Burkina Faso’s elections are scheduled for November 22nd. However, continuing violence from extremist organizations operating within the country triggered a law passed in August that says in the event of “force majeure” (exceptional circumstances preventing the organization of elections in part(s) of the country), the election may continue based on the results from polling stations that remain open. The government has so far determined that over 17% of the electoral communes (voting precincts) are unsafe, amounting to more than 400,000 voters. The mass disenfranchisement of mostly rural voters undermines the legitimacy of the election, creates opportunities for jihadist groups to exploit divisions within the country, and the possibility for opposition groups to contest the election result.
In August, Joseph Siegle and Candace Cook of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies described the uncertainty around the coming election:
“Given the still nascent nature of Burkina Faso’s democracy, political parties remain relatively weak organizations with limited national networks. The fluid context, volatile security environment, and evolving political institutions suggest there will likely be multiple twists and turns right up to the November elections, with an outcome that remains uncertain.”
In September, The Economist wrote, “politicians ruled out delaying the elections because they feared that would deprive the government of legitimacy. But ignoring the rights of millions may be no better, particularly since those who will be unable to vote because of insecurity are precisely those who have most reason to be angry with incumbent politicians.”
Why it matters
The idea of democracy is still new in Burkina Faso. The country spent 49 of its 55 years of independence under military rule, according to Pascaline Compaoré, an analyst at the African Institute for Security Studies (ISS). If successful, this election will be only the second time in its history that an election proceeds without incident. Yet, removing a large amount of the voters calls into question the legitimacy of the election.
Despite the opposition parties’ agreement to proceed with the election even if many are unable to vote, the new electoral code overwhelmingly benefits the incumbent. The areas deemed too dangerous to hold a vote are those most affected by violence, which are as committed to extremist organizations as by Burkina Faso’s own military and government-sanctioned citizen defense groups. The new code, therefore, excludes the voice of the people most interested in new leadership.
Even if the election proceeds without incident, preventing many rural districts from voting creates the potential for future conflict. It places those in the generally poorer rural areas, who are mostly Fulani and Muslim, below those in the wealthier urban areas, who are mostly Mossi and non-Muslim. According to Nellie Payton at Reuters, “Unequal access to wealth is one of the main causes of worsening violence in West Africa.” Burkina Faso in particular has seen a rise in conflict over dwindling access to resources. The restrictions to preserve those resources already come from the urban areas while disproportionately affecting rural dwellers, said Nadia Adam, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
How did we get here
Burkina Faso, and West Africa in general, are experiencing a rise in electioneering as politicians realize ‘cheating’ in elections has become more difficult. “Rigging outcomes on election day, by stuffing ballot boxes or changing vote tallies, has become more difficult in recent years,” said Mathias Hounkpe at the Open Society Initiative West Africa, adding that “Politicians are changing their tactics as a result.” Indeed, politicians are increasingly using constitutional changes, repressive laws, arrests, and violence as tactics to remain in power.
The force majeure provision wasn’t the only change made to the electoral code. The National Assembly changed the electoral code in July 2018 to prohibit the use of the already widely used consular cards—an identity document issued by the Embassy to Burkina Faso citizens registered in its jurisdiction—as voter registration documents. This year Burkinabè citizens will have to switch to a passport or a national ID card. A new passport can cost as much as $US200 or one month’s rent in Ouagadougou and not everyone currently has these documents. The change could keep hundreds of thousands of ex-pats from voting. According to Le Griot, “In Côte d’Ivoire for example, out of 980,000 Burkinabè holders of the consular card, only 300,000 have a national identity card and 100,000 a passport, according to figures from the Burkinabè National Identification Office.”
In June, Crisis Group reported on the Kaboré government’s repression of a small opposition party, one not even represented in the National Assembly, after it called for members of parliament to resign for what the group cited as “failing to secure the nation.” The report said, “These and other government actions raise concerns that its campaign against jihadists will serve as a pretext for clamping down on all critical voices.”
What comes next
Last month in Mali, a previously unknown general overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in a coup that was celebrated by Malians tired of promises while their country deteriorated. The upcoming elections not only in Burkina Faso but also in Guinea, Tanzania, and Ivory Coast among others will test whether the citizenry will tolerate politicians who continue to preside over chaos. Mali serves as a warning for leaders in the region—do not ignore the will of the people.