Burkina Faso and Nigeria are both facing mounting death tolls as a result of political crises that could well get worse before they get better. But this is where the similarities between the situations in these West African nations end; for the violence sweeping the region this week stems from two very different sources.
What is currently unfolding in Burkina Faso is dissent against a violent dictator -Blaise Compaore, who has held power since staging a brutal military coup over two decades ago. This wave of demonstrations began in February when a student named Justin Zongo died in police custody-apparently from meningitis but more likely the result of the ruthless treatment that authorities are known to regularly dish out. In response, students used social media sites to organise protests, which in a similar manner to those in Tunisia, quickly began to incorporate wider grievances against the dictatorship. Here too police brutality and the use of live ammunition against the demonstrators only increased dissent.
Elements of the army however, have added another dimension that makes the picture far murkier. Various mutinous groups of soldiers have cropped up across the country, with a some joining the protestors, others fizzling out as soon as practical issues over pay are resolved by their superiors and certain particularly sinister groups using their strength and arms to intimidate and exploit civilians. This is not a good sign, especially considering considering Compaore’s military background and the precedent for armed takeover. For now a semblance of calm has returned aided by concessions from Comparoes (including the appointment of new government officials), but the mutinies have highlighted unpredictability and insecurity as well as the potential for the current upheavel to end with the all-to-familiar story of one group of thugs replacing another, rather than any kind of democratic revolution.
Ironically in nearby Nigeria- it is precisely democracy that has provided the focus for the present turmoil. The recent election that returned incumbent Goodluck Jonathon to power, though by no means escaping violence or corruption, was regarded by international observers as generally free and fair. However, it also saw the end of the informal practice of ‘zoning’ – where the powerful People’s Democratic Party alternates its choice of presidential candidate between Muslim Northerners and Christian Southerners. Jonathon had already been something a anomaly in this process, a Christian replacing the Muslim Umaru Musa Yar’Adua –whose term in power should have lasted to 2015 but was cut short by his death from pericarditis in 2009. Many Northerners had hoped or expected that Jonathon would step aside this election to let the practice resume; and voted in their droves for his Muslim opponent, Muhammadu Buhari (of the rival Congress for Progressive Change), when the opposite transpired. Although the President still came out with always twice as many votes he consequently has no real mandate in the North, leaving the country starkly divided (see map).
As soon as the results became clear, violent riots broke out across Northern states as well as the centre of the country where the population is largely mixed across faith lines. Over the following days the reports of fatalities began to rise, ominously resembling the appalling sectarian turmoil that killed hundreds in Jos last year.
Both Burkina Faso and Nigeria are therefore entering a tense and potentially explosive period. There is still cause for hope though: if Comparoe bows to the demonstrators and allows transition to an administration capable of truly reigning in the military, then Burkina Faso' then it could become the first non-Arab country transformed by this democratic wave. And if Jonathon is able to quell domestic unrest without resorting to violence, he has a valuable opportunity to build on his unprecedented democratic legitimacy (drawn from Nigeria’s most free election to date) and tackle the issues at the heart of the country’s inter-religious strife.
These are tall orders though, and there remains equal potential for a violent crackdown or descent into chaos in Burkina Faso and a widening of the sectarian divide in Nigeria. Other leaders in the region and the wider international community, as well domestic politicans, have a duty to help ensure that the events of the coming weeks set these nations on the right path. This is a historic time for West Africa- we can only hope that it’s eventually remembered for the right reasons.