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Why Burkina Faso matters

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AFP/Getty Images
Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore

The current crisis in Burkina Faso largely comes down to one fact: Blaise Compaoré, the president of the landlocked West African state, came to power in a 1987 coup d’etat, and — despite a 2000 constitutional amendment that limits presidents to two five-year terms — had led the country ever since.

In theory, 2015 was due to be Compaoré’s last year in office: While courts had decided the term limit amendment didn’t take effect till 2005, he would now have been in the president’s office for two terms. Compaoré, however, didn’t show any signs of leaving. On Oct. 30, Burkina Faso’s parliament was due to vote on changing the constitution to allow Compaoré to extend his 27-year-long leadership.

That vote did not happen. Instead, protesters in Ouagadougou, the country’s capital, set the parliament on fire. State television and radio stations were overrun and broadcasts taken off air.

The protests were the remarkable culmination of unrest that has seen hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets. The state response was harsh, with tear gas and even live bullets shot at the crowds to try and control them. By early that evening, Compaoré had announced he was dissolving the parliament and declared a state of emergency. Contradicting him, Burkina Faso’s army chief made his own later announcement that the government had been dissolved: The country’s military appeared to have sided against Compaoré. On Oct. 31, Compaoré announced his resignation.

It’s a chaotic situation. And while the final result of these confrontations is still unclear, they might well have broader consequences for the region. For one thing, Compaoré might have a relatively low profile internationally but he has also been one of West Africa’s most important regional leaders.

The former soldier has a history of supporting foreign rebel groups and, in recent years, he has played a role as a mediator in conflicts in Ivory Coast or Mali. Notably, he was an important ally for America: A U.S. base in Ouagadougou, operating since 2007, operates as a hub for a U.S. spying network in the region, with spy planes departing from the base to fly over Mali, Mauritania and the Sahara, tracking fighters from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

However, Compaoré also was one of a number of sub-Saharan African leaders who have stayed in power for decades. Some observers now wonder if the situation in Burkina Faso could ultimately be the spark for something bigger. “In Burkina Faso now it looks like citizens are making forceful demands for respect of democratic rules,” Pierre Englebert, a professor of African politics and development at Pomona College, explained in an email. “That would be an unusual degree of political ownership. And it might well give hope to movements elsewhere, first of all in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where things have also been coming to a boil.”

Notably, Vital Kamerhe, leader of Congo’s Union pour la Nation Congolaise, has tweeted a message of solidarity for Burkina Faso’s protesters, saying they are in the “same struggle.” And while many analysts are hesitant to make the comparison, some Burkinabè protesters have likened the protest to the Arab uprisings that began in 2010. “Oct. 30 is Burkina Faso’s black spring, like the Arab spring,” Emile Pargui Pare, an official from opposition party the Movement of People for Progress, told the AFP.

Either way, the comparison with the Arab Spring might not be a good thing: Like the protests in the Arab world, even if Burkina Faso’s protests end up being successful in their immediate aim, they may also carry with them a lot of risks and uncertainty. “If Burkina became lastingly unstable that would be bad news as it would make it more vulnerable to criminal and terror groups that are still active in the region,” Englebert explained.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.

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