Burkina Faso’s Political Instability: The Past, Present, and Future

By Matthew Candau

Earlier this month, the Biden administration revealed that Burkina Faso’s status as a beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) would be revoked in January 2023 as it no longer meets the designated “eligibility requirements”. AGOA has provided sub-Saharan African countries with tens of billions of dollars annually in the form of trade deals and investment that has proven to be crucial in their economic and social development. Burkina Faso exports millions of dollars worth of goods to the US annually, but more importantly receives over $70 million in imports. Earlier in 2022, Burkina Faso was also suspended from the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

So why has Burkina Faso been facing so much backlash from the international community? The short answer is its extreme and worsening political instability. The country suffered through two coups this year, occluding what once was a moderately stable and functioning democracy, reducing the national image and identity to near non-existence, and leaving the country’s fate in the hands of the world’s youngest military officer turned leader.

The long answer, however, is much more complex, and does not offer immediate reassurance for the future. To understand it, we must first look back into the nation’s history.

A Troubled History

Burkina Faso, formerly known as Upper Volta, gained independence from France in 1960, and has struggled with political instability ever since. The form of government laid out in the constitution is officially a presidential republic, which offers some semblance of a parliamentary system that includes the separation of power and the codifying of basic human rights. However, it does provide the president with more power than most other republics, opening a rabbit hole into corruption and abuse of power, thereby increasing the likelihood of public insurrection. In total, Burkina Faso has suffered through more successful coups than any other country in Africa since 1950.

Upon independence, the National Assembly unanimously elected independence activist Maurice Yaméogo as president. Yaméogo soon entrenched the country in a single-party system and engaged in heavy suppression of the opposition, leading to strikes and protests throughout the country in 1965. As a result, the president resigned the following year leading the army to take control of the government and install Chief of Staff Aboubakar Sangoulé Lamizana as president.

Although Lamizana gained official recognition as the “most tolerant person” in Burkina Faso in 2003, he did not hesitate to expand the power of the executive at every opportunity. After adopting a new constitution in 1970, another series of strikes and protests led to the military under Colonel Saye Zerbo overthrowing Lamizana in 1980.

Zerbo was initially supported by Upper Volta’s unions, but after dissolving the National Assembly, appointing his own cabinet, and enforcing mandatory military service, protests and strikes escalated until another military coup in 1982. This new government was soon criticised for embracing European neocolonialist ideology, leading to nationalist Thomas Sankara coming to power through yet another coup in 1983.

Sankara provided a concrete vision of widespread reform and aimed to create a unified and optimistic national image, renaming the country to Burkina Faso (meaning “land of the upright people”) from Upper Volta. To finance their new policies, the government was dependent on foreign investment and loans. However, this was criticised by the African nationalists who were his initial base. As a result, Sankara began imprisoning and silencing the opposition, which led to further protests and ultimately his assassination during the coup of 1987, bringing Sankara’s friend Blaise Compaoré to power.

Compaoré remained as president for over two decades, becoming Burkina Faso’s most effective leader regarding economic development. During his regime, Burkina Faso experienced rapid and fairly consistent economic growth, the poverty rate reduced by 30%, and the country gained widespread support and recognition from the international community. But Compaoré’s reign was not characterised exclusively by success. Elections held in 1991 and 1998 were heavily boycotted by the opposition, and his ability to stand for successive elections was disputed. Civil unrest also mounted after a series of unpopular political and economic decisions throughout the late 2000s, as well as the mysterious death of critical journalist Norbert Zongo. The protests reached a climax in 2014 when Compaoré announced changes to the constitution that enabled him to maintain his power, leading to yet another coup.

Instead of being led by an armed group, however, the 2014 coup was entirely peaceful, and the country soon organised new elections. Roch Marc Christian Kaboré became the new president, and work began to revise the constitution to introduce term limits and the ability to impeach the president. For the first time, the new government seemed determined to reduce the power of the presidency. However, the process was largely halted due to the COVID-19 crisis, rampant extremist violence, and other political/economic factors. Despite the president and the National Assembly’s promising ideals, another coup in January 2022 thwarted their efforts.

Recent Developments

While power has gradually been shifting away from the president, other factors led to Kaboré’s downfall. Burkina Faso has faced an unprecedented spree of violence since 2015, leaving over 7,500 dead and over 1.6 million people displaced. The attacks were carried out by insurgents allied with al-Qaeda and ISIS, and targeted anyone, from members of the armed forces to government officials and even civilians. The group recognised for the violence isAnsar ul Islam, a militant Islamic organisation founded by Malam Ibrahim Dicko. Malam has been widely recognised as a voice against social inequalities in Burkina Faso for years, but his rhetoric has recently turned violent. The organisation operates out of the North of Burkina Faso, a region that is notably under-funded, and most positions in local governments do not reflect the Muslim majority of constituents. 

Kaboré placed heavy emphasis on security measures throughout his presidency, but his efforts were controversial and not particularly effective. In early 2020, the government conscripted a corps of civilians as auxiliary support for national security. Military expenditure increased heavily during his presidency as well, more than tripling between 2017 and 2021. However, the spending was almost entirely directed at increasing the quantity of existing defunct technologies rather than improving living conditions for soldiers or the quality of technology. In response, civilians protested how the government was managing its military spending. Tensions came to a head after an attack in November 2021, in which over fifty Burkinabé were killed at a security post. The base reportedly had not been supplied with food for weeks prior to the attack. Hundreds of protesters gathered in Ouagadougou to demand Kaboré’s resignation.

In January 2022, a coalition of mid-level military officials staged a coup in protest of the government’s handling of the attacks, leaving Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba in power. The coup was heavily condemned by the international community, and directly led to the suspension of Burkina Faso from both the AU and ECOWAS, as they demanded for the military to restore the rule of law and hold elections. However, Damiba did not concede to these criticisms.

Despite his commitment to combating the insurgents in the North, the security situation arguably became even more severe under Damiba’s rule. Violence levels increased by over 25%, and the second largest surge in displacement since the start of the conflict occurred in March, less than 2 months into his presidency. By June, it was reported that Ouagadougou controlled less than two-thirds of its territory. Due to widespread civil unrest caused by Damiba’s incompetence in dealing with the conflict, on 30 September 2022, another coup was staged, leaving army Captain Ibrahim Traoré as President. Instead of restoring power to the National Assembly and the previous government, Traoré suspended the constitution entirely, giving his junta total political control. 

Facing the Future

Burkina Faso’s political instability and security have never been in a more dire situation than it is now. In addition to the continuation of the coup ‘tradition’, it faces an additional layer of conflict with Ansar ul Islam and a stronger level of international condemnation than ever before. International organisations, from the EU to ECOWAS, have called upon the junta to restore the rule of law and democracy to Burkina Faso by next year. Direct policy backlash through ECOWAS and the United States’ AGOA will likely have severe effects on the country’s ability to finance its campaigns against the insurgents, as exports account for nearly $4 billion in output annually. For a country whose GDP is only around $16 billion, a sharp decline in exports through either sanctions or revocation of trade agreements would cripple their economy.

Not only does Burkina Faso need to finance the military to thwart the violence in the north, but they also have other serious issues surrounding infrastructure development and poverty that need to be addressed. Burkina Faso has consistently maintained one of the lowest Human Development Indexes in the world, even before the 2022 coups. In addition, nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line. Due to these factors, malaria, malnutrition, and other illnesses are pervasive.

What’s more, the country’s main industries include agriculture and gold mining, both of which are heavily dependent on exportation. Burkina Faso’s primary imports include fuel and machinery, most of which come from nations that are actively condemning and/or suspending relations with them, such as the United States and France.

Major political reform is required to solve these problems. Government spending drastically dropped in 2017, from over $1.5 billion to around $400 million. Even today, government spending sits at less than one-third of what it was in 2016. In order to develop infrastructure and be able to properly support their military, Burkina Faso’s government needs to re-establish these high expenditure rates. Before this can be accomplished, however, the government needs to return to democracy. Not only would this re-open trade opportunities through AGOA, ECOWAS, and the AU, but it would allow for more cohesive and transparent policymaking. Had the government under Kaboré’s governance, between 2014 and 2021, allocated military funds more appropriately the January 2022 coup would not have likely occurred in the first place. To prevent another military coup in the future, there needs to be an increased level of communication between top army commanders and the government alongside better-allocated funding.

Furthermore, the reforms necessary to achieve higher labour productivity and improve quality of life, such as tax incentives, are much more feasible and plausible under a democracy. The country also maintains a significantly higher corporate income tax than most developed countries; reducing this could stimulate entrepreneurship and foreign businesses to expand into Burkina Faso. In the short term, Burkina Faso may benefit from unilateral and undisputed decision-making under Traoré’s junta due to his military experience and his ability to implement policy more efficiently. In the long term, however, the junta is unsustainable, both for domestic development and international affairs.

At the moment, Traoré needs to focus on quelling the insurgencies in the North. When he was sworn in as interim president, Traoré emphasised this is where he stood, stating “our aims are none other than the reconquest of territory occupied by these hordes of terrorists… Burkina [Faso]’s existence is in danger.” If he does not achieve significant progress soon, it is entirely possible another coup could be on the horizon. However, many Burkinabé seem hopeful of Traoré’s future. “He embodies renewal, a generational renewal, a break with old practices”, said local politician Monique Yeli Kam. 

The only thing we know for certain is that whatever lies ahead for Burkina Faso’s politics, economy, and security – whether that be success or further instability – rests entirely upon Ibrahim Traoré’s shoulders.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

Image Source: Anadolu Agency, Getty Images

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