By Staff Reporter
When Blaise Compaoré, president of Burkina Faso, tried last week to amend the constitution and extend his 27-year rule, few people would have bet against one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders.
But this time the population revolted. Hundreds of thousands in the capital Ouagadougou and in other cities took to the streets to stop the president running for a fifth term in the 2015 elections. After days of protests, Mr Compaoré fled the country – and the army seized power.
In spite of its importance to the fight against Islamist militants in the semi-desert region of the Sahel, the revolution in Burkina Faso barely showed up in global geopolitical seismography. For many, it was just another African drama in an isolated corner of the continent. But across Africa, the whiff of revolution will have been picked by ageing leaders similarly plotting constitutional amendments to extend their mandates beyond the usual two terms.
After all, slogans such as “it is over for the regime” and “we do not want him again”, which served the revolution in Burkina Faso would also do for many other African countries.
Burkinabé people called their protest a “Black Spring”, taking cue from the “Arab Spring” that has swept north Africa and the Middle East. It is too soon to say whether the black spring will spread. But as Tolu Ogunlesi, a popular Nigerian blogger, put it: “A culture of citizen protests appears to be sweeping the continent.”
Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, famously declared in 1986 that “the problem of Africa . . . is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power”. Within 10 years he had rewritten the constitution allowing him to serve a third term and then a fourth one. Many believe he will seek a fifth.
Several other leaders are looking to follow his example. Earlier this year, Pierre Nkurunziza, president of Burundi, tried to rewrite the constitution to run for a third term, but failed by a single vote. Diplomats believe the leaders of Togo, Benin, Congo-Brazzaville, Djibouti, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are likely to try get rid of term limits within the next two years.
But the events in Ouagadougou should give them pause for thought, for two reasons.
First, sub Saharan Africa’s young and urban population, suffering from high unemployment, could be a force for change, through violent protests if necessary. In recent months, they have taken to the streets in Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan on an unprecedented scale. The spread of mobile phones, and the easy access to social media, is helping to increase mobilisation.
Abdoulaye Wade, the former president of Senegal, realised that too late. In 2012, he ran for president for a controversial third time, after convincing the Constitutional Court that his first term did not count, only to lose after the opposition capitalised on a youth-led uprising to win the elections.
Second, Western powers are less inclined than in the past to stand behind incumbents seeking to cling on to office. The US, in particular, is taking a hardline: its diplomats in Ouagadougou spent weeks openly telling local Burkinabè media that Washington was firmly against Mr Compaoré’s attempts to rewrite the constitution. Although many African leaders have switched their affections to authoritarian China, the views of the US and former colonial masters France and Britain still matter.
The black spring of Burkina Faso shows how the demands of an impatient young population, by 2020 three out of four people in Africa will be 20 years old or younger, are growing. After a decade of strong economic growth enthusiastically branded “Africa rising” most young city dwellers feel left behind. It is hardly surprising that some are following the advice of Thomas Sankara, the late Burkinabè leader killed during the 1987 coup that propelled Mr Compaoré to power: “The future is revolutionary”. The future belongs to those who struggle.