Burkina Faso’s Uncertain Transition

The incredible popular protests which led to Blaise Compaore stepping down as head of state of Burkina Faso – following nearly three decades at its helm – have ushered in an era of uncertainty. The mass grassroots movement which swept Compaore out of power have – so far – not opened up a clear path for a strong democratic transition. Instead, the army quickly jumped into the void, filling the power vacuum almost instantly and taking control of the state, despite the constitutional provision that the head of the National Assembly should step in as interim head of state in case the president steps down. As local, regional and international brokers attempt to influence the new Burkinabe leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida, the constitution remains suspended, and the future, unclear.

In spite of his relative inexperience as a fairly junior member of the armed forces – Zida was, until recently, the operational commander of the elite presidential guard, and close to Blaise Compaore –  Lt-Col. Zida has already managed to secure broad support for his stated approach to democratic transition, both internally and externally. Generally, the international community – including the United States – has not recognized the military take-over of power as a coup, and therefore not triggered the usual sanctions which would be applied in that case (at a minimum, freezing assets and travel bans.) The African Union somewhat flip-flopped on the issue, originally giving the new Burkinabe military leadership two weeks to return to civilian rule, barring which sanctions would be applied, but then stood down from this ultimatum. Earlier this week, the AU ended up dispatching the president of Mauritania and current AU chairman – and notoriously anti-democratic leader – Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to help mediate and set in motion a transition plan, all the while pledging its support to the people of Burkina Faso during this uncertain phase.

Meanwhile, ECOWAS held an emergency meeting in Accra last week to discuss the situation in Burkina Faso, and the organization urged the international community not to apply sanctions against the country, despite the current unconstitutional power arrangement. This offers the military in Burkina Faso an opportunity to make good on their promise to put in place a civilian transitional government, and to step back from executive authority. By all accounts, it appears today that Lt.-Col. Zida is prepared to stand down and “support” the democratic transition – but that is an optimistic perspective. Given the division and lack of genuine leadership amongst the political opposition, the discussions as to what the transitional government should look like were challenging, though, ultimately, the various parties came to an agreement and submitted a transition plan. One of the conditions ECOWAS has worked into the transition plan is that the interim head of state should not be able to run in the elections next year, which has created a disincentive among potential contenders for the role, as they would be limited to a one-year tenure.

The transition plan developed over the last few days by opposition parties, civil society representatives, the armed forces and religious organizations has been received with a certain degree of enthusiasm by regional brokers, who are hopeful that, despite being ambitious, the blueprint is comprehensive and inclusive and lays out a realistic 12 month plan for a democratic transition. Of course, the path is fraught with potential pitfalls, not the least of which is the continued involvement of the armed forces in running the country.Will the transitional leader – who should be announced in the coming days – have enough of a mandate to be able to maneuver effectively and keep Burkina Faso on track? How will the strategic interests of the international community in Burkina Faso – an ally in the broad anti-terror effort in the region, and rich in minerals and resources – impact the ability of Western nations to positively influence the process? And, importantly, will this transition plan jive with the hopes and aspirations of the people of Burkina Faso, who, after all, were the ones to remove their undemocratic leader?