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Is Burkina Faso sub-Saharan Africa’s version of the Arab Spring?

Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore stepped down Friday to massive celebrations after his failed attempts to extend his 27-year reign. Hard economic times and youth unemployment were factors in his overthrow, but the upheaval doesn’t mark the beginning of Africa’s Arab Spring, two analysts say.

“I think what has happened in sub-Saharan Africa is entirely different from what has been happening in the Arab world,” said Ambassador Johnnie Carson, senior adviser to the president of the U.S. Institute of Peace and former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African Affairs.

In sub-Saharan Africa, he said, there’s more of a pre-existing institutional desire for democracy — dating back to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 — that didn’t exist in most Arab countries, which were starting from scratch.

“You have seen the introduction of new constitutions, many of them with term limits,” said Carson. “We have seen multiparty elections, we have seen an opening up of a political space for opposition groups, for civil society and for the media” in sub-Saharan Africa.

Burkina Faso map

In Burkina Faso specifically, people want democratic institutions and their leaders to adhere to them, he said. “Compaore’s attempt to roll back the constitution is seen as an attempt to further empower himself and change himself from an elected African president to an inherited chieftainship.”

It’s true that people in Burkina Faso wanted the same things as the Arab Spring countries in North Africa, including basic services, access to education, health care and jobs, good infrastructure, security and peace, said John Mukum Mbaku, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative and an economics professor at Weber State University in Utah.

But the revolution in Burkina Faso, dating back to 2000, was different because religion didn’t play a role as it did in the Arab Spring, said Mbaku. Religion is a “complicating factor” in places like Egypt, he said, where President Mohammed Morsi and his religious-oriented government were overturned.

A man in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, sells daily newspapers leading with stories about the recent events in Burkina Faso on Oct. 31. Photo by Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

A man in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, sells daily newspapers leading with stories about the recent events in Burkina Faso on Oct. 31. Photo by Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

If Burkina Faso wants to learn from the Arab Spring, he continued, it will have to construct institutions so the government is guided by the rule of law, rather than an individual.

Compaore believed that without him the country would fall apart, Mbaku said, but if you have good institutions that are functioning and strong, no matter who is in office, democracy will survive, he said.

“This is a test case for democracy not only in Burkina Faso but across Africa,” said Carson. Other African leaders who have been in power for several decades will see how Burkina Faso’s people reacted when Compaore tried to extend his rule, and they might think twice about doing the same, he said.

Burkina Faso’s next elections are planned for 2015.

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