Burkina Faso: 13 Candidates Face Off in Next Month’s Presidential Elections

In early October, Burkina Faso’s Independent National Electoral Commission (French acronym CENI) issued a provisional list of 14 candidates for the November 22 presidential elections (coupled with legislative elections). Another 9 candidates did not meet the requirements for candidacy.

A CENI decree signed October 10 gives the same list, along with more details, including the number of sponsorships each candidate received. For what it’s worth, 2015’s runner-up, Zéphirin Diabré, received the most, at 170; incumbent President Roch Kaboré received 120, the former ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress’ candidate Eddie Komboigo got 129, and all others got fewer than 100.

On October 22, the Constitutional Council published the final list of candidates. One from the earlier list, Harouna Kindo, was dropped due to not paying the required deposit. That leaves 13 candidates. At the link, Le Faso notes that the Council did not disqualify Yacouba Isaac Zida, who is the former transitional Prime Minister (2014-2015) and, before that, number 2 within the now-disbanded Presidential Security Regiment. Zida, however, remains in exile in Canada.

I profiled the top candidates here a few weeks back. I have no crystal ball regarding the elections, but as I said then, I expect Kaboré to win, in part because of de jure and de facto restrictions on who can vote due to insecurity. But anything could happen. There are formidable candidates among the other 12 figures.

One interesting item that I haven’t explored is what Radio Omega calls “a wave of resignations” from Diabré’s party recently. That’s not good for the formal head of the opposition, obviously. The figure discussed at the link not only was a parliamentary deputy and the deputy president of the party’s parliamentary bloc, but is also apparently a significant figure within the Mossi chiefly establishment – a minister, as he puts it in his Facebook page (as of October 22), to the Mogho Naaba, the country’s “mediator monarch.” I wonder if various politicians are putting their fingers to the wind in the weeks before the election, and I wonder which ways they feel the wind blowing.

Here, finally, is CENI’s provisional list of legislative candidates.

Recent Reporting on Insecurity-Related School Closures in the Central Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

The violent conflicts in the Sahel and in the Lake Chad Basin have been causing schools to close, on and off, for years. Bodies such as Human Rights Watch and the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack have issued reports on this subject this year (in May and September, respectively). Jihadists are key perpetrators of attacks on schools, obviously, targeting them for ideological reasons specific to education (objections to the curricula, for example), but also as symbols and institutions of the state. Schools can also be caught in the crossfire, literal or political, amid extended conflicts; for example, Human Rights Watch points out above that when militaries use schools, it can contribute to making those schools into targets.

Several journalistic reports on school closures have come out just in the past few days:

  • Voice of America (October 19) reports on school closures in northern Cameroon due to attacks by Boko Haram. A Cameroonian official says: “Sixty-two schools have been closed. The children have to be either scholarized [educated] in other schools very far from their own villages or to abandon schools. Thirty-four-thousand-and-fifty-four students have been registered as IDPs. We have the students of the host communities; we have even refugee students.”
  • Le Point (October 21) gives some grim statistics: in Mali, 926 schools out of 8,421 are closed. In the central region of Mopti, the most violent region in the entire Sahel, 127 schools out of 218 are closed.
  • RFI (October 21) gives even worse statistics for Burkina Faso: 2,100 schools closed, although that estimate is actually lower than 2,512, the number of schools closed due to insecurity on the eve of COVID-19, according to Human Rights Watch’s count in its May 2020 report.
  • RFI (October 21) has a short piece on the education crisis in Mali, including a striking micro-portrait of a teacher who was wounded in Kidal, in the far northeast, during an ill-fated visit by the then-Prime Minister there in 2014, which triggered clashes with ex-rebels. The teacher, now in Bamako, says he/she cannot go back because of the state’s absence in Kidal and the security forces’ inability to provide security there.

In some areas, I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say, insecurity is locking parts of entire generations out of their chance at an education. And teachers like the one mentioned above can also have their lives and careers thrown into chaos. Even if the violence stopped tomorrow in all these conflict zones, the effects will be felt over lifetimes.

Mauritania: Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi Returns to Nouakchott

On October 18, Mauritanian national Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi returned to the country’s capital Nouakchott after what Le Figaro estimates is “a dozen years’ exile.” At least two Mauritanian regimes – that of Maaouya Ould Taya in 2004, and that of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in 2011 – issued warrants for his arrest (in 2004 over charges of helping to plot a coup, in 2011 over charges of colluding with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM). But he was never arrested by Mauritanian authorities, and is now back home roughly a year after Ould Abdel Aziz’s successor, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, canceled the warrants for Ould Chafi and two other prominent Ould Abdel Aziz-era dissidents/exiles.

How to classify Ould Chafi? Businessman, politician, intermediary, power broker? Jeune Afrique has covered his career extensively over the years, writing profiles and updated profiles in 2011, 2017, and 2019. In the first profile, we read, “His network goes from Niger to Cote d’Ivoire, where he spends a lot of time around Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, and to Mali, among other [places]. Outside West Africa, his connections go from Morocco to Darfur (Sudan), and also to Rwanda. But he is, first of all, a faithful companion of the Burkinabè president Blaise Compaoré, and has his house and family in Ouagadougou.”

The accusations of collusion with jihadists stem largely from his role in negotiating ransom payments for and releases of western hostages of AQIM, a role he sometimes undertook on behalf of Compaoré. Jeune Afrique‘s 2017 article discusses this dimension of his career a bit more. And nowadays, when accusations arise that Compaoré’s inner circle colluded with AQIM, Ould Chafi’s name continues to come up. I personally have not seen decisive evidence of collusion on the part of either Compaoré or Ould Chafi. I shed no tears when Compaoré was overthrown but in my eyes, negotiations or hostage payments are not tantamount to direct collusion. But I do not, and likely will never, know the full story on any of these dealings.

Back in Nouakchott, Ould Chafi is presenting his return home as purely personal and is disavowing any political agenda.

Roundup: Recent Assessments of U.S. Government Approaches Toward the Sahel

Here are a few items that I saw recently, all in very different ways assessing and critiquing aspects of how the United States government (or parts of it) has/have interacted with the Sahel:

  •  Loren DeJonge Schulman of the Center for a New American Security, “Working Case Study: Congress’s Oversight of the Tongo Tongo, Niger, Ambush.” I learned a lot from this. It reinforces my impression (and this is me speaking, not even paraphrasing Schulman) that U.S. troops are sometimes effectively on combat missions even if those missions go by highly euphemistic names. And there is not much oversight.
  • Nick Turse for the New York Times, “How One of the Most Stable Nations in West Africa Descended Into Mayhem.” This is a major piece of reporting. If you read it seeking a comprehensive explanation of Burkina Faso’s crises, you may walk away disappointed; if you read it as a critique of the United States government’s approach to Burkina Faso, the piece will probably make more sense.
  • State Department Office of Inspector General, “Audit of the Department of State Bureau of African Affairs Monitoring and Coordination of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program.” Some pretty harsh assessments in there – but pretty fair, from what I can tell.

Quoted in Al Jazeera’s Burkina Faso Elections Preview

Burkina Faso holds the first round of its presidential elections on November 22. President Roch Kaboré is seeking re-election and, in my view, is likely to win. I recently looked at some of his leading challengers here.

At Al Jazeera, Henry Wilkins has a really strong article succinctly examining the potential disenfranchisement – de jure and de facto – of thousands of voters. The article draws partly on interviews with a mayor from eastern Burkina Faso (given a pseudonym in the piece for his protection – see some context on the insecurity at the village level in the east here, in French); with Judd Devermont of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and me.

Here is one quote of mine:

“I think the government could have done a lot more to avoid being in this situation in the first place,” Alex Thurston…told Al Jazeera. “Curtailing security force abuses would have helped. But, now that the insecurity is so bad, they have limited options vis-a-vis the elections.”

Burkina Faso: A Delicate Atmosphere Around Inter-Religious Coexistence

From the beginning of Burkina Faso’s current wave of insecurity circa 2016, there have been concerns that the violence would undo the country’s longstanding patterns of inter-religious and specifically Muslim-Christian coexistence and harmony. In 2016, International Crisis Group opened a report on the topic by saying:

Burkina Faso’s great religious diversity and tolerance make it an exception in Africa’s sub-Saharan Sahel. Its model of religious coexistence remains solid but could be at risk of being eroded. For several years now, Muslim leaders have complained that Muslims are under-represented in the civil service and that the administration is not always even-handed in its treatment of Christianity and Islam. Meanwhile, the rising tide of religiously motivated violence in West Africa and the Sahel has created a new regional context. As Burkina is recovering from a period of instability following the October 2014 downfall of former President Blaise Compaoré, and faced with a security emergency and strong social pressures, the government could be tempted to ignore these developments.

For further context, Burkina Faso has a clear Muslim majority of perhaps 61%, according to this estimate, and a substantial Christian minority of around 30%.

Amid the ongoing insecurity, there have been tragic and frightening moments where it has seemed religious coexistence might begin to unravel. Specifically, there have been attacks on churches in the conflict zones in 2019 and 2020. Yet, even as exceedingly grim scenarios are coming to pass in terms of displacement, the tenacity of the insurgency, and escalating levels of violence, the country has – at least in my view – so far avoided the worst-case scenarios in terms of specifically Muslim-Christian violence.

That does not mean there are no tensions – including far outside the conflict zones. One news item that caught my eye recently was a visit on October 3 by the president of the National Assembly, Alassane Bala Sakandé, to the Pazani/Pazaani neighborhood of the capital Ouagadougou. He was there following the destruction of a mosque complex – the mosque itself, another building, and six classrooms – connected with a legal dispute over the land the complex was on. Sakandé called for “dialogue, peace, and tolerance.” The visit also got a fair amount of coverage in local and national media. I think all this points to how delicate the atmosphere is – in other circumstances, the destruction of the mosque might have rankled and caused a neighborhood-level conflict, but in the shadow of the insurgency, it takes on much greater potential significance. It’s good that Sankandé made such a public visit to the site.

See some pictures of the visit here:

A COVID-19 Spike in Burkina Faso?

I raised this question on Twitter the other day, because I continue to follow the COVID-19 numbers coming out of the Sahelien countries, and I’ve been struck by those out of Burkina Faso. (I mostly rely on the daily counts posted by the journalist Dieudonné Lankoande). After a period where new case counts were negligible, my impression was that numbers jumped a bit recently. Others weighed in to basically confirm that impression, with Louis Audet-Gosselin pointing to a recent pocked of cases discovered in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second most populous city and its key economic hub (see here for more).

A quick glance at Google’s figures reinforces the sense that compared to many of its neighbors, and especially its two Sahelian neighbors Mali and Niger, Burkina Faso’s official confirmed case count is relatively high.

CountryReported COVID Case Sept. 8-21Total Country Population (2018)
Burkina Faso44419.8 million
Mali15419 million
Niger1122.4 million
Cote d’Ivoire61925 million
Ghana1,22729.8 million
Togo1817.9 million
Benin8111.5 million

What these numbers mean is above my pay grade. There has been a wide-ranging debate about what seems to be a markedly low case rate in Africa. The Washington Post‘s Karen Attiah weighed in eloquently on that debate recently, noting Western media’s superficial coverage of the issue: “It’s almost as if they are disappointed that Africans aren’t dying en masse and countries are not collapsing.” And I have gone back, several times, to George Kibala Bauer’s post at Africa Is A Country, in which he argues, in part, “COVID-19 is a powerful reminder that we must reclaim African reality in all its forms in order to adequately define and respond to the challenges we face and imagine African futures, which transcend the Western gaze.”

How should one explain, moreover, substantial variation not just within Africa but within a single region or sub-region? Population size seems to matter but obviously does not tell the whole story. Does the explanation for the variation involve a lack of testing in some countries – more sophisticated testing infrastructure in Ghana than in, say, Niger? Or are the levels of actual outbreak markedly different, due to population density and movement, or levels of precaution and preparedness, or some other factor?

Those questions operate at the country level, too: the clusters in Burkina in recent days appear to have been in Bobo-Dioulasso and in the capital Ouagadougou, but also (to a lesser extent) in the western town of Houndé (map) and the southern town of Gaoua (map). These two towns are much smaller than Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, with roughly 50,000 people in Houndé and over 30,000 in Gaoua, according to the outdated estimates found on Wikipedia. That there would be more testing capacity in the major cities makes sense, and that there would be some testing in other parts of the country also makes sense – but does this mean that there are no outbreaks, or simply no testing, in the conflict zones in the north and east? Or are there cases there, in small or large numbers, that are escaping detection? Figures for excess deaths, meanwhile, might help settle these questions, but are not easily accessible from what I can tell.

A COVID-19 spike would be bad news, obviously, for Burkina Faso, with the country and its neighbors having eased key restrictions in July and August, with elections approaching in November, and with mass violence continuing in parts of the north and east.

Burkina Faso’s Presidential Elections: Key Candidates

Burkina Faso’s presidential elections, coupled with legislative elections, are now less than two months away (November 22). The elections will take place under heavy constraints due to mass violence, especially in the north and east, and mass displacement affecting an even wider swath of the country.

Incumbent President Roch Kaboré, who was elected and took office in 2015 following the 2014 popular revolution against longtime incumbent Blaise Compaoré, is seeking re-election. His party is the People’s Movement for Progress (Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrès, MPP).

Who are the other main candidates? A Deutsche Welle headline from this summer puts it well: “Roch Kaboré Facing Compaoré’s Close Associates.” Or you could put it this way: “One ex-Compaoré associate faces others,” given that Kaboré was, until a 2012 rupture and his 2014 move into the (then) opposition, a key member of the dictator’s team.

Here are a few notable candidates, in chronological order of their formal party nominations:

  • Gilbert Noël Ouédraogo, a relatively young candidate (b. 1968). He is head of the Alliance pour la démocratie et la fédération – Rassemblement démocratique africain (Alliance for Democracy and Federation – African Democratic Rally), a long-standing party that supported Compaoré, especially from the 2000s on. He was excluded from contesting in 2015 through a law that banned Compaoré’s close associates from running. His formal candidacy came particularly early in this cycle – April 1, 2019.
  • Zéphirin Diabré, the runner-up in 2015 and formal leader of the country’s opposition under Kaboré. He is running as the candidate of his party, l’Union pour le progrès et le changement (the Union for Progress and Change, UPC). He was formally invested as their candidate on July 25.
  • Eddie Komboïgo, an accountant who has led the ex-ruling party, the Congrès pour la démocratie et le progrès (Congress for Democracy and Progress, CDP), during the post-Compaoré era. Blocked from running in 2015 over Compaoré ties, he reportedly received backing from the ex-president amid intra-CDP power struggles over the past year and more (see below). He was invested as the party’s candidate on July 26.
  • Kadré Desiré Ouedraogo, an ex-prime minister from the Compaoré era (he was PM from 1996-2000), who lost out in the intra-CDP power struggle. He is now the candidate of Agir ensemble (“Act Together”) and allied parties, and was designated as their candidate on September 6.
  • Yacouba Isaac Zida, who played a key role in the opaque power struggle amid and during Compaoré’s fall, then was interim prime minister during the 2014-2015 transition. In the late Compaoré era, Zida was second-in-command of the Presidential Security Regiment, an infamous unit within the military, now disbanded. Zida is scheduled to be invested on September 25 as the candidate of the Mouvement patriotique pour le salut (Patriotic Salvation Movement, MPS). In exile in Canada amid legal troubles back home, he faces complicated questions about whether to return to Burkina Faso and possibly face a court summons or even detention.

Some candidates are not just tied to Compaoré by virtue of their resumes, but also in their messaging. For example, leaders of Ouedraogo’s Agir Ensemble have explicitly evoked a kind of nostalgia for the “stability” of the Compaoré era. This message may have some real appeal for a significant swath of voters – although that does not mean that specific candidates will receive support just because they proclaim they will restore stability.

If polling is an indication, Kaboré is highly vulnerable. But the circumscription of the vote (due to violence, displacement, and/or the electoral law, in whatever proportion you weight the different factors’ impact) may be one factor in increasing his chances of re-election. Another, equally important factor may be the profiles of his opponents – although the “political class” of Mali has come in for a lot of (domestic and international) scorn this summer amid the protests and then the coup there, Mali is not the only country with a relatively stale political class.* Voters’ sense of apathy or disgust with the whole political class could be, on balance, another factor that boosts Kaboré’s chances. I expect him to win.

*Readers, has anyone measured this? Is there a “political class freshness index” out there? It’s easy for me (and others) to say that the Malian or Burkinabè political classes are stagnant, but it’s not as though there is a shortage of long-serving politicians in the United States (Biden, Pelosi, McConnell…).

Burkina Faso: Wrestling with the Implications of Constrained Elections

Burkina Faso is set to hold the first round of presidential elections on November 22, coupled with legislative elections; incumbent President Roch Kaboré is seeking re-election.

On August 25, the National Assembly passed a law modifying the electoral law of 2001. According to the linked article, out of 127 deputies in the legislature, 120 were present, and 107 voted for the law while 9 voted against (presumably, 4 abstained).

The most controversial part of the law is that it allows for, essentially, a partial election if/when “force majeure or exceptional circumstances” prevent polling places from opening in certain places. Jared Thompson spells out the situation in an excellent thread:

As Jared makes clear, one huge concern is not just about the elections’ representativeness in the abstract, but also specifically about whether these provisions will increase the chances of an incumbent victory for Kaboré and his party, the People’s Movement for Progress (Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrès, MPP):

The Economist (paywalled) has put the stakes in stark terms, in light of the August 18 coup in neighboring Mali:

What with widespread accusations of atrocities by the security forces, Burkina Faso’s government could soon face a crisis of legitimacy much like the one that is tearing Mali apart. There, too, jihadists have overrun swathes of the countryside. Dodgy parliamentary elections with a paltry turnout earlier this year were followed by massive anti-government protests and then a coup. ECOWAS, the regional bloc, has told the soldiers running Mali to hand back power to a civilian administration and hold elections within a year. But the men in uniform want to stay in power for three years. When democracy falls, it is hard to restore. Burkina beware.

I have some similar concerns:

A few other observations:

  • To play devil’s advocate for a moment, one could say that Burkina Faso’s new law merely codifies what would have been the reality anyway. Ultimately it is insecurity and displacement, rather than this law, that will prevent people from voting and getting their votes counted. In Mali’s presidential elections in 2018, no “force majeure” clauses were invoked that I can remember – yet hundreds of polling places were closed due to violence and intimidation, and both Malian authorities and foreign powers simply accepted the results and moved on. One could argue that it’s better to be above board about the situation and keep things legal, rather than act like things are fine until election day and then have everyone throw up their hands in mock helplessness. Or one could argue that from a realpolitik perspective, the mistake in Burkina Faso is actually calling attention to the ugly realities now instead of papering over them come November.
  • Stepping out of the devil’s advocate role, honestly, these issues leave me really torn. The questions here cut to the bone: Does the mass violence in the Sahel reduce democracy to a kind of theater? Is the expectation (national and international) that “the (democratic) show must go on” unsustainable? Obviously it’s not up to me to decide whether and how Sahelien democracies function, but elections as a mechanism for providing change or continuity are under tremendous stress now. That doesn’t mean that Burkina Faso should abandon elections, or make Kaboré president for life, or repeal this law and just throw the dice in November to see who can vote safely and who can’t. But it’s hard to see how these elections will do anything other than dent Kaboré’s legitimacy at home and abroad. I guess, if I had to make a recommendation, I would say delay the elections until security conditions permit universal enfranchisement* and then subtract the length of the delay from Kaboré’s term if he wins, and allow the winner a full term if it’s someone else. But that kind of arrangement would require substantial legal/constitutional changes as well, obviously.

*And obviously that’s very problematic too, since the trend lines are going in the exact wrong direction on both violence and displacement:

I wrote about the displacement issue here, as well.

In short, nothing but bad options here. I don’t want to see flawed, unrepresentative elections that set the country up for a political crisis; but it’s also hard to imagine alternatives that wouldn’t involve an awkward, open-ended, and equally undemocratic holding period, waiting years for security conditions to permit an actually representative vote.

A Table Comparing Seven 21st-Century Sahelian Coups

CountryYearCoup?Person RemovedOutcome
Mauritania2005YesMaaouya Ould al-Taya, dictator
in power since 1984 coup
20-month transition to a
civilian administration
with an elected president
who had not been a member of the junta
Mauritania2008YesSidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, civilian president elected in 200712-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had been the junta’s leader
Niger2010YesMamadou Tandja, civilian president elected in 1999, but who engineered an extra-constitutional third term in 200914-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had not been a member of the junta
Mali2012YesAmadou Toumani Touré, civilian president elected in 20023-week transition to civilian-led transitional government, 17-month transition to elected civilian president
Burkina Faso2014Depends on definitions; came amid a popular revolutionBlaise Compaoré, dictator who came to power in a 1987 coup14-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had not been a member of the junta
Burkina Faso2015YesMichel Kafando and Isaac Zida, who came to power as transitional authorities after 2014 revolution (Note: Zida participated in 2014 possible coup)6-day power struggle and reversal of the coup
Mali2020YesIbrahim Boubacar Keïta, civilian president elected in 2013TBD

I made the above table while working on a separate piece trying to place Mali’s coup, and the international reaction to it, into a wider context. Hopefully the table is relatively self-explanatory, and hopefully it will be useful to those considering historical precedents and contrasts for what is happening now. The one item perhaps not self-explanatory is how to categorize what happened in Burkina Faso in 2014. Clearly there was a popular revolution; the question is whether a military coup occurred in the closing stages of that drama. Here is some contemporaneous reporting about the immediate circumstances and aftermath of Blaise Compaoré’s resignation, and what appeared to be a power struggle between the Army’s General Honoré Traoré and the Presidential Security Regiment’s Colonel Isaac Zida.

We could make the table significantly more complex – adding the ranks of the junta leaders, etc. But I wanted to keep it relatively simple. Perhaps I will revisit it in a future post.