Burkina Faso Faces First Democratic Test After Ousting Strongman

  • Three-quarters of the population are under the age of 30
  • Facebook, music, megaphones used to woo young voters

Souleymane Ouedraogo juggles two mobile phones that are constantly ringing as he speeds on a moped across the capital of Burkina Faso to urge young people to do something for the first time in their lives: vote.

With three-quarters of the population under the age of 30 in Africa’s fourth-biggest gold producer, the youth vote will probably prove decisive in Nov. 29 presidential and legislative elections, Ouedraogo said in an interview. Music, megaphones, T-shirts and fiery Facebook messages are the weapons of choice of activists pushing for a high turnout.

“We’ve mobilized 450 volunteers to be at the polling stations and make sure the elections will be transparent,” said Ouedraogo, a coordinator for Balai Citoyen, or the Citizen’s Broom, a grassroots movement that helped to organize mass protests culminating in the ouster of President Blaise Compaore after 27 years in power in October last year.

If the elections are successful, they’ll mark the first democratic handover of power in the history of Burkina Faso, where the revolt against Compaore inspired protest movements from Burundi to the Democratic Republic of Congo unhappy with rulers clinging to power. They are also key to restoring investor confidence in the country, according to Cailin Birch, a political analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“This is going to be the most truly open election in decades,” Birch said by phone from London. “The next government is going to have to demonstrate that it can re-establish stability and that Burkina Faso is a good place to invest.”

MAP: Burkina Faso


The transitional government led by interim President Michel Kafando cut spending as investment slowed following the ouster of Compaore. Falling commodity prices and the Ebola outbreak elsewhere in West Africa also hurt growth, according to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF forecasts the economy will expand 5 percent this year.

Africa’s biggest cotton grower, Burkina Faso had already experienced four coups before Compaore seized power in the wake of the 1987 assassination of Thomas Sankara, an army captain who gained Africa-wide fame for his revolutionary leadership style. 

Toward the end of Compaore’s reign, few people bothered to vote and turnout dropped to as low as 30 percent as stability failed to bring development. Landlocked Burkina Faso ranks 181st out of 187 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index.

Presidential Frontrunners

The two front runners are ex-Prime Minister Roch Marc Christian Kabore and Zephirin Diabre, a former regional chief of French nuclear company Areva SA. Among the 12 other candidates are two women. As many as 99 political parties have put forward 7,000 candidates for the 127 seats in the legislature.

“No representatives of the former ruling party are allowed to stand, and all the votes will be counted before the public,” Birch said.

An attempted coup in September almost thwarted the election when members of the former presidential guard, which the transitional government wanted to disband, arrested the interim leadership before announcing a military takeover.

The coup, three weeks before the vote was originally scheduled, failed when protests erupted again and the national army decided not to back the presidential guard, known by its French acronym RSP. Kafando was reinstated on Sept. 23, and the RSP, known for its loyalty to Compaore, was disbanded.

“We are not naive -- we know that the changes we wish for won’t come overnight,” Serge Bambara, a rap musician known as Smockey and a spokesman for Balai Citoyen, said in a TV interview this month. “We just hope that the next president won’t practice the same methods as the old regime. If he does, it’s possible that the population won’t let him finish his mandate.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.