A week of escalating protests in Burkina Faso exploded into violence Thursday as tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets against an attempt by longstanding President Blaise Campaore to extend his 27-year rule.
Demonstrators in the capital Ouagadougou broke through lines of police, who used tear gas, to storm and torch the parliament building. The protesters took to the streets to protest a vote – now cancelled – that would have changed the constitution to allow President Compaore to run for an unprecedented fifth term.
“We have tired of this president. We want a new system,” says Ives Ouedraogo, who is 27-years-old and unemployed, speaking to The Christian Science Monitor by telephone from Ouagadougou. “I know just one president in my life. He needs to let another person.”
At press time, Compaore’s whereabouts are unknown, but there are reports he has traveled to Senegal. Compaore’s brother, Francis, was arrested at the Ouagadougou airport. The presidential guard fired on civilians charging the brother’s home, killing at least three, Reuters reports. Riots continued throughout the day, with pyres of furniture and tires sending thick clouds of black smoke into the sky.
With parts of the military joining the uprising, the protests are likely to bring to a rocky close the often bumpy tenure of one of Africa’s longest-standing rulers. Some in the capital are waiting by their radios – the state television is blacked out – for an announcement about who is in charge.
“We saw this was a regime that was crumbling,” says African security analyst Ryan Cummings, who works for risk management firm Red24, by phone. He cites Compaore's loss of support within the military and his own party.
Though Burkina Faso’s opposition is united against Compaore, they have yet to coalesce behind a single leader. A power vacuum may lead to infighting and instability.
Compaore came to power in a military coup in which his erstwhile friend and revolution hero Thomas Sankara was assassinated. Since then he has held onto power with US and French backing, despite Burkina Faso suffering deep poverty. He survived an attempted overthrow in 2011, but never recovered popularity.
The Burkinabe uprising has stirred memories of former President Sankara, whose death many blame on Compaore and who was a revered figure by many leftists and Pan-Africanists. The protests have also captured the imaginations of many across the continent who are frustrated with aging leaders who overstay their welcome. Some quip this could signal the coming of an “African Spring,” similar to the Arab uprisings of 2011.
While such predictions may not pan out, today’s events could be taken as a warning to other leaders across the continent who are trying to abolish term limits, such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.
For the west, Compaore’s troubles present another challenge. Burkina Faso is used as a base of operations for fighting extremism in the Sahel region, particularly in Mali.
“Compaore as much as he was vilified by the local population he was a key ally of the west… without him there’s no guarantee the status quo will persist,” Mr. Cummings says.
“The country itself is quite key for regional stability…There’s going to be a void and that could catalyze a lot of extremist groups and this could see other countries being destabilized.”