A recently published foresight study on Africa focuses on the potentially key role knowledge and innovation can play in Africa’s future. The study, conducted by a global network of predominantly African researchers under the aegis of Open African Innovation Research (Open A.I.R.) makes a link between the continent’s economic prosperity and its political stability.
The research points emphatically to one of the defining features of Africa: its burst of untapped youthful energy as the world’s youngest continent. The authors highlight the double-edged nature of Africa’s youthful credential and note that the youths, as active actors in the digital technology sphere, are potentially instrumental to the continent’s economic renaissance as well as its political explosion and extreme radicalizations. Only those countries on the continent that can harness its youthful energy would meet their developmental challenges and attain political stability. The authors warn that “youthful energy with no constructive outlet can turn sour and most countries are witnessing the most destabilizing and negative manifestations” of untapped youth energy, as “grievances among the young are likely to be expressed violently.”
The Open A.I.R. observations attained credible fulfilment in the recent political unravelling in Burkina Faso. With a national median age of 17 and nearly 70% of its 18 million people being ages 25 and younger, that country has one of the most youthful populations in a continent that is the world’s youngest. The Burkinabe crisis has been brewing for a long time, and has been suppressed on its tracks on several occasions.
During the 2008-2011 global economic crises that dovetailed into high cost of staple food, extreme hunger and poverty pushed the tiny landlocked least developed West African country to the edge. It required the army’s alliance with the transmuted and long running civilian dictatorship of Blaise Compaoré to keep the peace of the graveyard in Burkina Faso. With high cost of living, chronic unemployment, endemic corruption, cronyism and youth restiveness, it was a matter of time before civic anger boiled over.
Blaise Compaoré has been in power for as long as Nelson Mandela was in prison —the latter in a sacrificial act of national renewal for South Africa, and the former in an orgy of progressive rape and plunder of his country. Compaoré came to power by circumstance, which for many marked the scuttling of Burkina Faso’s renaissance in the 1980s. He authored and executed a military coup d’état in 1987. With that, he interred the vision of that country’s revolutionary and youthful leader, Thomas Sankara, who renamed the tiny Francophone West African Upper Volta into Burkina Faso, which means “land of people of integrity.”
Compaoré’s 27 years in power were sustained by manipulation, intrigue and highhandedness. After he consolidated his hold on power, he transmuted into civilian dictatorship in 1991. He was “elected” four times since then (two seven-year terms and two five-year terms). His elections were a charade. In his latest gambit, he sought to further manipulate the constitution to secure an additional five years that would retain him in power up to 2020. His parliamentary political acolytes in the ruling party were determined to grant him his wish. But the youth said, “No.” Enough was enough.
Compaoré was able to remain in power for too long not for his political ingenuity. But if ever he had such ingenuity, it was hardly evident he deployed it in the service of his country and compatriots. In reality, the strategist in him was most evident in his sustained and calculated engagement with his friends in the West: the United States and France, along with their allies. Not too long ago, Burkina Faso was touted as one of the “most stable” African countries in similar and familiar manner as the Ivory Coast, Egypt, Kenya (under Arap Moi) and Cameroon had been flaunted before recent political unravelling in some of these countries. The West’s tendency to equate African dictatorship with political stability belies the quality of their interest in good governance on the continent.
The courtship between Compaoré and his Western allies have remained self-serving for both parties. He allowed them unhindered military and strategic access to his country under the scheme of stemming Islamist insurgency in the Sahel region. None of Compaoré’s Western allies pushed him hard enough toward genuine democracy and good governance. Until his hurried and dramatic exit in late October, there was little whimper from the West over Compaoré’s indiscretions. Compaoré was a good business for his Western allies while Burkina Faso and its people’s interests suffered.
But history teaches us that it does not teach us anything. The same was the case with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak until the game was done, and his allies began to sing a different tune. But Burkina Faso and Egypt have more similarities. The Egyptian revolution, if ever there was one, became stillborn shortly after. The Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood left Egyptians with few options other than a dramatic return to military-era style politics. Pundits continue to ponder when and whether Egypt will ever witness a full democratic rebirth.
A similar dilemma stalks Burkina Faso. The military that has been hands-in-glove with Compaoré has managed to find itself in power again, with a familiar promise to return Burkina Faso to a democratic order. There is much scepticism in the air. As was the case in Egypt, Burkina Faso had little time to mull over its options: either trailing the path of constitutionality or its abridgment. Compaoré had sought to serve out his term in 2015. However, he could not be trusted by the restive youth to either keep his word or supervise a credible electoral transition. In the alternative, the head of parliament is next in order of constitutional succession if the president resigns. But he could not be trusted either. He is a member of Compaoré’s inner circle in the ruling party. This situation made it easy for an opportunist military to step in to preside over the mess they helped create.
The political class should not claim credit for the turn of events in Burkina Faso these past two weeks. It was for the most part a youth-led movement. From Ouagadougou to Bobo-Dioulasso, the reality evinces popular discontent by Burkinabe youth against the political class. The youth have violently vented their frustrations against political leaders of all shades and against symbols of state power. The army and, certainly, the rest of the political class, will be foolhardy to take the credit or assume the ownership of the ongoing political stirring in Burkina Faso.
No one should be under any illusion. The thirst for change is burning hot on the tongues of the Burkinabe youth. No attempt should be made to quench the thirst by orchestrated political charade. Only genuine change will suffice. The West, especially the United States and France, has a fresh opportunity to reengage with Burkina Faso in a manner that genuinely recognizes the collective interest of the youth and the weary people of Burkina Faso.
There is need for marked departure from the West’s hypocritical shenanigans that sustained Compaoré’s dictatorship. In this new turn of events lies an opportunity to make the youth the bedrock of a new Burkina Faso to take their country’s destiny into their own hands.
Chidi Oguamanam is a law professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chidi_Oguamanam.