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A beginner's guide to the Burkina Faso crisis

Protestors outside of parliament in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou.
Protestors outside of parliament in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou.
(Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré, who has ruled for 27 years, announced his resignation on Friday morning, a major moment in the political crisis in the West African nation, and apparently the result of massive protests and perhaps a military coup. Where did this sudden-seeming uprising come from? And what does it mean for Burkina Faso, and the region?

Here's a brief guide, for Burkinabe beginners, to the country's crisis.

How we got here: dictatorship, revolution, and inequality

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Burkina Faso and neighbors. (Jeroen)

Burkina Faso, a former French colony, has gone through a number of governments since gaining independence in 1960. But for present purposes, the most important events begin around 1983.

That year, Captain Thomas Sankara seized power in a military coup. Sankara was a radical leftist, described by West African journalist Kingsley Kobo as "Africa's Che Guevara." One of Sankara's leading co-revolutionaries was Blaise Compaoré (the president who just stepped down), but he decided in the late '80s that being merely part of Sankara's government wasn't enough. In 1987, Sankara was assassinated, and Compaoré seized power.

Compaoré quickly abandoned Sankara's socialism and set about building a system that seemed principally designed to keep Compaoré in power. Over the years, his government developed a quasi-democratic cast, though it was never really a competitive democracy, as you might have guessed from the leader's 27 years in office. As the International Crisis Group explains in an excellent report, Compaoré strung together a regime centered on support from the military, a centralized political party, and "traditional chiefdoms" at the town and village level.

The military protected Compaoré's regime from major challengers, while the political party and local political institutions ensured his repeated electoral victories. Opposition parties had paltry resources compared to Compaoré, and chiefs "secretly issue voting instructions to the people before every important election" which, per the ICG, people generally followed.

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Blaise Compaoré. (Ahmed Ouaba/AFP/Getty Images)

This isn't to say Compaoré's regime was 100 percent stable. In both 1998 and 2011, he faced major challenges, both prompted by murders: in 1998, a journalist critical of the government was killed; in 2011, a schoolboy was beaten to death in police custody. These events touched on deeper, underlying unhappiness with the government. As France 24 breaks down, there's been long-running discontent about corruption and living standards. For instance, Burkina Faso's economy grew at a rate of 7 percent in 2012, but about half the population still lived below the poverty line.

Compaoré managed these problems for decades. But according to the ICG, the "combination of compromise and illusions" he used to do it was "becoming less and less effective" — as the events of the last day have, without a doubt, proven.

What's happening now: protests and a military coup

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Protestors in the capital (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

The immediate trigger for the current crisis was Compaoré's decision to run for another term as president, which he announced in June. That may sound unremarkable, given that he'd already been in power for 27 years. But under Burkina Faso's constitution, he was term-limited: Compaoré also wanted to amend the constitution to eliminate term limits altogether. The legislature was supposed to debate making that change on Thursday.

Burkinabes rose up in protest. On the surface they were protesting Compaoré's effort to get the legislature to end term limits for him, but this is also about the deeper issues discussed above: corruption, inequality, and a lack of democracy. The situation got to a crisis point the week of October 27. Security forces and protestors clashed in the capital, Ouagadougou (pronounced "waga-doo-goo") during an October 28 rally that opposition figures said included up to one million people. By October 30, protestors had stormed the state television channel and had literally set fire to the country's parliament.

The main demand was an end to one-party rule, and the creation of a real, democratic government in Burkina Faso. Burkinabes and outside observers looked to the military: would they side with the government or with the protesters?

The military sided with the protesters. On October 30, Army Chief General Honore Traore announced an interim transitional government nominally aimed at moving toward real constitutional rule. By the morning of October 31, Compaoré resigned, and elections were planned for three months from now.

It's not clear what's coming next

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Women pose with an armored personnel carrier in Ouagadougou. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

As of right now, the situation is incredibly fluid. According to the Associated Press's Brahima Ouedraogo, many believe the Burkinabe prime minister will take power, but there's also a strong possibility the military could step in. It's not at all clear yet whether or not the elections roughly planned for January will happen, or whether Burkina Faso will actually end up more democratic or simply be governed by a different form of autocracy.

Political transitions have been a difficult issue in sub-Saharan Africa. As Stanford PhD candidate Ken Opalo notes, African leaders who have tried to extend their rule by eliminating term limits have generally succeeded in recent years. That's especially true when, like Compaoré, they enjoy control over the legislature. But things went differently in Burkina Faso: does this have wider implications in Africa?

Could this lead to other protest movements in other sub-Saharan African countries, as protests spread during the Arab Spring? Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor and an expert on the Arab Spring, suggested it was possible. Democratic uprisings do often happen in regional waves. However, skepticism from experts on West Africa caused Lynch to reevaluate his view. Noting that the Burkinabe protests were about a very local issue (term limits), he wrote, "it's very likely that the diffusion of the Arab uprisings really was unique to that moment and that there are no lessons for African regional protest diffusion."

That said, Lynch thinks it's not impossible that protests spread: "I want to hear a bit more about how the uprising has been received in other African countries, whether it is being linked to a collective political narrative, whether modular forms of protest begin to be adopted, and that sort of thing before I give up."

There are also potential regional consequences. Compaoré made regional diplomacy a major priority of his administration, particularly as a conflict mediator. He's also allowed the United States to use his country as a base for spying operations directed at the nearby al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. So expect people around the region, and around the world, to watch this closely.

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