The fast-moving people-power coup that ousted a longtime leader of the landlocked West African country of Burkina Faso took not only powerful nations and international institutions by surprise — including the United Nations, France, the United States, the African Union and African regional groups — but also the Burkina protesters themselves.
The demonstrations started in earnest around Oct. 27, after smaller protests had been simmering for months, to force the country’s Parliament to drop a move by Blaise Compaoré, the president, to amend the Constitution so he could run for another term in 2015. Given that Compaoré had been in office for nearly a generation, 27 years, most people in his country knew no other leader in the presidential palace.
The time had come, protestors called out last Monday in the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, for Compaoré to go, even though it looked as if Parliament would vote his way. But no one in the growing street demonstrations and marches, which included civil society groups — some led by women — did not foresee how much their anger would power the momentum that culminated in the president’s quick resignation and escape to Ivory Coast. Some demonstrators eagerly proclaimed the chain of events a sub-Saharan spring, although the final outcome is still in flux.
True, demonstrators gave Compaoré all sorts of names — in French, the country’s official language — such as being likened to the Ebola virus killing thousands of people in countries nearby, as signs read, “Blaise, Ebola!”
Another refrain reflected the public’s perception of how extensive Compaoré’s clan controlled the country, with people calling him a “Maggi cube,” a local spice cube, “that makes its way into everybody’s sauce.”
By Friday, Oct. 31, Compaoré, a close ally of the French, who keep a special forces contingent in the capital, and the US, which operates a regional military drone program from Ouagadougou’s airport, had packed himself and his entourage into a convoy of cars to neighboring Ivory Coast. There, his long-term friendship with that country’s president, Alassane Ouattara, granted him entrée into safe haven.
A Western journalist who was working in Ouagadougou last week said he had been following news on Sahelien.com, a regional video site, about mini-protests all summer in Burkina Faso against Compaoré’s plan to lift the presidential term limits. Parliament was to finally vote on the issue last Thursday, so protestors began taking to the streets earlier in the week to declare their deep displeasure with Compaoré and his “mafia,” which he and his political cronies are called by opponents.
The protest marches, backed by labor strikes in the country, were focused entirely on the vote to take place in Parliament. With tensions building on Wednesday for the big march the next day, opposition groups called for protestors to be ready to “sacrifice everything” for their cause, according to tweets online.
As the crowds grew more raucous and demanding by Thursday — looting, storming and burning official institutions and residences (including that of François Compaoré, the brother of Blaise) — violence ensued, leaving three people apparently shot dead by the military. At that point, women who had been participating in the marches began to recede from the crowds of thousands, leaving the throng consisting mostly of young men. (Sixty percent of the population is under age 25.)
What surprised protestors all week, the Western journalist said in a Skype interview from Ouagadougou, was the lack of loud vocal support from the West — namely, France, the US and the UN — and how fast their protests pushed out Compaoré and his wife, Chantal, as well as his brother, François, who is more loathed by the public than the president. (He has gone to Benin.) The protestors’ sheer numbers and courage, the journalist suggested, propelled the shift toward what the protestors are calling their “people’s coup.”
Key players in the West did note publicly, in rather neutral tones, the goings-on in Burkina Faso. Early in the week, the US State Department said that it was “concerned by the spirit and intent behind” the proposed amendment to lift the term limits.
France said at the same time that it expected Compaoré to adhere to the laws drawn up by his peers at the African Union and not to push through the constitutional reform. By Friday, when Compaoré resigned, France’s president, François Hollande, welcomed his departure.
At the beginning of the week at the UN, the spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a press briefing that the UN recognized the protestors’ rights to assembly as well as the need for protests to remain peaceful and nonviolent, but he did not say whether the UN supported the demonstrators’ concerns.
By Friday, a statement from Ban reiterated that he was “following the situation with great concern,” and that he was sending his special envoy for West Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, to Ouagadougou to work with the regional economic group and the African Union to help contend with the country’s sudden government collapse. No mention was made of Compaoré’s legacy of corruption and wrongdoing to the Burkina people.
In addition, no statement on Burkina was produced last week by the Security Council, whose president in October was María Cristina Perceval of Argentina. On Nov. 4, the new monthly president of the council, Gary Quinlan of Australia, held a closed meeting on Burkina Faso with fellow council members and a high-level UN official.
Quinlan said in a statement afterward that the council intended to show unified support with the various African regional entities to “mediate a process as quickly as possible — if not immediately — to setting out a road map and moving to a civilian transition.”
“We’re very keen, in particular, to be part of one single united international voice on this, sending the same clear message, that that transition needs to take place and take place as soon as possible,” Quinlan added.
Besides international and regional institutions, the rage against Compaoré had also taken many major international news media by surprise, with few outside journalists covering the events in Burkina Faso last week. (By Thursday, the airport and borders were closed.) Much of the news was telegraphed by tweets from civil society and a few local and regional reporters on the ground.
Compaoré has been a reliable ally of Western powers as they strive to contain the jihadist threats in the Sahel region. Compaoré, for example, helped broker the initial peace deal among the numerous rebel groups and the Mali government after the jihadist insurgency last year, though the deal has floundered ever since.
Another reason Westerners and the UN did not foretell the popular unrest is that Burkina Faso has been operating under international radar for many years. Plus Compaoré has scraped through previous attempts to oust him militarily. (He came to power through a coup and then elections.)
Moreover, news media, the UN and many countries, including Britain, France and the US, are mired in battling Ebola in the region as well.
Yet, the Burkina government works with numerous UN agencies, such as the UN Population Fund and Unicef, so signals might have been missed from the field offices. A report from the UN Office for West Africa in June noted that the government’s aim to change the constitution could set off violence. The UN welcomed Chantal Compaoré, the wife of the president, as a guest speaker at the UN on several occasions in the past, including a forum on female genital mutilation. So the near silence emanating from the UN last week on the unfolding events could reveal the UN’s ambivalence about Blaise Compaoré’s possible departure.
The hatred toward the Compaorés in Ouagadougou was obvious when protestors looted the family’s residences, reportedly finding such unsavory items in the president’s home as heads of street children who had been killed, mob style, and displayed like trophies to prove the clan’s ruthlessness. In the house of François Compaoré, human intestines were said to be found. Official documents uncovered in the looting included lists of people who received villas from the government, like a local imam.
The Burkina military stepped in when Compaoré drove out of the country on Friday, but the military’s bungled moves to claim the upper hand not only revealed a power struggle but were also met with howls from protestors.
Currently, negotiations with the military, civil society and opposition groups, as well as outsiders that include representatives from the UN and the African Union, are working toward setting up a temporary civilian-led government to direct the country toward general elections. Whether that happens smoothly — if at all — remains to be seen, as circumstances continue to change daily.
Burkina Faso has been suffering from low living standards for decades, although the value of the country’s human development index increased about 14 percent from 2005 to 2012, leaving it ranked 183 out of 187 nations. From 1980 to 2012, life expectancy increased by 9.5 years and expected years of schooling rose by six years. Its gross national income jumped about 98 percent, but its deep income inequality stayed entrenched. Only 15 percent of Parliamentary seats are held by women; women have lower rates of education than men; and they die in droves — 300 for every 100,000 live births — from pregnancy-related causes.
As one protestor said of his country last week in a tweet: “We were sick for 27 years. It’s only normal that we’ll take a week or two to get better.”
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.