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Burkina Faso Opposition Leader: 'This is a Decisive Moment for the Future of Democracy'

In an interview with VICE News, Zéphirin Diabré, leader of Burkina Faso's opposition coalition, explains why the country's citizens are protesting a controversial constitutional reform bill.
Photo via Flickr

A proposed constitutional amendment submitted by the government of Burkina Faso has thrown the country into turmoil as of last Tuesday. The proposed amendment would remove the two-term limit for presidents instituted in 2000, effectively allowing the current leader, Blaise Compaoré, now in the 27th year of his presidency, to run for reelection again in 2015. Compaoré has been in power since he led a coup d'état in 1987, and has been reelected president four times since 1991.


Opposition parties in Burkina Faso call for nationwide protests. Read more here.

Opposition leader Zéphirin Diabré, 55, maintains that the government's plan constitutes a major threat to his nation's democracy. Diabré, who leads the opposition collation in Burkina Faso, was formerly the associate administrator of the United Nations Development Program, and also chaired the board of French nuclear energy group Areva in Africa and the Middle East. Diabré also served for a time on Compaoré's cabinet before leaving to join the opposition party.

VICE News: What is going on in Burkina Faso right now?
Zéphirin Diabré: As you've no doubt heard on international airwaves, the government has submitted a draft bill to parliament to amend the clause limiting the presidential term, thus allowing the outgoing head of state to present himself for reelection in 2015. This is what is stirring controversy right now.

The debate centers on a call for a national referendum. Why step in the way of democratic consultation?
It is not the will of the people that will be expressed. You know full well the conditions surrounding this kind of referendum in countries like ours. Any democratic system has its shortcomings, which can be recorded every now and again. Mostly, we fear clashes between anti-referendum and pro-referendum [factions] in the municipalities and villages. The subject is polarizing the people to such an extent that there is a serious risk of clashes. It is a threat to social harmony.


'We know full well that when faced with this type of situation, all kinds of anarchic behavior can come into play.'

Ever since the government announced its decision, we have witnessed isolated events here and there initiated by citizens. In any case, it is not our intention, the opposition's intention, to be violent. But in politics, you cannot predict how things will pan out. There is no guarantee that some won't be tempted to carry out more radical actions. We know full well that when faced with this type of situation, all kinds of anarchic behavior can come into play. As you've heard, spontaneous demonstrations have already been happening for three days and no one knows how far it will go.

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The opposition, whom you represent, is organizing a day of mass protests on October 28. What will this entail?
It's a day of rallies, marches, and meetings to assert our opposition to the government's move. We have been organizing rallies for almost two years and we do so in accordance with the laws of the republic, since we are a republican opposition. People accuse us sometimes of being too "soft," but considering we are a democratic opposition, there are limits to what we can do. We can't suddenly change hats and become a backroom opposition.

You are calling for "civil disobedience." What exactly does that mean?
We are encouraging citizens to imagine what forms of action they can take within the limits of the laws to oppose the government's decision. The day before yesterday, a group of students decreed that there would be no lessons and that school would be closed: that's a form of civil disobedience. The citizens know what they are doing.

The deputies will vote on October 30. Certain commentators in the country have mentioned the possibility of incidents, such as deputies being prevented from entering the assembly.
I am not aware of such initiatives. In any case, the opposition is not encouraging this [type of action]. The problem is that if this project collects three quarters of the votes in the national assembly, there will be no need for a referendum, and the constitution will be amended. It is therefore not surprising that people are trying to oppose this at all cost.

Is Burkina Faso at a watershed moment of its history?
Every country goes through several watershed moments in its history. What is for certain is that this is a decisive moment for the future of democracy, and undoubtedly for the future of the country as a whole, and I hope it comes through unscathed.

Follow Pierre Mareczko on Twitter: @MareczkoP

Photo via Flickr