We have a deal-or do we? Burkina Faso's lack of regional muscle leaves it exposed, and that's a good thing

In signing on the dotted line, the all-powerful African military may be writing on its own epitaph.

CAREER diplomat Michel Kafando has been named Burkina Faso’s interim president, with a one-year mandate to steer the west African nation back to civilian rule.

While the appointment of the former foreign minister and UN ambassador has ended days of uncertainty after the ouster of veteran leader Blaise Compaore through popular protest, the speed of it was eye-catching. Crises moments on the continent can often drag out for months, as showed by the Kenya and Zimbabwe post-electoral disputes, and the slippery South Sudan ceasefire talks.

But in Burkina Faso, it took just over two weeks to get the military to sign on the dotted line, to much acclaim marking their acceptance of a return to civilian leadership for the west African nation of nearly 17 million people.

The timeliness of the agreement mirrors that in neighbouring Mali, where an identical deal was signed within three weeks of a coup by the military. 

In contrast, a civilian-led transitional deal in Guinea took 11 months to flesh out, and then only after the head of the ruling junta was shot by an aide. 

In the Central African Republic (CAR), a transition agreement was arrived at ten months after rebels overthrew the government. 

But these agreements pale in comparison to Madagascar, where the military took five years to exit the scene, ruling through a proxy civilian leader, Andry Rajoelina. Somalia’s transitional government took all of 23 years to gain form. 

Observers will laud Burkina Faso’s leaders for the speedy transition deal, in contrast to the protracted tussles that followed similar popular-led revolutions in North Africa, but several factors will have played a factor in this.

Unusual consistency on Burkina Faso

For one, the international community has been remarkably consistent in its message to Burkina Faso. The country’s main Western benefactor, France, wary of the implications of intervening directly, was quick to jettison Compaore, even aiding his flight to Cote d’Ivoire.

Mediators often highlight the reduced chances to a quick deal caused by foreign interests, such as in Sudan, where players such as Uganda, Ethiopia, China and Russia holding big political stakes in Khartoum’s internal affairs have muddied the waters or slowed down UN Security Council intervention. 

Burkina Faso has little strategic importance to the main global actors, who were then all too happy to let regional actors take the lead in resolving the crisis.

Notably, the country’s transition deal came ahead of the expiry of a two-week deadline imposed by the African Union (AU), to have an interim leader - a rare win for the continental body. The 54-member bloc appears to have learnt from its struggle to take an effective lead in previous coup situations including in Mali and Guinea, and was quicker to take a tough line in Ouagadougou. 

Landlocked? Then don’t be naughty

The AU’s main weapon was sanctions, including threatened but unspecified economic measures. Burkina Faso is a landlocked country, depending on its neighbours, especially Cote d’Ivoire, for its infrastructure and political support and consequently, its very survival.

Experts have for years shown that landlocked countries often lag behind maritime ones in overall development. An economic blockade on Burkina Faso would have left the military with little public support—a similar tactic by sub-regional bloc ECOWAS helped heap pressure on Mali’s ruling junta, whittling down its popularity. 

The military leaders in Mali, which is also landlocked, were further unable to hold out following sustained international pressure given its strategic position as a bulwark against terrorism in the Sahel region. 

While the CAR is also hemmed in, the main factor for the relatively longer time to reach an internationally accepted transition deal appears to have been that its institutions were already weak, leaving few credible actors to strike a deal with. In addition, Chad is seen to be backing one of the factions, the Seleka.

In Guinea and Somalia, along with the Arab Spring countries, which have outlets to the sea, international pressure such as sanctions and withdrawal of donor support took longer to bear fruit, suggesting that coup makers are better off fomenting trouble in maritime countries or if they are assured of cooperative neighbours.

This paucity of options for landlocked countries has been recognised as far back as the 18th century, with renowned economist Adam Smith arguing that they have innate difficulties playing to their strengths, in addition to dependence on relations with sovereign neighbours.

The UN’s 2014 Human Development Index showed five of the lowest ranked countries over the last three decades were African, and four of these were landlocked, while only two of the 20 most developed economies are corralled in territorially.

But the biggest consideration for Burkina Faso’s military, who seized power in the hours following the vacuum of Compaore’s departure, appears to have been that of self-preservation. 

Previous attempts in recent months to entrench themselves ended badly for soldiers and rebel leaders in Mali, CAR and Guinea. The army has always had major influence in Burkina Faso, with the last two leaders in the country having come to power through a coup.

Military cuts its losses

However, aware that their continued stay was untenable to both Burkinabes and the international community which had plenty of leverage on the country, the army sought to curry favour and protect its interests though a quick exit, despite a power struggle in the early days. Just to cover its bases, it negotiated to be allowed to hold seats in a new chamber that will supervise the interim government. 

This takeover was led by senior officers, a key factor for their ability to get the army to agree to cede power. Earlier power seizures in Mali and Guinea were led by junior officers—the so-called militariat—who had grievances against both civilian leaders and their seniors.

With Burkina Faso army bigwigs assured their interests were safe, they had an easier time relinquishing power, fuelling a trend that has in recent years seen the army retreat from African politics, if only nominally, in a number of countries such as Mozambique and Angola. But in others such as Zimbabwe and Egypt, they still retain an outsized influence on affairs of the state and remain prickly customers to keep satisfied.

Successful elections in Burkina Faso will however serve to whittle down military power in an African country that does not have a liberation history, a gain for the advance of democracy on the continent despite consistently rising military spending in the region. It is a promise that could yet be delayed if the army interferes with the transition within the next year.

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