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Signal to African rulers

Claus Stäcker / ksbOctober 30, 2014

In the West African nation of Burkina Faso, parliament is burning. For days, protesters have been demonstrating against President Blaise Compaoré - a warning to all African rulers, says DW's Claus Stäcker.

Burkina Faso, Africa
Image: Reuters/Joe Penney

What does the world care about a violent uprising in Burkina Faso? What's so interesting about this "land of upright people"? In Germany, the ambitious Opera Village project in Burkina Faso, which was created by German film director Christoph Schlingensief, is talked about more often than the country's falling president. Who's heard of Compaoré before?

It's worth taking a closer look at the former French colony. Compaoré himself came to power in 1987 as the result of a coup. He eliminated the widely popular leader Thomas Sankara, who had conquered hearts with humility and his revolutionary style. His official state car was legendary - a Renault 5, Burkina Faso's cheapest car.

Constitutional coup was unsuccessful

After Sankara and other so-called "traitors" were killed, Compaoré stylized himself as the true guardian of the "democratic people's revolution." But despite his 27 years in office, he remained a suspicious autocrat, even though, after a decade of military rule, he allowed political parties and media diversity. In 2000, he had the constitution amended for the first time, in order to be able to stay in power. Again and again he mercilessly struck down political and social protests, most recently in 2011. Since last year, Compaoré has also simultaneously been head of state and minister of defense. But his attempt to change the constitution again, in order to allow him two more terms in office, has failed. This clumsy takeover of parliament has riled the country's people, the "Burkinabé." Compaorés' "constitutional coup" - as critics have named the attempt - was the spark to a flame. And the parliament building in Ouagadougou really did go up in flames.

In the uprising there is hope - and a clear signal. Blaise Compaorés time is up and the period of everlasting old men in Africa is over. The people are fighting back against long-standing leaders like Compaoré, if necessary with violence. In more and more African countries, after an election defeat or two terms in office, presidents are resigning in line with the constitution.

Deutsche Welle's Claus Stäcker
Claus Stäcker: head of DW's Africa departmentImage: DW

It was in Benin, an even smaller country than Burkina Faso, that in 1991 Mathieu Kérékou set an example and was the first leader in Africa to stand down after an election defeat. In Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda showed how it was done and in Mozambique, two presidents have stepped down, each after two terms in office. In Ghana, even coup leader Jerry Rawlings led a transition to democracy. Nelson Mandela in South Africa sat for a single term and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, also didn't stay for long. South Africa's current president, Jacob Zuma, won't be daring to infringe the constitution either.

Sea of change in Africa

Africans are no longer allowing themselves to be taken for fools. They're mostly young, self-confident people who, through the Internet and social media, are informed and well-connected. For them, the stories of past heroes from the time of liberation struggles have expired. Post-colonial long-term leaders like Robert Mugabe (90) in Zimbabwe, Paul Biya (81) in Cameroon, José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola (72) or Teodoro Obiang Nguema (72) in Equatorial-Guinea are discontinued models.

And yet some, like Congolese Joseph Kabila, have apparently still not heard the signals. Kabila has been in power since 2001 and his time in office should end for good in 2016. But still his allies are working on a constitutional amendment. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza is tinkering with the constition so he can stay in office for a third term. By 2019 he will have been in power for 14 years. Men like him are playing with fire! Africa has changed. The era of smug, ancient politicians is over. Today, Burkina Faso's name which means "land of upright people" represents not only a country, but an entire continent. Compaoré may succeed one more time in in lining up the army behind him, but certainly not the people.