Burkina Faso: Lessons from the Constitutional Crisis

Africa Digest

Blaise Compaoré, former president of Burkina Faso, came to power through a military coup, failed to advance the country’s democratic transition, monopolised power for 27 years, and only left office because he was violently forced out. So, despite the fact that the country’s acting Prime Minister Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida, and the military chiefs have promised that the November 2015 election and the preparations leading to it, would be fair, free, and credible, one has to wonder whether this will actually happen, especially given Burkinabè military’s opportunistic past believes Dr John Mukum Mbaku, as he explains two important lessons that Africans can learn from the constitutional crisis in Burkina Faso

Since 1966, every individual who has served as president of Burkina Faso has come into office initially through a military coup.1 Most of these men eventually ‘civilianised’ themselves and went on to lead ‘civilian’ governments. However, they never delivered the democratic reforms that they had promised when they, as military officers, overthrew the government.

Blaise Campaoré came to power through a military coup in 1987 and in 1990, he instituted limited institutional reforms. On December 1, 1991, Burkina Faso held its first presidential elections under the new constitution, which had been adopted that year. Campaoré, who was the only candidate for president, won that election and another one in 1998.

In 2000, the constitution was amended to impose a limit of two five-year consecutive terms on the presidency. Campaoré’s supporters argued that since he was in office when the constitutional amendments were adopted, they did not apply to him and hence, he was qualified to stand for election in 2005. He went on to win both the 2005 and 2010 presidential elections with a little over 80 percent of the vote.

In 2014, Campaoré asked a National Assembly dominated by his Congrès pour la démocratieet le progrès (CDP) party to amend the constitution so that he could run in the 2015 elections. Constitutionally-mandated presidential term limits strengthen the rule of law and provide a significant level of stability and predictability to governance institutions. Hence, Campaoré’s opportunistic efforts to extend his stay in power were considered by many Burkinabès as detrimental to the country’s fledgling democracy.

On October 29, citizens angry that Campaoré might remain in office indefinitely, set fire to parliament and forced legislators to postpone the vote to decide Campaoré’s right to stand for re-election in 2015. As violent demonstrations intensified, the National Assembly dropped the matter, and on October 31, Campaoré resigned and fled to Côte d’Ivoire.

Military Intervention Creates a Constitutional Crisis

Shortly after Campaoré resigned, his aide de camp, General Honoré Traoré, proclaimed himself president of Burkina Faso.2 Could a military leader of such standing have such little understanding of and appreciation for the constitutional order? How could the military justify this illegal and blatant power grab, especially given the fact that the Burkinabè constitution does not provide that the military should assume presidential powers in case of a vacancy in the office?

The country’s constitution fully anticipates the resignation or incapacitation of the president and prescribes procedures for succession. Article 43 states that if there is a temporary vacancy in the presidency, executive powers shall be ‘provisionally exercised by the prime minister.’ However, if the president resigns and creates a permanent vacancy in the presidency, the functions or powers of the president should be performed by the president of the senate. Thus, it was military intervention that created the constitutional crisis. After intervening, the military subsequently suspended the constitution and governed by extra-constitutional decrees.

General Traoré Rejected; Colonel Zida Welcomed

Protesting Burkinabès, however, rejected General Traoré’s leadership and argued that a government led by him would not represent an effective and full break with the country’s painful past. On November 1, Lt Col Isaac Yacouba Zida addressed the country and stated that he had assumed the responsibilities of the head of state and that he would lead a ‘peaceful transition’ and one that would guarantee the ‘continuity of the (Burkinabè) state.’3 Like Gen Traoré, Col Zida appeared to be totally ignorant of, or unwilling to come to grips with, the country’s constitution and its observation on succession in the event of the president’s resignation or permanent incapacitation. As a high-ranking military officer, Col Zida should have been familiar enough with the constitution to be fully aware of Article 43 and to realise that he and other military officers were acting unconstitutionally when they took over the government.

Oddly enough, the protesters who had rejected Gen Traoré because of his close ties to the ousted president fully embraced the leadership of Col Zida, who had been the deputy head of President Campaoré’s elite presidential guard. However, it was the support of military chiefs that made Col Zida a more acceptable candidate to replace the departing president. But were these military leaders aware of the constitution’s Article 43 when they made the decision to take control of the government? Assuming that they had knowledge of the provisions of Article 43, why then did they subvert what should have been a constitutionally-mandated succession?

Specious Arguments Favouring Military Intervention

Of course, there were arguments that military intervention was needed to deal fully and effectively with the riots and violence spreading throughout the country and to restore peace. But should not the national police be the institution to enforce law and maintain order? Even the military elites who took control of the government were unable to fully explain why restoring peace required them to intervene.

Some observers suggested that since the Burkinabè senate was not actually created, there was no individual to constitutionally succeed the president and hence, military intervention was necessary to avoid a constitutional crisis. This, however, is a spurious and disingenuous argument, especially given the fact that resolution of such a crisis is within the purview of the Burkinabè judiciary. In the absence of a senate president to succeed the resigning president, the judiciary should have been called upon to resolve the issue and determine who should take over as the country’s transitional president. It is not likely that judicial intervention would have resulted in the military being called upon to take over control of the government.

Military Appoints Interim President

In early November 2014, the international community called on all sides in the crisis to follow ‘constitutionally mandate’ 4procedures for presidential succession. The African Union (AU) specifically asked the Burkinabè military not to opportunistically exploit the constitutional crisis for its own corporate interests, but to respect the desire of the majority of Burkinabès for democracy and peaceful coexistence. The AU’s concern specifically highlighted the need for the military and other Burkinabè groups to respect the rule of law and allow the constitution to dictate the modalities for succession.

On November 17, a military-directed 23-person committee appointed former Foreign Minister Michel Kafando as the country’s new interim president. Kafando told the nation that he would ‘respect and defend the constitution, the transition charter and laws, and do everything to guarantee justice for all Burkinabès.’5 Although Col Zida had suspended the constitution after he seized power, on November 15 he announced that he had restored the constitution, and, in his opinion, had effectively ended military rule. However, the future of institutions, like the National Assembly that had been established under that constitution was unclear. In fact, the military-inspired charter for the transition stated that a 90-member National Transitional Council, which would include members of the military, would serve as the legislature until the 2015 elections. The preference for military-led institutions only reinforces the belief by many Burkinabès that the military is not likely to fully extricate itself from both the transition and post-transition politics. Such a scenario could plunge the country into more political violence and endanger its peace and democracy.

The transition agreement makes Kafando ineligible to run for the presidency in the 2015 elections. On November 19, Kafando announced the appointment of Lt Col Zida as the country’s new prime minister. That appointment could be considered either as a pragmatic and practical move by President Kafando to avoid any perception of military marginalisation and hence, minimise the chances of further intervention, or as casting doubts on the expectation that the military will stay out of Burkinabè politics as demanded by most of the country’s citizens.

What Next?

The appointment of Col Zida as interim prime minister and head of the government does not augur well for the restoration of civilian rule in Burkina Faso. The military has a long history of interfering with Burkinabè politics as evidenced by the fact that since independence, the country has been ruled primarily by military elites; in fact, the only truly civilian regime to rule the country was that of the first president, Maurice Yaméogo, who was overthrown by the military in 1966. Both Zida and Kafando have promised to work hard to make sure that the transition is transparent and credible. Nevertheless, the choice of Zida and Kafando to head the interim government seems ill-advised and does not augur well for the clean break from the previous regime that many Burkinabès were expecting. Kafando was a former high-ranking official in Campaoré’s government and Zida served as a deputy head of Campaoré’s elite presidential guard. Of course, Col Zida is the same military officer who seized power after the president resigned; instead of being admonished for his unconstitutional acts, he was actually rewarded and elevated to the head of government. In addition to Col Zida as prime minister, the army also retained six out of 26 cabinet seats for itself. These included important ministries such as interior, communications, and defence. Thus, despite the fact that the army has consistently stated that it only intends to guide the transition to civilian rule and not become part of it, it has already violated that proclamation by inserting several of its officers into the interim government. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for Burkinabès to worry that the military might continue its tradition of dominating the country’s politics.

Genuine Power Sharing and Credible Elections

Will the military allow President Kafando to exercise the power of his office without interference? While the military has indicated that it would not interfere with the functioning of the transitional government, it is difficult to accept such assurances given its decision to insert many military elites, including Col Zida, into the interim government. Would Prime Minister Zida be taking instructions from the president or will his loyalties be with the military, which has been responsible for his meteoric rise to the pinnacle of power in Burkina Faso? It is obvious that had the military been cognisant of its unconstitutional intervention in national politics and was willing to do the right thing and restore the country’s transition to democratic governance, it would have handed the government to a truly civilian regime. While it is possible that the interim government would involve genuine power sharing, the behaviour of the military so far does not support that optimistic assessment. The likelihood is that Zida and his military benefactors would manipulate the transition to produce outcomes favourable to their hegemonic control of the Burkinabè government.

Compaoré came to power illegally through a military coup, failed to advance the country’s democratic transition, monopolised power for 27 years, and only left office because he was violently forced out. Thus, despite the fact that both Col Zida and the military chiefs have promised that the November 2015 election and the preparations leading to it, would be fair, free, and credible, one has to wonder whether this will actually happen, especially given Burkinabè military’s opportunistic past.

Lessons for Africa

There are at least two important lessons that Africans can learn from the constitutional crisis in Burkina Faso. First, Africans must and should not tolerate continued military intervention in national politics. The military’s role to defend the country and safeguard its borders does not include intervention in politics. Political crises should be resolved through constitutional mechanisms and not by military intervention. Regime change through constitutionally mandated procedures significantly strengthens democratic governance, advances the rule of law, and creates within the country an institutional environment that enhances peaceful coexistence and economic prosperity.

Second, procedures for amending the constitution should be robust enough to make it quite difficult for opportunist politicians and their benefactors to manipulate the amendment process to create life-terms in office. Such constitutional manipulations weaken the country’s democratic system, create institutional instability and uncertainty, enhance government impunity, and significantly reduce the trust that people have in their government. Part of the problem derives from the ease with which many African constitutions can be amended.6

Article 164 of the Constitution of Burkina Faso mandates that the bill to amend the constitution is first submitted to Parliament for evaluation, after which it is sent to eligible voters to be approved by referendum. It also states that the bill to amend the constitution will be adopted ‘without recourse to referendum if it is approved by a majority of three-quarters (3/4) of the members of Parliament’ convened by the president of the Republic. Contrast that with the procedure to amend the Constitution of South Africa: a bill to amend the constitution must be approved by at least 75 percent of members of the National Assembly and by the National Council of Provinces, with a supporting vote of at least six of the country’s nine provinces.7 Such a robust amendment procedure minimises political opportunism and provides the delays that are necessary to ‘protect society against itself, by forcing passionate majorities, whether simple or qualified, to cool down and reconsider.’8

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.