Tuesday marked the start of a popular resistance campaign in Burkina Faso in opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow President Blaise Compaore to run for a third term. The term limit law, enacted in 2000, currently limits the president to two terms, and Compaore secured his second five-year mandate in 2010. Some have asked if these protests will succeed in stopping Compaore’s bid to stay in office especially given his tight grip on power for more than 27 years—he has been in office since 1987 after he led the coup d’etat that killed former leader Thomas Sankara.
While it may be easy to cite several African leaders who have successfully done away with term limits and determine that Burkinabè don’t have a chance, this time it may not be simple victory for Compaore. Citizens across Africa are learning from each other and youth in Burkina Faso have learned from Senegal’s Y’en a Marre movement. As Marianne Saddier noted just a few weeks ago, there was already a youth-led movement called Le Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom) that formed during the summer of 2013 to struggle against bad governance and to improve social conditions.
The two musicians at the head of Le Balai Citoyen, rapper Smockey and reggae artist Sams K, have very close links to Y’en a Marre. They have had meetings with the leaders and were given ideas and suggestions for organizing and strategizing. There are also similarities between the two groups; both assert a pro-democratic and nonviolent position and both call for the participation of the population to create change through protests. In a visual show of solidarity, in June 2014, Y’en a Marre rapper-activist’s Thiat and Kilifeu were on hand for concerts, protests, and conferences in Ouagadougou and Bobo Dioulasso, the second largest city, to support local opposition to any amendment to the constitution. It would not be surprising to see Y’en a Marre activists in Burkina Faso in the coming days or weeks to lend support to the movement.
Young Burkinabè have become organized. They have also learned from the Senegalese case that even if Compaore is allowed to run for a third term, their fight for democracy is not necessarily over. In Senegal, when the Constitutional Court allowed Wade to run for a third term, citizen coalitions turned their energy toward defeating Wade in elections. Burkina Faso’s youth-led movement has also learned the importance of using the tools they have at hand—their popularity, their microphones, and their access to the media. They are spreading their message through social networks, protests and concerts.
It is unclear whether the current citizen action in Burkina Faso will mark an end to the presidency of Blaise Compaore. The country experienced a wave of protests in 2011 that included students, soldiers and others. The protests quickly ceased as the government responded by imposing a curfew, closing schools, and using violence as the police opened fire to disperse youth. It may be possible for the current demonstrations in Burkina Faso to have a different outcome because citizen groups did not solely organize in opposition to the proposed constitutional changes. Rather the grassroots movement had been building since at least 2013. Youth have been reaching out to local communities and building coalitions with the political opposition in hopes that when the time is right, the masses will not hesitate to go to the streets to protest. Research into social movements suggests that forging alliances and building coalitions are essential strategies in grassroots social action. These linkages are often vital resources to sustain a movement.