THE BLOG

People Power in Burkina Faso Has Shaken up Africa's Autocrats

12/01/2014 05:27 EST | Updated 01/31/2015 05:59 EST
AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images
Burkinese opposition supporters shout slogans during a protest at Nation Square in Ouagadougou on January 18, 2014. Burkina Faso's opposition leader Zephirin Diabre has called for protests against plans by President Blaise Compaore to extend his mandate by another five years. AFP PHOTO/AHMED OUOBA (Photo credit should read AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images)

The people of Burkina Faso, in October 2014, achieved the unthinkable. They literally drove an autocrat out of Burkina Faso. Sub-Saharan Africa is, of course, home to more than half a dozen autocratic rulers that have held the reigns of state power between 20-40 years. Cameroon's 81-year-old Paul Biya is one year short of 40 years of being at the helm initially as prime minister and as president.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who is 72 years old, has ruled Equatorial Guinea for 35 years. Jose Eduardo dos Santos who has run Angola for 35 is 72 as well. The 90-year old Robert Mugabe has led Zimbabwe first as prime minister and president for 34 years. At 71, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda has been in power for 28 years. The 70-year old Omar al-Bashir has ruled Sudan for 25 years. Initially ruling as vice president through a figurehead and then president, the 57-year old Paul Kagame has been at the helm in Rwanda for 20 years.

Blaise Compaore was a member of this club of African dictators, having ruled Burkina Faso for no less than 27 years. And he was about to to extend his rule through a constitutional amendment when more than a million Burkinabé poured on the streets and said "enough is enough." The collapse of the regime has resulted in a one-year transitional phase at the end of which there will be presidential and national elections.

The spectacular ouster of Compaoré by "people power" raises a key question: will it inspire similar uprising against Africa's dictatorships?

There are hopeful signs in that direction. Even before the uprising in Burkina Faso, hundreds of people in Benin in September, 2014, had poured onto the streets to give solidarity to the "Red Wednesday movement" whose slogan is ''Don't touch my constitution.'' The incumbent head of state, Thomas Yayi, has in the past hinted on the need of removing term limits to enable him to stay in power. Barely two weeks after the disintegration of the Compaoré regime, thousands of Togolese demonstrated for several days demanding reforms of electoral laws that have entrenched a father-son dictatorship that has run by the country for more than 50 years. The current ruler, Faure Gnassingbe, took power in 2005 following the death of his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had ruled Togo for 38 years.

For millions of Africans, most of whom have lived under one ruler all their lives, developments in Burkina Faso have breathed a new life and hope into nascent democratic movement across Sub-Saharan Africa. The Burkina Faso's people power is bound to affect every other Sub-Saharan country in some way -- small or large, direct or indirect, proving that Africa is not preordained to remain under dictatorship forever.

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    People stand in front of smoke rising from the Burkina Faso's Parliament, where demonstrators set cars on fire parked in a courtyard of the Parliament, on October 30, 2014 in Ouagadougou, as they protest at plans to change the constitution to allow President Blaise Compaore to extend his 27-year rule.
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    People stand in front of smoke rising from the Burkina Faso's Parliament, where demonstrators set cars on fire parked in a courtyard of the Parliament, on October 30, 2014 in Ouagadougou, as they protest at plans to change the constitution to allow President Blaise Compaore to extend his 27-year rule.
  • AFP/Getty Images
    People stand in front of smoke rising from the Burkina Faso's Parliament, where demonstrators set cars on fire parked in a courtyard of the Parliament, on October 30, 2014 in Ouagadougou, as they protest at plans to change the constitution to allow President Blaise Compaore to extend his 27-year rule.
  • AFP/Getty Images
    People stand in front of smoke rising from the Burkina Faso's Parliament, where demonstrators set cars on fire parked in a courtyard of the Parliament, on October 30, 2014 in Ouagadougou, as they protest at plans to change the constitution to allow President Blaise Compaore to extend his 27-year rule.
  • AFP/Getty Images
    People stand in front of smoke rising from the Burkina Faso's Parliament, where demonstrators set cars on fire parked in a courtyard of the Parliament, on October 30, 2014 in Ouagadougou, as they protest at plans to change the constitution to allow President Blaise Compaore to extend his 27-year rule.
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Women dance during a rally to support demonstrations in Burkina Faso, in Paris, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014.
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A boy attends a rally to support demonstrations in Burkina Faso, in Paris, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014.
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    A man holds a placard reading "Don't touch my constitution" during a rally to support demonstrations in Burkina Faso, in Paris, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014.
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    A man holds a placard reading "Blaise get out", a reference to Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, during a rally to support demonstrations in Burkina Faso, in Paris, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014.
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    People chant slogans during a rally to support demonstrations in Burkina Faso, in Paris, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014.