The African Union has welcomed the appointment of Michel Kafando as Burkina Faso’s interim president after the military handed over power to the seasoned diplomat on November 17th, edging the county back toward civilian rule ahead of a fresh presidential election in 2015.

Burkina Faso’s military took control of the country on October 31st following the resignation of Blaise Compaoré, and had appointed Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida as interim leader.

The appointment of Kafando, a former foreign minister and a UN ambassador, ends weeks of uncertainty after mass protests toppled the 27-year regime of President Blaise Compaoré.

AU chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma praised the Burkinabé people “for their political maturity and sense of responsibility”, reiterating her call for “smooth transition under civil authority”.

She made clear that the AU “welcomes the restoration of the constitution” and the “significant progress” made towards civilian rule, repeating the AU’s commitment and support to the country.

Constitutional contest

Burkina Faso constitution’s dictates that the head of the National Assembly take office if the president resigns, but this official reportedly fled the country with Blaise Compaoré after the President’s bid to change the constitution to allow his re-election sparked mass unrest.

In the interim, Burkina Faso’s military has been adamant that it is not interested in power, but its takeover initially promoted further protests and criticism from the AU and international powers.

However, the military stuck to its guns and promised a “consensus candidate” — a choice that was ultimately made after just hours of discussion on Sunday among a panel of 23 largely civilian officials, who chose Kafando over candidates including journalist Cherif Sy, ex-minister Joséphine Ouédraogo and Archbishop Paul Ouédraogo.

On Sunday the military officially also signed a ‘transition charter’ drafted by the military, the opposition and civilian and religious figures, under which the president will appoint a prime minister, either a civilian or a military figure, to head a 25-member transitional council, while a separate civilian will also head a 90-seat transitional parliament.

Michael Kafando previously served as the country’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1998 to 2011, and was also Burkina Faso’s foreign affairs minister between 1981 and 1982.

“It is an awesome responsibility that falls to me, I already foresee the pitfalls and the immensity of the task,” the 72-year-old Kafando told reporters, describing his appointment as “more than an honour”.

Burkina Faso’s official constitution was approved by referendum in 1991, four years after Blaise Compaoré seized power in a military coup that also saw the assassination of Thomas Sankara, a Marxist revolutionary, pan-Africanist and Burkinabé President from August 4th, 1983 until his death.

Thomas Sankara is widely recalled as one of Africa’s most loved leaders, and is credited with the renaming of the former French colony of the Upper Volta as Burkina Faso, or “Land of the Upright Man”.

While he stoked the ire of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, many of his domestic policies, which witnessed a doubling of wheat production, a vaccination programme for 2.5 million children and huge leaps towards the improvement of women’s rights, were hugely positive.

He continues to be remembered by Burkinabés and Africans from across the continent in a light that his former friend and colleague, Blaise Compaoré, is unlikely to ever share.

President Compaoré had held onto power since 1991 through four re-elections of variable merit, and the result of his bid to extend his rule lends a cautionary note to the many other irremovable heads of state on the continent, which continues to boast the top five longest-ruling national leaders.