October 29, 2014 / 2:23 PM / in 3 years

Thousands protest in Burkina for second day, U.S. joins outcry

People march against Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore's plan to change the constitution to stay in power in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Joe Penney

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters marched through Burkina Faso’s capital for a second day on Wednesday to denounce President Blaise Compaore’s plan to seek re-election, with Washington joining the outcry against his political maneuvering.

Mainly organized by the labor unions, Wednesday’s marchers again took aim at Compaore’s bid to amend the constitution so he can stay in power and were also demonstrating against the high cost of living and privatization of schools.

Political wranglings in Burkina Faso are being closely watched across West Africa, where a number of leaders are due to step soon aside, including in Benin, where thousands protested on Wednesday over a delay in elections.

Compaore came to power in a coup in 1987 and subsequently won four presidential elections. He had been expected to stand down next year when his mandate expires, but the planned constitutional changes would allow him to run for a new term.

The U.S. State Department said it was “concerned by the spirit and intent behind” the proposed amendment.

Burkina Faso is a key U.S. ally in West Africa in the fight against al Qaeda-linked fighters operating in the Sahel-Sahara band. It also frequently mediates in regional conflicts.

France, which has Special Forces troops based in the country, said on Tuesday it expected Compaore to adhere to the laws drawn up by peers at the African Union and not push through the constitutional reform.

Compaore’s firm grip on this cotton and gold producer has suffered from high-level defections within his party over the past few months due to the plan. Army protests in 2011 showed the potential for unrest in one of the world’s poorest nations.

The political crisis spilled out onto the streets on Tuesday in a campaign of civil disobedience called by the opposition.

Chrysogone Zougmore, spokesman for the Burkina protest organizers, said: “Any project that has as its aim to allow Blaise Compaore to rule for life poses a serious threat to the peace and democratic freedoms of our country. Compaore’s mandate comes to an end in November 2015 and he will have to leave.”

SETTING AN EXAMPLE

The National Assembly is due to debate the issue on Thursday. Although the government says it wants lawmakers to approve a referendum, some critics suspect it may, at the last minute, try to pass the changes it seeks by securing the support of 75 percent of parliamentarians, as allowed by the law.

Last weekend, it secured the support of a major party that would, on paper, allow this to happen.

A number of those opposed to Compaore’s plan are trying to prevent Thursday’s vote from even being held.

“We urge all involved, including Burkina Faso’s security forces, to adhere to non-violence, and to debate this issue in a peaceful and inclusive manner,” the U.S. said in a statement.

“The United States emphasizes that constitutionally mandated term limits provide an important mechanism to hold heads of state accountable, ensure peaceful and democratic transfers of power, and give new generations the opportunity to compete for political office and elect new leaders.”

Diplomats worry that, if successful, the changes to Burkina Faso’s constitution may encourage other leaders looking to stay in power elsewhere to follow suit.

In neighboring Benin, at least 5,000 opposition supporters took to the streets of Cotonou calling for the holding of local elections that have been repeatedly delayed since 2013.

“We need to put an end to these daily abuses by President Boni Yayi that are threatening our society’s peace,” said Joseph Djogbenou, an opposition leader.

The government says it has not been able to hold the election due to the lack of a voter roll. The organization in charge of this task says the government has not released the funds it needs to do its job.

Analysts say the delays highlight the possibility Yayi may be weighing up options to delay stepping down after his second and final term is due to come to an end in 2016.

Additional reporting David Lewis in Dakar and Samuel Elijah in Cotonou; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Louise Ireland and Crispian Balmer

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