A Historic Election in Burkina Faso

By David Michael Newstead.

In October 2014, the longtime president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, was overthrown in a mass uprising. At the time, Compaoré was trying to amend the constitution, extending his 27-year rule indefinitely. But the backlash to those plans was swift and intense. People set fire to parliament and flooded the streets in protest. In the aftermath, Compaoré fled the country, an interim government was established, and elections were scheduled for October 2015.

Not long after that, several high profile investigations were launched into the alleged crimes of the former regime. But those efforts and the 2015 elections were nearly derailed by a dramatic coup attempt staged by Compaoré loyalists this September. Despite those obstacles, voting took place on November 30th, beginning the country’s first peaceful transition of power in decades. To find out more, I spoke with biographer and Burkina Faso expert Ernest Harsch about this historic election.

David Newstead: In your view, what are the main takeaways from the election?

Ernest Harsch: Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of the People’s Movement for Progress was declared winner of the presidential election. The emergence of a clear victor will go a long way towards restoring political stability in a country marked by turbulence since a popular uprising ousted the autocratic government of Blaise Compaoré.

Without a parliamentary majority, Kaboré will first need delicately to forge alliances across party lines. To prove to skeptics that he has broken from his past with the former regime, he will need to tackle high-level impunity on past abuses and corruption. Without notable improvements, citizens disaffected by years of poor governance may again resort to street action to effect political change.

That said, the Independent National Electoral Commission enjoys wide credibility. A sign of this was the updated registration list to 5.5 million potential voters – 70% more than for the last presidential election in 2010. The election was competitive. After the exclusion of several prospective old-regime candidates, there still were 14 presidential contenders. Nearly 7,000 candidates stood for the 127 national assembly seats, from 81 political parties and 19 groups of independents. With no one from the transitional government allowed to run, the race was free of the favoritism of incumbency. The legitimacy and credibility of Kaboré’s 53.5% win should be understood in this context.

David Newstead: The last time we spoke in June, you specifically cited General Gilbert Diendéré as a possible threat to the country’s transition to democracy. In September, he led a coup attempt against the interim government and his forces briefly imprisoned the president and the prime minister. After the coup failed, I know that there was some talk about granting amnesty to the perpetrators. Can you clarify what happened next?

Ernest Harsch: Diendéré never got amnesty. One African mediator had suggested the idea while his coup was still underway, but almost everyone in Burkina rejected it. Diendéré was arrested as soon as the coup was defeated, and is now in prison, along with a bunch of other coup ringleaders.

David Newstead: How do you think the newly elected government will influence the on-going investigation into the assassination of President Thomas Sankara in 1987?

Ernest Harsch: A few days ago, General Diendéré was also formally charged in Sankara’s assassination. That judicial process (in a military court) will probably proceed according to its own rules and pace, and there is little the new incoming government can do about it (and no sign that it would want to). So hopefully there will finally be some justice.

Read my interview with Ernest Harsch on Thomas Sankara

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