* Military unrest spreads, soldiers rampage
* Compaore replaces top army brass
* Residents angered by failings of long-serving regime
By Richard Valdmanis and Mathieu Bonkoungou
DAKAR/OUAGADOUGOU, April 18 (Reuters) - Soldiers ransacking villages, traders setting fire to government buildings, and students rioting in the streets all paint a bleak picture for Burkina Faso’s long-serving President Blaise Compaore.
After more than two decades of mostly placid rule in the West African cotton growing and gold mining country, the former army captain is facing an eruption of anger that could force him from power.
Since mid-March, the capital and outlying towns have been roiled by unrest, most recently by members of Compaore’s own presidential guard who have fired their weapons in the air, looted shops, and stolen vehicles in anger over their pay.
The turmoil, joined by angry students, entrepreneurs, and residents protesting against rising food prices, police brutality and crime, is rooted in frustration over the slow pace of reform during Compaore’s rule of the impoverished state.
For a PROFILE of Burkina Faso, click on [ID:nLDE6AI1DN]
While its capital Ouagadougou hosts a top African film festival, international conferences and the plush Ouaga 2000 district for the rich, Burkina Faso languishes close to the bottom of the U.N.’s Human Development Index, and income per head runs half the average for sub-Saharan Africa.
“Burkinabes (...) are perhaps more than other people in Africa likely to rise up in ‘soulevement populaire’ with the army and remove a leader when they are fed up or feel the regime is too corrupt,” said Lydie Boka of Strategico.
“They have done that at least three times in the past. It is indeed the beginning of the end for Compaore,” she said, citing popular uprisings that toppled three Burkinabe leaders between 1966 and 1982.
Compaore has held a tight grip on the country since taking over in a coup in 1987, and has attempted to establish himself as a regional leader by mediating political crises that have struck in Ivory Coast, Guinea and Togo.
He has reacted to the military mutinies in his own country by sacking the government and the head of the armed forces, and by declaring a curfew aimed at silencing frequent nighttime outbursts in the capital and elsewhere.
Residents on Monday said hundreds of disgruntled soldiers were rampaging in four towns in southern Burkina Faso, days after members of Compaore’s Presidential Guard fired their weapons near the presidential palace in Ouagadougou.
“They have been firing on the homes of army commanders, but they have not attacked civilians,” said a resident in the town of Kaya who asked not to be named.
If Compaore fails to contain the unrest by announcing reforms and limiting his own mandate to the end of his current term — which ends in 2015 — he may face an uprising similar to those that toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt.
“The North African people’s revolution has finally arrived in West Africa,” said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah of DaMina Advisors in New York. “Compaore fits the Ben Ali, Mubarak model — a pro-Western, anti-democratic, former military officer, who took office under suspicious circumstances.”
“The implications of Compaore’s overthrow for Guinean and Ivorian stability will be enormous,” he said.
Compaore, 60, seized power after the still-unexplained death of predecessor Thomas Sankara, himself a military captain who had staged a coup in 1983.
Despite instituting multi-party rule, he has faced little or no effective opposition since, and won the last two elections, in 2005 and 2010, with an overwhelming majority.
A new law from 2005 had prohibited presidents from standing for more than two terms but the Constitutional Court ruled the law could not be applied retroactively, clearing the way for Compaore’s re-election.
A landlocked country of 15 million people, Burkina Faso has for years avoided the instability that has plagued its neighbours while benefiting from high gold and cotton prices. (Editing by Giles Elgood)