Burkina Faso: A Test for the African Union

The ousting of President Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso last month came nearly twenty-seven years to the day after he took power from his former ally and childhood friend Thomas Sankara. The significance of this was not missed by protesters or the media – indeed much of the coverage on events in Burkina Faso has focused on the duplicitous saga surrounding Compaoré’s ascent to power in 1987. However compelling this story may be, the focus on the past rather than the future is a mistake. By concentrating on historical events and actors, the media misses the trial-by-fire of an important new actor on Burkina Faso’s political scene.

Image courtesy of Chuck Hagel, © 2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Chuck Hagel, © 2013, some rights reserved.

The African Union (AU) was among the first actors to take note of the unraveling situation in Burkina Faso. Although civilian protests have been occurring intermittently throughout the past year, the protests that developed on 29 October were focused and spontaneous. These protests were prompted by an announcement that the ruling party was going to extend presidential term limits in the constitution, allowing Compaoré to run for a fifth term. This would make Compaoré’s fourth time amending Burkina Faso’s constitution to prolong his stay in power. Burkinabés are well aware of this tactic – nearly 60 per cent of the population is under the age of twenty, and as a result have spent their entire lives under the rule of just one man.

Within a day of protests erupting on the streets of Burkina Faso the AU released a statement urging non-violence and restraint. This statement also announced the formation of a tri-lateral delegation made up of the AU, the UN and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to consult with protesters and Compaoré’s administration.

This goal was never achieved – within one day of the statement’s release, Compaoré resigned the presidency, fled the presidential palace and took shelter in Cote D’Ivoire.

After a day of uncertainty and rumours, protesters returned to the streets of the capital on 1 November when Lieutenant Colonel Zida, second-in-command of the Presidential Guard, announced over the radio that he was taking power in the name of the army. Although this move was greeted by a wave of international condemnation, there were few concrete actions taken to stop it. The notable exception was the AU, who rejected Zida’s claims to power and backed opposition groups calling for a citizen-led transition government. The AU publicly set out a two-week deadline for Colonel Zida and threatened the imposition of sanctions and suspension of Burkina Faso from the Union if it did not create a transition government within this time period.

This policy of publicly declared deadlines has been a key strategy of the AU during this crisis, and has met with relative success. On 7 November Colonel Zida declared that he did not intend to heed the sanctions deadline, yet the AU did not back down. The deadline remained in place, while ECOWAS and the AU worked together to create a delegation of regional leaders to send to Ouagadougou. Mr Edem Kodjo, a former Prime Minister of Togo and Secretary-General of the AU’s precursor, the Organization for African Unity (OAU) led the effort, along with the presidents of Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria.

As the sanctions deadline neared, the AU encouraged negotiations that would include representatives from religious and civil society groups, opposition parties, the army and the former ruling party. On Saturday 15 November these efforts came to fruition when Colonel Zida announced the creation of mutually-accepted transition plan.

The plan calls for a 23-person committee made up of various political parties, army leaders, civil society groups and religious and traditional leaders to select an interim president from a list of candidates proposed by these groups. The selected leader will then be in charge of appointing a prime minister, who in turn will appoint a 25-member government. This transition government will govern for the one-year interim period before the country’s next scheduled elections (the very elections which Compaoré tried to enter himself into, triggering the crisis). The transition deal includes a caveat prohibiting the country’s interim leader from standing in next year’s elections.

Details of the agreement came out on Saturday 15 November when Colonel Zida publicly accepted the transition agreement and gave the committee until 12:00 GMT Sunday to select an interim leader. Although this deadline came and went with no announcement, the committee did come out of negotiations early Monday morning to announce the selection of Michel Kafando, a career diplomat, as the new interim leader of Burkina Faso. Mr. Kafando, a former ambassador to UN and president of the Security Council, accepted the position and agreed to the ban on running in next year’s elections. The announcement of Mr. Kafando’s selection was welcomed by AU commission chairperson, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who congratulated the country on the quick establishment of a civilian-led transition government.

The political upheaval in Burkina Faso has been a test of the AU’s ability to act as a cohesive and influential entity in the region. Western powers have, for the most part, stayed away from this political crisis. This was probably intentional – both France and the US had close ties to former President Compaoré, who played a crucial role in their respective military and anti-terrorism efforts in the region. France in particular had a very close relationship with Compaoré, evidenced by the revelation this week that his escape to Côte d’Ivoire was facilitated by the French. Yet despite their close personal ties, the French government has appeared eager to allow the AU to take the lead in this situation. The French foreign ministry condemned Compaoré’s attempts to change the constitution by referencing article 23 of the AU’s founding charter on democracy and good governance, which prohibits leaders from using constitutional means to stay in power. This reference to the AU’s principles by the French foreign ministry was an implicit acknowledgement of and reinforcement for the AU’s authority in the region. This attempt to solve the crisis on a regional level was further enhanced by ECOWAS, who asked the international community to not impose sanctions on Burkina Faso and let the issue be resolved through regional actors.

The rapid and peaceful establishment of a transitional government in Burkina Faso has proved the strength of the AU’s influence and cohesiveness as an international actor. It has also showed the Western powers’ desire for African regional organisations to play a larger role in dealing with political crises on the continent. Although it remains to be seen if this transition government will work, the quick, peaceful and inclusive actions of the AU and Burkinabe actors during this crisis are a hopeful sign for the future.

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