How citizens’ revolt in Burkina Faso unfolded

By Ernest Harsch

December 9, 2014 -- African Futures, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author -- Even the long months of demonstrations and strikes that came before did not fully prepare the people of Burkina Faso for what they would accomplish during the last week of October 2014. In Ouagadougou, the capital, hundreds of thousands—organisers claimed a million—packed the central square on Tuesday, October 28, to protest President Blaise Compaoré’s “constitutional coup”, as they called his plan to force through an amendment enabling him to run for reelection yet again, after more than a quarter century in power.

Similar outpourings hit Koudougou, Ouahigouya, Kaya, Koupéla, Dori, and other towns across the country. Most were disciplined and peaceful, in line with opposition instructions. In the eastern town of Fada N’Gourma, however, several thousand burned the headquarters of Compaoré’s ruling party. In Bobo-Dioulasso, a commercial centre in the west, young protesters symbolically pulled down a statue of Compaoré—while leaving untouched one of the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi right next to it.[1]

Despite those massive turnouts, and despite women’s demonstrations the day before and trade union demonstrations the day after, Compaoré and his allies persisted. They announced that on October 30 their deputies in the National Assembly would vote to change the constitution. If adopted, their amendment would have permitted Compaoré to run not just for one more term, but three more. Some party leaders were already looking beyond the next election in 2015 and only half-jokingly suggested that their slogan should be “Blaise Compaoré 2020.”

Disgusted by the arrogance, people again occupied the streets and squares of major cities the morning of the planned vote. Their mood was now angrier, as protesters insisted more forcefully that Compaoré resign, and their tactics turned confrontational. Thousands sacked the National Assembly, preventing the vote. They attacked the government’s television network, forcing it off the air. The mayor’s office, ruling party headquarters and homes of high officials were burned. Some protesters were killed as security forces tried to disperse them. Thousands marched to the presidential palace, but were blocked by troops. Similar scenes of rage swept the country. Only days later did reports trickle in confirming the extent of the destruction, much of it carefully targeted against government symbols and supporters.

Although the embattled president now agreed to leave the constitution intact, he still insisted on staying in office until the end of his term, provoking huge crowds to again fill the streets on October 31. Already, some soldiers from Camp Guillaume in central Ouagadougou had joined the anti-Compaoré demonstrators, while other troops simply let protesters pass unhindered.

Facing a split within their own ranks, military officers quickly decided to declare the government’s dissolution, before the situation in the streets escaped anyone’s control. Compaoré, finally bowing to reality, resigned that same day, and with French assistance fled to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. Army officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida took charge temporarily, and opened talks with opposition parties and civil society groups on a speedy handover to a caretaker civilian-led transitional government. Michel Kafando, a retired diplomat, was selected by consensus as the new interim president and sworn in on November 18, with the prime task of preparing elections within a year.

Revolutionary inspiration

These events recalled the popular revolutions in North Africa three years earlier, in both scope and the aim of bringing down long-entrenched authoritarian rulers. In fact, one of the more popular slogans in Burkina Faso, shouted by protesters and painted on walls, was “Blaise dégage” (Blaise, clear out), adapted from the Tunisian uprising.

In the immediate wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, activists throughout sub-Saharan Africa took inspiration and tried to initiate comparable movements, gaining some traction here and there, though not to the extent they had hoped.[2] The popular insurrection in Burkina Faso is now also drawing attention across the region, where mobilisations on such a scale have been rare—and rarer still in actually toppling a president.

“A veritable democratic harmattan [desert wind] is sweeping Africa”, commented Francis Kpatindé, a well-known political scientist from Benin. “People who have been stifled can now legitimately think that what was possible in Ouagadougou could also be in Brazzaville, Kinshasa, Banjul, and elsewhere.” Across these capitals, as well as in other corners of the African continent (Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Angola), the events of Burkina Faso have invigorated on-going debates about term limits, their constitutional provisions and the future of their longstanding rulers.

Where and to what extent the sparks from Burkina Faso may ignite fires elsewhere will depend largely on the combustibility of local conditions: Are social and political elites united behind the regime, or have cracks emerged at the top? Are people sufficiently aggrieved and their rulers so impervious to change that activists see no alternative but to risk open, mass defiance? And are they organised enough, especially at the grassroots level?

As noted Mathias Dzon, an opposition leader in the Congo Republic (Brazzaville), “we can’t say that Burkinabè went out into the streets to change their president in a spontaneous fashion. Some work went into it.”

'27 years is enough!'

The conditions for revolt in Burkina Faso certainly did not emerge overnight. They built up over a quarter of a century, encapsulated in the demonstrators’ slogan “27 years is enough!” By pointing to how long Compaoré had been in office, critics often recalled how the former army captain originally took power: through a military coup and the assassination of President Thomas Sankara, a popular and charismatic revolutionary leader.[3]

Compaoré’s junta not only jailed, tortured, killed, or drove into exile those loyal to Sankara, but also undid many of the innovations of Sankara’s revolutionary era, such as self-help mobilisations to build schools and health clinics and a greater reliance on domestic resources to develop the economy. The Compaoré regime chose instead to ally itself with conservative social elites and externally leaned more heavily on foreign aid and close ties with major Western capitals, especially Paris, the country’s former colonial ruler.[4]

The early 1990s brought a wave of pro-democracy movements across Africa, including in Burkina Faso. Facing domestic discontent and some pressure from France, Compaoré carefully orchestrated a shift to constitutional rule and multi-party elections. He erected a dominant party machine that relied partly on electoral fraud but mainly on the use of state resources and patronage favours to undermine opposition and secure high vote tallies in election after election. Though Burkina Faso now had the trappings of democracy, it was by most definitions a “semi-authoritarian” state.[5]

The regime’s repressive underbelly was dramatically highlighted by the 1998 assassination of independent journalist Norbert Zongo. Evidence pointed to Compaoré’s elite presidential guard, acting to keep Zongo from exposing a scandal implicating the president’s brother. The murder sparked a prolonged countrywide revolt.[6] Compaoré—a master of deflection, delay, and cooptation—survived only by promising reform. That included reinstating the constitution’s two-term presidential limit, which he had scrapped in 1997. But the subservient Constitutional Court ruled that the new limit did not apply retroactively, enabling Compaoré to run again in 2005 and 2010.

In early 2011, just a few months after Compaoré latest re-election, the country again plunged into crisis. This time the provocation was the death of a student from a severe police beating. Starting with angry youth demonstrations, the unrest persisted for months with a cascading series of labour marches, merchants’ protests, judges’ strikes, army and police mutinies, farmers’ boycotts and attacks on mining sites.[7] The protests had no central direction, however, and opposition parties’ attempts to mobilize failed miserably.

On-the-ground organisation

With the government now weakened by the mass mobilisation, the main opposition parties secured some advances in the December 2012 legislative election, increasing their representation from a dozen deputies to 28, more than a fifth of the total. The opposition’s new parliamentary leadership, headed by Zéphirin Diabré, forged a broad alliance of more than 40 parties (the country has many others as well), with better organisation and coordination than ever before.[8] When the ruling party pushed through a constitutional amendment to create a new Senate, an upper house that would have been dominated by Compaoré loyalists, the opposition saw it as a maneuvre to pave the way for lifting the presidential term limit. Through the latter half of 2013, the opposition parties, supported by labour unions and civil society groups, mounted large anti-Senate demonstrations, effectively blocking its establishment.

Meanwhile, grassroots activists launched several new initiatives. Two popular musicians, the rapper Smockey and reggae artist Sams’k Le Jah, launched Balai Citoyen (Citizens’ Broom) in mid-2013. It was inspired in part by Y’en a Marre, a rapper-initiated group in Senegal that had sparked a broad—and successful—popular movement against constitutional manipulation. Although not aligned with any party, Balai Citoyen had explicit political goals: to “sweep out” poor governance and preserve the presidential term limit. Within two months it had affiliated “clubs” in all of Ouagadougou’s neighborhoods and in most major cities. Its ability to speak the language of disaffected youth drew many more into active participation in anti-government protests.

In early 2014, as the authorities began talking more seriously about a constitutional referendum, a new activist network emerged, the Collectif Anti-Référendum (CAR, Anti-Referendum Collective). Initially formed by 365 associations in Ouagadougou, it soon spread across the country and prompted the opposition parties to form their own local anti-referendum action committees. Later in the year yet another grouping arose, the Front de Résistance Citoyenne (FRC, Citizens’ Resistance Front), comprising two dozen civil society associations and headed by prominent pro-democracy intellectuals.

The trade unions, meanwhile, built their own alliances with consumer associations and others; they demonstrated and went on strike around worker grievances and high prices, with defence of the constitution prominent among their demands.

Thomas Sankara

The work of such activists did much to boost the demonstrations called by the opposition party leaders. They also contributed to an increasingly notable feature in many anti-government actions: references to the late revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara. More than a quarter century after his death, Sankara remained a hero and inspiration to many young Burkinabè, his portrait carried by marchers, voice recordings played over demonstration sound systems, and sayings quoted in slogans and speeches.

In the huge anti-government outpourings of late October, Al Jazeera reported that many young protesters were inspired by the spirit of “Africa’s Che Guevara”, while the Paris daily Le Monde saw Compaoré’s overthrow as “the revenge of Thomas Sankara’s children”. Acknowledging such popular sentiments, Lt.-Col. Zida, the interim military leader, said that the Burkinabè people’s decision to rise up reflected an “identity of integrity that we have carried proudly since the August 1983 revolution” led by Sankara.

Whether motivated by revolutionary visions or just determined to see Compaoré gone, it was the young activists who spurred the final push to insurrection. Diabré and other senior opposition leaders had called the demonstrations, and even urged their followers to engage in civil disobedience against the amendment vote. But it was members of Balai Citoyen, the CAR, and others on the frontlines who decided to breach the security lines around the National Assembly.

According to Hervé Ouattara, president of the CAR and an initiator of the huge marches on the presidential palace on October 30-31, leaders of his network understood that if Compaoré had to be forced out, “peaceful demonstrations would not be enough”. They prepared for confrontation, but also opened lines of communication with army officers. Those officers, convinced of the protesters’ determination, chose to avoid more bloodshed by deposing Compaoré instead.


Over the next year, the transition away from the Compaoré era will be full of uncertainties. The opposition leaders are focused on new elections, which they clearly hope to win. Others, closer to the activist networks, are also pushing for more fundamental changes: to improve people’s economic and social conditions, root out corruption, reform state institutions and bring to justice the worst criminals of the ancien régime.

Drawing analogies with the French revolution, one local journalist pointed to the rise of Burkina Faso’s own sans-culottes, these revolutionaries from the popular strata, distinct from the dominant social categories”.Now awakened to their ability to alter the course of events, they will surely demand a voice in shaping the changes ahead.


[1]  Agence d’information du Burkina (Ouagadougou), October 28, 2014.
[2]  Ernest Harsch, “An African Spring in the Making: Protest and Voice Across a Continent,” Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, vol. 13, no. 1, Winter/Spring 2012, pp. 45-61.
[3]  Ernest Harsch, Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014.
[4]  René Otayek, Filiga Michel Sawadogo and Jean-Pierre Guingané, eds. Le Burkina entre révolution et démocratie (1983-1993). Paris: Karthala, 1996.
[5]  Mathieu Hilgers and Jacinthe Mazzocchetti, eds. Révoltes et oppositions dans un régime semi-autoritaire: Le case du Burkina Faso. Paris: Karthala, 2010.
[6]  Ernest Harsch, “Trop, c’est trop!: Civil Insurgence in Burkina Faso, 1998-99,” Review of African Political Economy, no. 81, 1999, pp. 395-406
[7]  Leila Chouli, Burkina Faso 2011: Chronique d’un mouvement social, Lyon: Tahin Party, 2012.
[8]  “Burkina Faso: The Opposition Becomes Better Organized,” Economist Intelligence Unit (London), July 9, 2013.