The Church in Africa Speaks Out for Democracy

On October 30th the Parliament of Burkina Faso was to vote to amend the country’s constitution, allowing the President to serve beyond the currently prescribed term-limit of two, five-year terms. In the days leading up to the vote, violent protests in the capital city Ouagadougou broke out that culminated in the burning of the parliament building and the resignation of President Compaore on October 31st. The military installed Lieutenant Colonel Issaac Zida, a senior member of the Presidential Guard, as the country’s interim leader.

The Catholic Church commended this civic initiative, but also expressed grief and prayers for those who lost their lives in the demonstrations. The Church urged respect for “the authority of the forces of order and security” and emphasized the need to ensure the safety of persons and property. The archbishop of Ouagadougou, Cardinal Ouedraogo, called the seizure of power by Lt. Col. Zida unconstitutional because the transition of power should be ensured by civilians. Still, the cardinal appeared hopeful about an end to the crisis due to the willingness of the different parties to engage in dialogue.

Much of the international community also called on the military to turn over power to civilian control. The African Union set a two week deadline for such a turnover before they would enact sanctions. It is fortunate that the Burkinabé church, civil society and international actors persisted in their advocacy because on November 17th the country returned to civilian rule. A transitional charter backed by the church was signed, diplomat Michel Kafando was appointed the new Interim President, and the constitution was reinstated. In addition, Lt. Col. Zida stayed on as minister of defense while other military leaders took charge of three other ministries.

The attempt by the deposed Burkina Faso president exemplifies an all too common pattern throughout Africa. Burkina Faso is just one of fifteen African countries with a leader in power for over ten years, seven of these leaders for twenty-five years or more. Since 1990, leaders in eleven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have tried to change or abolish term limits; seven of these cases were successful. It looks likely that leaders in another seven countries will push similar term limit changes in the coming years. [1]

The situation in Burkina Faso clearly shows that civil society wants accountable leaders and good governance, not the monopolization of political power that occurs when constitutions are amended and term limits weakened. Earlier this year, the Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo spoke out against a similar measure to alter that country’s constitution. They said such a change would be “a step backward on the road to building our democracy and would seriously undermine the harmonious future of the nation.” The USCCB worked to amplify the local Church’s message that “The happy future of the DR Congo lies undoubtedly in the strict adherence to our Constitution.”

As the Church in Burkina Faso and other African nations undergoing similar challenges begins to speak out about these threats to good governance, the Church in the United States will work to magnify these messages in order to encourage nonviolent civil society participation and government accountability for the common good.

Stephen Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa and global development and Julie Bodnar is an intern at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

[1] Adam Taylor, “Burkina Faso’s long-serving leader resigns – and why it matters,” The Washington Post, October 31,2014,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/10/30/why-burkina-fasos-attempt-to-topple-a-long-serving-leader-matters/ ; Ken Opalo, “As thousands protest against term limit extension in Burkina Faso, will other African presidents take note?,” The Washington Post: Monkey Cage, October 28, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/10/28/as-thousands-protest-against-term-limit-extension-in-burkina-faso-will-other-african-presidents-take-note/.

One thought on “The Church in Africa Speaks Out for Democracy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s