OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Burkina Faso’s leader of nearly three decades declared a state of emergency Thursday, hours after protesters who oppose his bid for another term stormed the parliament and set part of it on fire, marking the greatest threat to his rule since he himself seized power in a coup.
It was not immediately clear where President Blaise Compaore was, nor what restrictions were being imposed as a result of the state of emergency. The announcement was made by his communications director, Ibrahim Sakande.
Demonstrators managed to block the parliamentary vote that was likely to give Compaore the ability to seek a fifth term. However, the violent opposition unleashed Thursday underscored the threat Compaore now faces as frustrations mount in one of the world’s poorest countries.
“It is over for the regime!” and “We do not want him again!” shouted demonstrators when they heard that the vote on term limits had been stopped.
Flames enveloped the main building in the parliament complex, and many lawmakers fled to a nearby hotel.
“It is difficult to say what happens next, but things are out of control because the demonstrators do not listen to anyone,” said Ablasse Ouedraogo, an opposition lawmaker.
In a bid to restore calm, military leaders met Thursday afternoon with the influential traditional chief of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Mossi, according to Jonathan Yameogo, a spokesman for the ruling party.
Burkina Faso has long been known for its relative stability in volatile West Africa, though tensions have been mounting over Compaore’s plans to extend his rule.
He first came to power following the October 1987 coup against then-President Thomas Sankara, Compaore’s longtime friend and political ally who ultimately was killed in the power grab.
Compaore has been elected four times since, though the opposition has disputed the results.
Crowds also attacked the homes of government ministers and looted shops in the country’s second-largest city, Bobo Dioulasso, witnesses said.
Earlier, police in the capital had pushed the crowds back with tear gas, but they regrouped in larger numbers, surged past police lines and broke into the parliament building.
Since coming to power in a coup, Compaore, 63, has refashioned himself as an elder statesman who brokered electoral disputes and hostage releases throughout the region.
He made no secret of his support for Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord turned president now serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone. The leader of Burkina Faso also has been accused of supporting rebel groups in Ivory Coast and Angola, though he later played the role as a peacemaker in Ivory Coast and elsewhere.
More recently, his government was involved in negotiating the release of several European hostages held by al-Qaida-linked militants in northern Mali. He also hosted the talks between Mali’s government and separatist Tuareg rebels, leading to the agreement which made the July 2013 presidential election possible.
In 2011, Compaore encountered another crisis when multiple waves of protests washed over the country. The unrest began with students torching government buildings in several cities after a young man died in the custody of security forces, allegedly as a result of mistreatment.
Ordinary citizens took to the streets over rising food prices, and soldiers looted shops and stole cars to express their discontent over low pay. At one point in mid-April of that year, mutinous soldiers occupied the palace, forcing Compaore to flee.
But what would have spelled the end for many presidents was a mere temporary problem for Compaore, one he could maneuver his way out of by removing his security chiefs and appointing himself defense minister before returning to Ouagadougou.