The long-ruling president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, was corrupt, exclusionary and increasingly autocratic before his abrupt fall from power late last month. But he did have the law on his side in his showdown with the street demonstrators who ultimately pushed him from office — and that fact reveals flaws in African democracy that affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the continent.
Legally, the protesters did not have much to stand on. Not only did the president’s attempt to extend his term in office by changing the Constitution follow legal procedures, but his decision late last month to renounce that effort and promise to resign at the end of his mandate in November 2015 seemed to address the demonstrators’ original concerns. Still, they wanted him out. Now.
The larger issue in Burkina Faso, as elsewhere in Africa, is that formally democratic rules can easily be applied to perpetuate the authoritarian domination of a ruling clique. People might vote and parliament might convene, follow procedure and pass laws, but it is a largely hidden network of patronage alliances and security agencies that actually rules. This system excludes large segments of society from the benefits of genuine representation and produces vast inequalities mediated though access to state resources and offices. It breeds grievances, alienation and anger, which the burning down of Burkina Faso’s Parliament by demonstrators illustrates only too well.
Mr. Compaoré took power in 1987 in a coup that saw the killing of his “friend” Thomas Sankara in a crime never accounted for. For all the normalization and economic reforms he brought about, and despite his growing reputation as an agent of stability, his mediations of regional conflicts, and his willingness to support America’s local anti-terror efforts, he developed an increasingly authoritarian regime shrouded in democratic trappings.
I was in Burkina Faso in July, meeting with young people as part of my research on the country’s politics. I was stunned by their despair and simmering anger. Some spend eight years in school to obtain a B.A., simply because of the lack of classes, instructors or facilities. And at the end there are no jobs.
From my discussions with Burkinabe (as the nation’s residents are known), I suspect that the recent events are about more than just replacing Mr. Compaoré with someone else. The demonstrators, mostly young people, probably sensed the futility of playing along democratic rules manipulated by a fundamentally nondemocratic regime.
Burkina Faso’s crisis matters for the rest of Africa, too. In the next three years, no fewer than eight other African presidents — from Benin, Burundi, the Congo Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Tanzania — representing more than 180 million people, are nearing the end of their constitutional terms in office. All of them, in a sort of revenge of personal rule over democratic accountability, appear to be either toying with the idea of extending their ride or already hard at work doing so.
During a visit to Kinshasa in May, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear to President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo that the United States opposed such moves. And President François Hollande of France wrote to Mr. Compaoré with a similar warning last month. But for Western aid donors to demand that incumbents not seek to legally change their constitutions is both paternalistic meddling and a losing battle. It is up to the citizens of African nations to challenge these constitutional moves if they wish for their democracies to have substance beyond form.
Mr. Compaoré’s overthrow might encourage some of them and give cold feet to incumbents. Earlier this month, supporters of President Kabila in Parliament postponed indefinitely the consideration of a pending draft law for a constitutional revision.
Western governments would also be ill-advised to succumb to the siren song of fighting terrorism, which the likes of Mr. Compaoré sang with great ease, allowing him to hide domestic repression. We can work with whoever succeeds Mr. Compaoré to address our legitimate security concerns. We need not do this at the cost of the rights of the people Burkina Faso to representation and liberty.
Outsiders who care about the welfare and rights of Africans should focus on fighting the impunity of officeholders with regard to human rights abuses and corruption, rather than on formal democratic rules. In the winner-take-all logic of African politics, keeping control of the state takes precedence over formulating policies that benefit society. If there was not such an outsized price to simply gaining power, the material benefits of political office might be deflated, and we might see more candidates genuinely interested in the common good.
Pierre Englebert teaches African politics and development at Pomona College. He is the author of Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow, and, with Kevin Dunn, of Inside African Politics.