Burkina Faso: Lessons From History - Constitution and Insurrection in Burkina Faso


In South Africa and elsewhere there is a growing scepticism about constitutions as vehicles for social change. Historian Peter Brett explains what happened.

Throughout history, there are examples where social movements have proved that they can still use constitutions as weapons against authoritarian regimes. One clear example of this was the 2014 "insurrection" in Burkina Faso, when protesters (almost literally) chased President Blaise Compaoré out of power after he failed to amend the constitution to allow him to run for yet another term.

For its first two decades after independence in 1960 the new state of Upper Volta made essentially no effort to extend its authority into rural areas. Urban politics, however, soon became characterised by an unusual combination of radicalism and effective organisation. In 1966 an urban alliance of trade unionists, soldiers and students ousted the first president, Maurice Yaméogo by taking to the streets.

A similar coalition of forces would be largely responsible for sustaining Thomas Sankara's revolutionary military regime (1983-7) in its earliest years. Sankara's government sought to symbolically break with France and build a totalising, genuinely national state, which he named Burkina Faso ("Land of the Upright Men").

This left-populist project was, however, beset with numerous...

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