The tension on the streets of Burkina Faso's capital city was palpable. VICE News arrived Monday night in Ouagadougou on the eve of mass demonstrations called by the country's opposition leaders to protest a bill submitted to the country's parliament that could allow current president Blaise Compaoré — now in his 27th year in office after seizing power in a coup — to run for reelection again in 2015.
The proposed revision to constitutional term limits that were enacted in 2000 has rocked Burkina Faso over the past week. The country's lawmakers are scheduled to vote Thursday on the measure, and a parliamentary supermajority would allow the amendment to pass without a referendum.
At 8am on Tuesday morning, thousands of demonstrators rallied following a call by Zéphirin Diabré, leader of the opposition coalition (CFOP), for a day of protest. Plans for a march from the Place de la Nation to the United Nations roundabout were thwarted by the unexpectedly large turnout, forcing people to stage a sit-in instead.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Ouagadougou on October 28 in opposition to plans by President Blaise Compaoré to extend his term of office.
Speaking to VICE News, the leaders of the demonstration reported that they had never witnessed such a large turnout before. The whole city came to a standstill. Security forces, made up of militants from the opposition, were soon overwhelmed. The mostly young protesters held up red signs showing Blaise Compaoré "the red card," and shouted slogans like, "Blaise needs to go." Others wielded brooms, chanting, "We need to sweep up [the presidential palace] Koysyam."
At 10am, we found ourselves facing a line of riot police, who blocked off access to a road leading to parliament. Young protesters helped themselves to paving stones and rocks from the many building sites dotted around the city, hurling the objects at the police. A rumor started to spread around town that mercenaries from Togolese militias had just arrived to join the police ranks. For an hour, police stood by as protesters hurled stones at them.
At 11am, the riot police changed tactics and boarded pickup trucks, patrolling the city in search of barricades erected by protesters. We followed them on a motorcycle, and watched them repeat the same actions at every barricade. The trucks stopped in front of the barricade, dispersing the 50 or so protesters with tear gas. The police then chased the protesters through the streets, hitting them with their batons. While there was no sign of the army in the streets of Ouagadougou, we witnessed many injuries sustained at the hands of the police, mostly from batons or tear gas.
By around midday, Ouagadougou was unrecognizable. The capital's streets were trashed, and heavy clouds of smoke from piles of burning tires rose above the rooftops.
Opposition sources told VICE News that deputies from the majority fled parliament for more secure locations, while opposition leaders met at their own undisclosed locations to discuss their strategy for Wednesday, the eve of the crucial vote on the revised term limits.
Follow Pierre Mareczko on Twitter: @MareczkoP