The president of Burkina Faso stepped down Friday after protesters stormed parliament and set the building ablaze, ending the 27-year reign of one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers who had survived previous attempts to topple him.
An army general quickly stepped into the vacuum left by departing President Blaise Compaore.
Gen. Honore Traore, the joint chief of staff, told a packed room of reporters that he would assume the presidency until elections were called.
It was not clear if the military was unified behind Traore. Army spokesman Col. Yacouba Zida said the constitution had been suspended and a transitional government formed to organize elections. He made no mention of Traore.
When he resigned, Compaore had said a vote would be held in 90 days, but Zida said the “length and makeup of the transitional body will be decided later.”
Over the course of a dramatic few hours, Compaore went from looking likely to jam through parliament a bill that would let him seek a fifth term to agreeing to step down next year to abandoning office immediately.
He was pushed by violent protests and an emboldened opposition that would accept nothing short of his resignation.
Opposition protesters gathered in a square in the capital on Friday and burst into cheers when they heard the announcement of his resignation on hand-held radios.
“I declare that I’m leaving power,” Compaore said in a statement. “For my part, I think I have fulfilled my duty.”
Compaore, 63, was headed south to the city of Po, near the border with Ghana, a French diplomatic official said on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the situation.
The outgoing president was still in Burkina Faso on Friday afternoon, and it was not clear if he was trying to cross the border, the official said. He had not asked the French, who were once the country’s colonial rulers, for any help.
For months, an opposition coalition has been urging Compaore not to seek re-election. But Compaore and his ruling party appeared ready on Thursday to push through a bill that would have allowed him to run again.
Determined to block the vote, protesters stormed the building, setting part of it on fire. Images of flames enveloping the legislature, cars burning in the streets and protesters massing in the capital raised the specter of a long standoff. But events moved swiftly, with the government suspending the vote and the military announcing that the legislature had been dissolved and an interim government would be formed.
After that, Compaore said he would lead until the new elections.
Protesters rejected that plan and gathered again Friday, demanding that Compaore step down immediately.
It was a sharp about-face for a ruler who had survived other attempts to overthrow his regime.
Compaore first came to power following the October 1987 coup against then-President Thomas Sankara, Compaore’s longtime friend and political ally who was killed in the power grab.
For many, his legacy begins and ends with the death of Sankara, a well-regarded statesman whose death was widely viewed as a setback for the entire continent.
Compaore has reinvented himself many times over the years. As a young man, he was in the military. He became justice minister when troops marched on Ouagadougou, the capital, in 1983 and installed Sankara as president. After he took power in his own coup, he developed a reputation as a meddler and a supporter of regional conflicts.