Burkina Faso v. Compaore

Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaore – who took power through a coup in 1987 – won another term with more than 80% of the vote back in November 2010. Whatever national consensus managed to get him elected late last year is now showing serious cracks. A little while ago, I asked whether the winds of change that are sweeping the Middle East were reaching Burkina Faso. For months now, protests have been rocking the landlocked nation – the most serious of which have been carried out by disgruntled soldiers.

Over the course of the last few months, mutinous soldiers have led several uprisings, including in the capital, Ouagadougou. Back in April, that had led Mr. Compaore to flee the capital for the countryside. Eventually appointing himself Minister of Defense, Compaore restored order among the army, with the help of the loyal presidential guard. Several times, the same scenario has played out: soldiers rampage through the city, firing shots in the air, looting stores, and terrifying local populations and business owners. The presidential guard steps in to quell what a senior officer called “the actions of rogue young people”, helping bring down tensions to a manageable level.

According to accounts from local journalists and bloggers, last week’s army uprising in the country’s second biggest city – Bobo Dialousso –  came as a surprise. In yet another display of anger over unpaid and low wages, mutinous soldiers rampaged through the town, firing gun shots, looting stores and threatening to take over the local radio and TV broadcast stations. Following three nights of unrest, Compaore ordered the presidential guard to deal with the unrest – this led to the deaths of seven people and 33 injuries. Among the dead is a young girl who got caught in the crossfire.

Some analysts believe that these ongoing protests are a “serious challenge” to Compaore’s rule. That said, I find it difficult to see how these angry soldiers could gain support from the general population – their rampages are creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity, hardly laying the groundwork for a critical groundswell of support for their actions. Students and youth have also been protesting in recent months, following the death of a young demonstrator back in February. Again, though, there aren’t any clear signs that these protests are anything more than local skirmishes.

Compaore’s power is deeply entrenched. In addition to the new mandate he won in November 2010, there is little evidence that external pressure from the international community will be applied in support of a democratic transition. According to the World Bank, “Burkina’s political stability over the past 15 years, together with a country-led transition to a more open, market-driven economic model, has provided the foundation for growth and poverty reduction.” Indeed, even though the country is one of the poorest on the continent, there has been progress on a number of fronts, including economic growth, poverty reduction, literacy and school enrollment. In a region plagued by ongoing political instability, the stability of Compaore’s Burkina Faso makes any international intervention in support of protesters extremely unlikely.

For a long time, a majority of Burkina Faso’s export earnings came from the cotton industry. Within the last few years, mining has surpassed cotton as the primary export, and the revenues generated by the industry have boosted economic growth. A mining analyst’s perspective helps illuminate how attractive Burkina Faso has become for mining companies –  “We would argue that Burkina Faso is one of the best mining jurisdictions in west Africa, especially when compared to countries such as Guinea and the Ivory Coast…With stable politics and good geology, we believe that Burkina Faso is well on the way to being a major player in the west African gold space.”

Mining operations stretch over decades, and it is in everyone’s interest – natural resource companies, the government –  to preserve a modicum of stability to ensure these activities continue. With a bit of foresight and political intelligence, Compaore will use some of the revenues from natural resources to invest in visible interventions to help reduce poverty and keep popular demands under control. In the short term, however, Compaore still has to deal with these ongoing spats. If recent history is a guide, it seems that as long as the loyal presidential guard is willing to step in, Compaore will not have too much trouble keeping the situation under control. Particularly as there is little popular support for the mutinous soldiers, Compaore has the upper hand in terms of messaging. What might make or break this nascent insurgency is whether the army can organize a legitimate, organized alternative to the current power structure. All the incentives are in place to make sure that won’t happen – but given how unpredictable West African politics can be, that possibility is not off the table.