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Interview with Gilles Yabi on protests in Burkina and lessons for other countries

The following is an edited transcript and a translation of an interview with Dr Gilles Yabi. Political analyst and economist, Dr Yabi spent seven years as
senior political analyst and then project director for the West Africa Project
of the International Crisis Group. Holding a Ph.D in economics from the university of
Clermont-Ferrand in France, Gilles also worked as a journalist for the weekly
magazine Jeune Afrique. After leaving Crisis Group in November 2013, Gilles is
now independent consultant in the fields of conflict analysis, security and
political governance in West Africa. He also publishes articles and editorials on his blog: Le Blog de
Gilles Yabi (

I’ll start with a big question: What were the key factors in bringing about the fall of President Blaise Compaoré?

I think it is really the result of the attempt to change the constitution with the aim of prolonging his presidency, which was already 27 years long. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back; if he had not tried to change the constitution, I think there would not have been these demonstrations or his departure. He took a risk and made a bad choice.

This is not the first time he tried to change the constitution, and he’s not the only African leader to have tried to do this. But it’s rare that one sees this kind of mobilization, especially one that results in a military coup. Why did we see this kind of mobilization this time and why not in other countries?

Each country has its history and it’s not a technical question, but a political one––Burkina is not Benin, not the DR Congo. It has a particular history, it’s a country that has a very strong political and revolutionary culture due to the time of Thomas Sankara [1983-1987], this led to a very strong politicization of burkinabé society and elites. This period of politicization and militantism is not found in many other countries, because they did not go through a revolutionary period as under Sankara.

Why not before? Over 27 years Compaoré’s regime changed. It used to be a very brutal, very harsh regime that inspired a lot of fear. That fear diminished over time––Compaoré grew older, the regime and the context changed and he could no longer resort to the same kind of pure violence as he used to. When he carried out the two previous constitutional amendments, he was stronger and inspired more fear. In particular, the mutinies of 2011 [over soldiers’ benefits and rising food prices] undermined his stature, and that facilitated this mobilization.

Talk a bit about the actors who sparked this mobilization––was it spontaneous, or were there structures underlying this mobilization?

It wasn’t really spontaneous. There has been a debate for over a year over the change of the constitution that people saw coming. Everyone began positioning themselves. On the political level, we saw important members of the government, including the former head of the national assembly and people very close to Compaoré, leave the ruling party to form another party and to join the opposition. They didn’t want him to change the constitution, they were concerned about how that would affect their own personal interests.

On the side of civil society––there was also a mobilization around this question for over a year. Well-known groups, such as Le Balai Citoyen, a similar kind of youth mobilization as we saw in Senegal, including rappers and musicians who began singing and mobilizing against constitutional change. Those civil society structures were crucial, as well.

But in the end, I don’t think anyone thought it would be so many people in the street. People went into the streets without any organization, any rallying by political parties. Youths, in particular were fed up and wanted change.

Some say that the marches were manipulated by political elites who wanted to get rid of Compaoré. You seem to say that this isn’t an accurate portrayal of what happened. 

I think that’s not the only factor. Of course, there were people who worked with Compaoré who defected over the past year. The fact is that many leaders of the opposition––aside from the so-called Sankariste opposition––including its main leader Zéphirin Diabré, worked with Compaoré. Most of the leaders of the opposition were in government at one point in time. You have to understand, the government had been in power for so long that it co-opted almost all the important civilian leaders at one point in time or the other. So of course these elites were important. But the important thing was that various groups––some out of interests, some out of opportunism, some out of true dedication––came together to oppose changing the constitution. This kind of confluence of action made this kind of result possible.

What role did the donors and foreign diplomats play during the events?

On the public level, the United States had been very clear for a long time that they opposed constitutional changes across Africa. The French, as usual, played a role that was much less clear, until very recently. Eventually, they tried to facilitate a “soft departure,” naming him as the new president of the Francophonie.

But international actors were not decisive in the mobilization. They were surprised, as well. If there had been change of the constitution by a majority in parliament, I don’t think they would have done much in reaction.

What about the military, were they surprised, as well, and had they planned to react against a constitutional revision?

They, too, were surprised, I don’t think they had taken a position on the constitutional revision. One part of the soldiers had the same feeling as the civilians, and wanted change. Also, the reaction to the 2011 mutiny, which led to some heavy prison sentences for some, had left its traces. There was no doubt that there were divisions within the army as a consequence of that and Compaoré’s long rule. But as long as Compaoré was there I am not sure that the soldiers alone would have tried to do something without the popular mobilization. It was when people took to the streets that they had the choice to open fire on the protesters, or to tell Compaoré that he would have to leave.

The situation is still fragile. What is the chance that the transition to a civilian government will be successful?

I am pretty optimistic. The transition has to be the result of negotiations between soldiers, opposition, and civil society. I think the army has understood that the context has changed, and that their best options is to carry out this transition to civilian rule, to try to influence it, of course, but not to create conditions that would isolate Burkina Faso, which really depends on external aid.

Last question: What are the lessons that can be drawn for other countries from what has happened in Burkina Faso? There are other leaders who want to change the constitution to stay in power.

Absolutely. Everyone has seen or heard what has happened in Burkina, on the internet, radio, and television. I’ve already heard that in Chad, opposition parties cite Burkina as an example for mobilization. I think that in places like Benin, where many suspect that the president wants to stay on, some will cite Burkina as an example. But I am skeptical that mobilization can be carried out in these other countries the same way as it was done in Burkina. There is a much higher capacity for corruption in some of these countries, given their revenues, and also much greater international support for the regime. So Burkina will be an inspiration, but not necessarily provide a formula that can be easily reproduced.

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