen’s Broom) proved to be especially instrumental by using the symbol of a broom intended to convey the idea of sweeping away the corrupt presidential clan. Balai Citoyen appealed to the Burkinabè urban young people, most of whom had only ever known Compaoré as their president. To reach this audience, the movement’s leaders used simple slogans—like “Our numbers are our strength”—and references to familiar symbols and figures, including Thomas Sankara, who served as president from 1983 to 1987 and was assassinated in the coup that originally brought Compaoré to power. The activists of Balai Citoyen successfully framed long-standing everyday grievances, such as increased food prices, as the result of bad governance and corruption; their efforts made the constitutional debate over Article 37 more approachable and tangible to the general public, while at the same time challenging Compaoré’s legitimacy.

Meanwhile, the struggle for presidential succession was also carried out by political parties gathered around the opposition leader, Zéphirin Diabré. Diabré’s party, the Union for Progress and Change, was founded in 2010 with a platform centered on alternance, or the need for a transfer of power at the national level. It became the largest opposition party in the 2012 legislative elections, making Diabré the opposition’s institutional spokesperson, a position that enabled him to coordinate parts of the mobilized crowds that led to the insurrection.

In January 2014, this cast of new activists and seasoned opposition figures got an unexpected boost. Three prominent figures from Compaoré’s party crossed the aisle to join the opposition along with a number of CDP members of parliament, cadres, and other supporters. The defectors included Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, former National Assembly president and Compaoré’s one-time heir apparent; Salif Diallo, former minister and intellectual architect of the CDP; and Simon Compaoré, the former mayor of Ouagadougou (no relation to Blaise Compaoré). They resigned from the CDP to form the MPP and sided with Diabré and the opposition. The defection of these previously loyal figures was prompted by Compaoré’s decision to replace them in the line of succession with his own brother, François. This attempt to concentrate power within Compaoré’s own family was unacceptable to these crucial allies who expected to be gratified for their loyalty and also to many CDP supporters, due to François Compaoré’s deep-rooted unpopularity.

These three mobilized groups rallied behind the common objective of blocking Compaoré’s constitution-altering power grab; their efforts entailed massive demonstrations and united calls for action, with Diabré playing a pivotal coordinating role. In the preceding decades, Burkina Faso had witnessed active political parties and civil society, but no single opposition candidate had ever been able gain broad traction. The ideological diversity and personality-driven nature of Burkinabè opposition parties was too strong. Even Sankarist parties, small partisan entities that supposedly shared values and objectives, had never managed to come together behind a single flagbearer. This time around, civic and political opposition forces managed to coalesce and prevent Compaoré from meddling with the constitution.

The anti-Compaoré coalition widened even further when Burkina Faso’s political transition was threatened by the September 2015 coup, at which point trade unions actively joined the cause. Trade unions previously had been conspicuously discreet during the insurrection. In the fall of 2014, they opted to ignore the ongoing political struggle and instead organized a general strike in late October 2014 denouncing the country’s living and working conditions, especially in the education sector. At that time, they dismissed the debate about presidential succession, arguing that they were seeking a revolutionary alternative. The coup attempt drastically changed their strategy. Burkina Faso’s trade unions then immediately launched a general strike and used their networks to mobilize people across the country to adopt a stance of active resistance.

Splits within the army also strengthened the forces converging to protect the Burkinabè constitution and political transition. Soldiers did not openly break rank, but many were ambivalent about Compaoré’s attempt to overturn the term limit; individual soldiers reportedly encouraged mobilized youth at road blocks near protest sites. Tensions between the better-equipped, better-trained, and better-paid presidential guard and the rest of the army fueled grievances within the military. Many rank-and-file soldiers were sympathetic to the wider population’s discontent with the regime, and the army’s ultimate refusal to shoot at protesters advancing on the National Assembly was a turning point for Compaoré. The army then played an active role in foiling the coup attempt in September 2015, when, following the urge of junior officers, it joined the resistance and forced the RSP to surrender.

New Actors Embrace a Legacy of Activism

The success of the mobilization against Compaoré and his supporters reflects two facts that appear contradictory but are in fact complementary. On the one hand, the main leaders of the anti-Compaoré movement were fresh faces, in contrast to the familiar old guard, which no longer inspired public confidence. On the other hand, the movement’s leaders benefited from the experience and networks of established political actors derived from Burkina Faso’s long history of social mobilization.

Balai Citoyen was launched by popular musicians who could appeal to young Burkinabè because they had supportive media connections and lacked embarrassing political baggage. The movement’s leaders also benefited from international enthusiasm for narratives celebrating young heroes that helped portray these well-known leaders abroad as the main force behind the mobilization’s success. A similar dynamic was at play within the political opposition: although Diabré had served in Compaoré’s administration at some point, he was perceived as more of a technocrat than a politician, and his experience in the private sector outside of Burkina Faso helped distance him from the regime.

Yet while these individuals may have been new to Burkina Faso’s public stage, they benefited from the country’s long history of mobilization and protest dating back to at least the 1960s. Burkinabè civil society has long been characterized by powerful networks of highly interconnected and politically conscious activists. In January 1966, a general strike called by the trade unions brought down the corrupt regime of Burkina Faso’s first post-independence president, Maurice Yaméogo. Similarly, when General Sangoulé Lamizana attempted to create his own party and impose unpopular austerity measures at the end of 1975, another general strike made him backtrack.1 Even during the tumultuous 1980s, marked by several short-lived military regimes and the Sankara-led revolution, trade unions and clandestine parties continued to mobilize regularly, while the revolution defense committees that Sankara set up spurred political mobilization across Burkinabè society.

This legacy of activism continued under Compaoré’s rule. The assassination of journalist Norbert Zongo in December 1998 triggered a coordinated effort among opposition parties and civil society, with the creation of a coalition of opposition parties, trade unions, human rights organizations, student groups, and journalists and lawyers known as the Collective. In the late 2000s, another coalition formed to protest the high cost of living (the Coalition Contre la Vie Chère); it called for street protests against rising food prices as well as broader issues like public access to social services, government impunity, and corruption. This movement effectively linked concrete socioeconomic grievances to political demands. Through these coalitions, Burkina Faso’s civil society organizations and unions could join forces around specific issues, while maintaining their own identities, ideologies, and sectorial objectives.

Given this history of activism, it is no coincidence that Burkina Faso’s 2014 protesters used slogans, symbols, and references hearkening to the Sankarist period: the revolution has become a myth in the Burkinabè imagination, centered on the core values of patriotism, engagement, and honesty. These values fueled the resistance against attacks on Burkina Faso’s 2015 political transition, because the Burinabè youth refused to lose their dignity again by letting their hard-won victory be stolen. Burkina Faso’s history of strong popular movements has created favorable conditions for future mobilization. The social movement that followed Norbert Zongo’s assassination, for example, forced the regime to liberalize somewhat. This created a more open political environment with a powerful, independent media sector and reduced constraints on opposition figures and civil society actors.

A Dual Sense of Irreversibility and Opportunity

The political context in 2014—the immediacy of the threat to accountable governance that Compaoré posed and the real prospect of actually unseating him—provided a key opening for a convergence of forces in opposition to the former president.

Protesters realized clearly that if Compaoré was able to change the constitution, he would run in the 2015 election and undoubtedly be reelected—the high concentration of rural voters, subservient to traditional chiefs who were longtime Compaoré allies, and the strength and wealth of the CDP would have ensured his victory. This would have paved the way for a de facto lifetime appointment and monarch-like succession, with his unpopular brother lined up to eventually succeed him. This arrangement would have resembled the cases of other African countries such as Gabon, Togo, and Zimbabwe. This risk created a sense of looming irreversibility among young Burkinabè activists, which reinforced their determination. Indeed, this reality made united protests seem like the most viable strategy. The same dynamics fueled the rapid, massive public resistance to the September 2015 coup, as it was clear that should this plot succeed, it would restore the old regime.

While this perception of irreversibility fueled the initial public mobilization against Compaoré, the movement was sustained by the increasing belief that, this time, they could succeed in thwarting him. United in action and sensing the increasing fragility of the regime, the protesters harbored a sense of opportunity. The defection of CDP heavyweights like Kaboré and Diallo was a major factor that kept momentum on the opposition’s side. This perceived fatal blow against the regime deeply weakened the ruling party and concomitantly energized the mobilized public by increasing their numbers and boosting their mood.

Both these sentiments enabled the protesters to stay united and determined, even in the face of violence. Compaoré’s bloody attempts at repression reinforced the prevailing sense of irreversibility, making his resignation even more of a necessity.

Reflecting on the Burkinabè Success

As successful as the 2014 uprising and its aftermath have been, Burkina Faso can hardly be considered a consolidated democracy today. The 2015 elections, though the most open and transparent the country has experienced, still took place on an uneven playing field. The MPP largely inherited the CDP’s old networks of rural supporters and wealthy backers, and the campaign was still characterized by vote-buying, even if this practice was less blatant than before. The public is becoming less optimistic in response to a stagnating economy and growing security threats from Islamist groups; there have been three successful attacks on the capital since 2016, and recurring terrorist activity is arising in northern parts of the country. Corrupt practices are still in use in parliament and the judiciary, though they are more quickly and loudly denounced than before.

Still, Burkina Faso’s 2014 uprising and the subsequent political transition remain incredible political occurrences: not only did the Burkinabè people manage to topple an authoritarian leader after twenty-seven years in power, but they also ensured a civilian-led transition and successfully thwarted a return to military rule. This constitutes a great success story compared to the fortunes of other countries on the continent.

A major lesson from Burkina Faso’s experience is that, by linking social grievances and political demands, opposition actors can reach across long-standing dividing lines, mobilize beyond traditional opposition circles, and encourage hitherto passive bystanders and even disgruntled elites to join a political movement. Existing social conditions had created the conditions for growing tensions, eroding the Compaoré regime’s authority. A series of grievances, including rising food prices, worsening working conditions for the military, and public frustration with government corruption and impunity enabled a wide convergence of once-disparate political forces that went beyond political parties and built on the country’s strong tradition of activism.

Despite similar discontent in other African countries, mobilization elsewhere has not been as successful. In Uganda, for instance, opposition parties have been weakened under the National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime led by President Yoweri Museveni. Civil society is not politicized like it is in Burkina Faso, and splits within the NRM have not impacted the regime’s grip on power. Despite street protests and even a (literal) fight in parliament, Museveni’s proposal to remove presidential age limits from the constitution easily passed in the Ugandan legislature in December 2017, through the financial co-optation and violent coercion of members of parliament. Whereas Burkina Faso’s mobilization was sustained by a feeling that Compaoré’s attempt should and (more importantly) could be thwarted, Uganda’s constitutional revision was already considered a fait accompli by domestic political observers in 2016.

Another major lesson that Burkina Faso imparts is how an immediate threat of worsening political conditions can catalyze a varied cast of regime opponents. While opposition parties and civic activists often criticize the status quo, mobilization becomes important when a political situation is about to change for the worse or become even more entrenched. Opponents’ success in framing existing grievances as a now-or-never moment for action can mobilize the public and motivate elites to split from the ruling party, based on the feeling that the tide is changing or the risk is worth taking. The prospect of an entrenched lifelong presidency or a system of monarchical succession riles up traditional opponents, but more importantly it can frustrate regime supporters who feel marginalized and underappreciated. This is why Compaoré’s attempt to tighten his family’s control over the CDP created grievances among hitherto loyal supporters who felt bypassed by his decision.

Similar outcomes have occurred in other African countries, although not in every case. In Zimbabwe, former president Robert Mugabe’s maneuvering to position his wife as his successor cost him the backing of the army and led to his ousting in 2017. A few years earlier in Egypt, the prospect of having former president Hosni Mubarak’s son succeed him was a key factor in the popular mobilization during the Arab Spring in 2011. By contrast, the opposition in Burundi failed to frame its movement in the context of a cohesive now-or-never window of opportunity when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to bypass constitutional term limits and run for a controversial third term, while still leaving open the possibility of leaving office after five years.

Even as it is important to acknowledge the singularity of the Burkinabè uprising, the country’s experience is worth reflecting on. This is especially true at a time when constitutional safeguards are being ignored or discarded in several other countries—such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda—even as popular mobilization against authoritarian regimes is growing in other states like neighboring Togo. While Burkina Faso’s achievements in the past few years have not solved all the country’s democratic problems, the country remains a tangible reminder that populations can prevail against undemocratic rulers’ will to hold on to power when diverse groups in society pull together to create or use suitable conditions for change.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace gratefully acknowledges support from the UK Department for International Development that helped make this study possible.

This article draws on extensive fieldwork the authors conducted in Ouagadougou between January 2017 and July 2017. This fieldwork consisted of semi-structured interviews as well as a review of media coverage and public statements about the insurrection and political transition in Burkina Faso.

Nina-Kathrin Wienkoop is a doctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. She also coordinates the Movements and Institutions Working Group at the Institute for Social Movement Studies in Berlin.

Eloïse Bertrand is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. She is the co-founder of AREA Consulting, a small company that provides research and analysis services in and on Africa, and is based in Ouagadougou. Her Twitter handle is @Eloise_Btd.

Notes

1 Charles Kabey Muase, Syndicalisme et démocratie en Afrique noire : l’expérience du Burkina Faso [Trade unionism and democracy in black Africa: the experience of Burkina Faso] (Abidjan: Inadès Editions, 1989); and Ernest Harsch, Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest, and Revolution (London: Zed Books, 2017), 32.