This is a guest post by Jean-Yves Ollivier, a French businessman who has spent over forty years involved in peace talks in Africa. He serves as CEO of the Brazzaville Foundation for Peace and Nature Conservation.
Judging by the media coverage, everyone seems to be in agreement: since the wind of revolt pushed Blaise Compaoré out of Burkina Faso and finally liberated the “Republic of honourable people” from a "twenty seven year dictatorship," the other “dinosaurs” in power in Africa just have to sit tight and forget about any ideas they had about keeping power. But people have jumped to conclusions regarding the nature of the revolt, the nature of the deposed regime, and the chances of current presidents to keep power.
To start with, it was a coup d’état by young people.
Whoever saw the revolts in Ouagadougou – whether in real life or on TV – must have realized what demographers have been telling us for years: that 70 percent of the population is under 30 and have never known any other president than Blaise Compaoré. I can remember a thirty-odd year old man shouting at the camera: “Fed up with Compaoré! I have a Master’s degree in law but no job.” Whoever comes to power in Burkina Faso, I’m very afraid that he will remain unemployed…and outraged.
The Sahel is not all of Africa. In this southern strip of the Sahara the population growth rate is greater than 3 percent. However, there is but dry earth to scrape and not enough paying jobs for the hordes of young people who haven’t had the right education but dream of what they see on satellite TV night after night. Hence emigration or escape to so-called economic “rackets” or else full-scale contraband including drug trafficking; hence the fundamentalism of new moral economies whether it be Christian born again-style Pentecostal churches or jihadist movements from Ansar Dine in Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria to al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Data and situations vary from one end of this huge continent to the next. For better or worse, how do you compare the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), rich in every ore, with Burkina Faso? The same goes for the nature of the regimes. This is the second conclusion that has been jumped to and muddles Blaise Compaoré’s government with Joseph Kabila’s in DRC or Paul Biya or Paul Kagamé in Cameroon and Rwanda. The lone commonality between these men is how long they have been in power. Is that enough to conclude that an enduring power is a harsh government or dictatorship? We might as well praise the “cabinet reshuffle.”
And, there’s the third sweeping conclusion: wanting to stay in power would surely be “bad” and wrong whilst a change in power would be good and more democratic. In the aftermath of Ouagadougou’s sweeping change, it would seem that the rejection of any constitutional amendment to extend the presidential mandates, whether it is done democratically or not, gives the opponents a rightfulness and support from the international community. However, if the people freely decide to pay a premium for stability by way of a referendum for example, who can stop them? And who’s to say that the young people who ransacked parliament in Ouagadougou represent the people? The army got involved for a reason. The opposition was unable to control its troops. Once in power, will it be capable of ensuring order and respect for property and people? Will it respect liberties and the liberty of those who are against it?
It’s too early to tell. If presidents in power want to renew their mandate wherever they are despite existing constitutional constraints, they must reinvent themselves and win over their young populations – that is essential and that will be a determining factor in defining the effect as a domino or a boomerang.