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World & Nation

Why did one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers step down?

Burkina Faso
Residents of Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, celebrate after President Blaise Compaore announced that he was stepping down Oct. 31.
(Issouf Sanogo / AFP/Getty Images)

One of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, announced Friday that he was stepping down after his attempt to extend his 27 years in power touched off a violent popular uprising dubbed the country’s “Black Spring.”

Compaore had survived previous attempts to topple him. His departure sends an unnerving message to aging autocrats in several other African nations, who have manipulated elections or amended constitutions in order to stay in power, reports Los Angeles Times Africa correspondent Robyn Dixon.

Here is what you need to know about what is happening in Burkina Faso.

Why did protests break out in Burkina Faso?

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Compaore came to power in a 1987 military coup in which his friend Thomas Sankara, a popular revolutionary figure often referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara,” was ousted and killed.

Compaore’s long rule was marked by a degree of stability rare in this part of Africa, and he became an influential regional power broker. But the landlocked, arid country has remained among the continent’s poorest, and frustration has been building, especially among the growing number of young, urbanized residents.

An opposition coalition urged Compaore not to seek reelection for a fifth term in office next year. But a parliamentary vote was scheduled Thursday to amend the constitution to allow him to do just that. Protesters stormed the building, setting parts of it on fire, and attacked other symbols of power in the capital, Ouagadougou.

Authorities swiftly canceled the vote, declared martial law and dissolved the legislature. The army said a transitional government would be formed to prepare for next year’s elections. But Compaore insisted that he would remain in office until the vote.

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The plan was rejected by the opposition, which vowed to keep protesting until the president stepped down.

Crowds of demonstrators cheered the news of his resignation Friday.

What happens now?

Under Burkina Faso’s constitution, the president of the National Assembly should step in as interim head of state pending elections in 60 to 90 days.

But in the absence of the legislature, Gen. Honore Traore, chief of staff of Burkina Faso’s armed forces, said he would fill the power vacuum and assume the responsibilities of head of state in order to “save the life of the nation.”

Traore was vague about the details of the transition, saying only that he would begin consultations with all parties with a view to restoring the constitutional order “as soon as possible.”

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the opposition would accept Traore, who was seen as close to the former president. A number of demonstrators told reporters that they wanted the transition to be lead by retired Gen. Kouame Lougue, a former defense minister accused of trying to topple Compaore in 2004.

“We don’t trust Honore Traore, who was a lackey to Blaise Compaore,” a protester who identified himself only as Souleyman told Reuters news agency.

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How did the international community respond?

Burkina Faso’s former colonial ruler, France, had reportedly tried to dissuade Compaore from seeking to extend his rule and promised French support if he wished to take a global role. In a statement Friday, French President Francois Hollande welcomed the former leader’s resignation and called for quick elections.

The U.S. State Department had welcomed Compaore’s decision to withdraw the bill that would have allowed him to run for an additional term and to form a unity government to prepare for elections.  However, it emphasized in a statement Thursday that “neither side should attempt to change the situation through extra-constitutional means.”

Representatives of the African Union, the United Nations and Economic Community of West African States were expected in Burkina Faso to hold talks with all sides.

Events were also being closely watched in African capitals, where several aging autocrats still hold on to power. 

Who are Africa’s longest-serving national leaders?

Compaore was in power for 27 years, but he wasn’t the continent’s longest-serving leader.

Paul Biya has been in office in Cameroon since 1975, serving first as prime minister and then president.

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Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been president of Equatorial Guinea since a coup in 1979.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos has led Angola since 1979.

Robert Mugabe has been in office in Zimbabwe since 1980, first as prime minister and then president.

Yoweri Museveni seized power in Uganda in 1986.

King Mswati III inherited the throne in Swaziland in 1986.

Times staff writer Robyn Dixon in Johannesburg, South Africa, contributed to this report.

For more international news, follow @alexzavis on Twitter


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