By Matthew Ayibakuro
The election of a new president in Burkina Faso on Tuesday is one of those rare occasions when describing a situation as ‘historic’ can be considered a disservice, albeit not a misdescription.
There are many reasons why the recent polls in the country should be considered significant. After all, this is the first time in almost 30 years that long-serving leader Blaise Compaore is neither leader nor candidate leading up to an electoral process.
For a country whose political history has been dominated by coups and countercoups more than anything else, the election of a civilian president with no military background or ties is something not many countries with a similar history can boast of. In fact, not even supposed regional leaders like Nigeria can compare in this regard, with the latter having elected two former military dictators since its return to democratic rule in 1999, including the current president Gen Muhammadu Buhari.
Another factor for which this country should be proud is the fact that, by the account of most observers, the election was considered largely free and fair. Burkina faso has taken a step further the progress made in recent times by countries in the West African region in terms of eliminating irregularities, fraud and violence during elections, occasioning a change in the headlines in the process.
Most significantly, successful transition from the Blaise Compaore era to a new democratic leadership in the last one year is an enviable testimonial to the courage, determination and maturity of the Burkinabe people. Not many gave the transition process a chance, especially in the light of the failed coup attempt in September, which threatened to derail the process.
The handling of the Burkina Faso situation provides a valuable model – a precedent for other countries in Africa for solving its internal problems and more so for the few still dealing with leaders who have perpetuated or are attempting to perpetuate themselves in office. Whilst there are so many individuals and organisations who deserve praise for their role in recent political developments in the country, three factors are worth pointing out.
Three Salient Factors in the Burkina Faso Transition Process
The first is the resilience of the people, and especially the youth population in their protests against the leadership of Blaise Compaore. For long, underserving leaders of African countries have succeeded in suppressing opposition to their actions and their leadership. In most cases, protests against such leadership have often resulted in more oppressive policies until the opposition has been quashed. In a few other unfortunate situations, the opposition has ended up taking to arms, with the inevitable outcome being civil war. But the people of Burkina Faso showed determination and maturity in standing up, not just against the leadership of Campaore, but also against the attempt by some military officers to steal the mandate of the people in September.
Credit for this should go partly to the strong civil society in the country, which is the second factor worth pointing out. Whilst the civil society in most African countries have ended up playing the tune of foreign financiers without making much practical impact on the ground, the civil society in Burkina Faso showed good organisation in coordinating support against a leader that was backed by a western colonial power for decades and still was until the moment he fled from the country. They also remained vigilant and active throughout the transition process up until and after election day. It is intriguing to imagine how leadership and electoral processes in most countries on the continent would be so different with such strong and organised civil society.
The role ECOWAS in the recent events in Burkina Faso must also be commended. Leaders of the regional body did not just act when the military tried imposing itself on the people flowing the demise of Campaore’s leadership, they acted swiftly. This was significantly different from the rather lackadaisical approach adopted by their counterparts in East Africa during the recent and perhaps best described as, ongoing leadership crisis in Burundi. The presidents of the regional countries of Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal took the time to go to the Ouagadougou to demand for a swift return to civilian rule and to ensure that a reasonable arrangement was in place to ensure a peaceful transition. This candid and swift move sent a clear message to the army. It is left to imagination what might have resulted otherwise.
At a time when the outcomes of the popular protests that heralded the Arab Spring have been rather variegated and disappointing in most countries, the story of Burkina Faso, at least in the immediate, is one that should be celebrated, highlighted and emulated.
There are many challenges confronting Roch Marc Christian Kabore, the newly elected president. Issues of job creation for the teeming youth population, access to education, healthcare and infrastructural development dominated the campaigns, in addition to the rather unanimous promise of change which was manifest in the circumstances.
In the bigger picture however, Kabore will do himself and the Burkinabe much good by consolidating on the gains made by the recent political events in the country. The history of the country suggests that efforts need to be made in reforming the army and redefining its place in the affairs of Burkina Faso. This is important to avoid another coup headline in the country in the near future.
Constitutional and legal challenges also lie ahead. Whilst the decision to ban the former ruling party of Blaise Compaore from having any presidential candidate in the recently concluded elections might have appeared expedient and appeared generally accepted. Democratic governance and the rule of law cannot thrive on the long run in a society where fundamental human rights like the right to vote and be voted for are curtailed, irrespective of the justifications. What is done with regard to these issues will be the true test of the much-celebrated change in Burkina Faso.
Going by the actions of the people in recent events, it is fair to say that these challenges are not insurmountable. There are so many reasons to be optimistic, not just for Burkina Faso, but for the evolution of democratic governance in countries in Africa.
So, over to you, the people of Rwanda, Republic of Congo, Uganda and of course, Burundi!