Burkina Faso’s Troubled Legacy of Dictatorship
Burkina Faso’s Troubled Legacy of Dictatorship
A picture taken on 17 September 2015 shows a TV screen during the broadcast of the speech of Lieutenant-colonel Mamadou Bamba announcing that a new “National Democratic Council” had put an end “to the deviant regime of transition” in Burkina Faso. AFP
Commentary / Africa 9 minutes

Burkina Faso’s Troubled Legacy of Dictatorship

At least three people have been killed and 60 injured during street clashes in Burkina Faso’s capital as protesters demonstrated against a military coup on 16 September. Crowds gathered in the streets of Ouagadougou to demand the release of the interim president and members of his government, detained by the presidential guard, and the organisation of elections as scheduled for 11 October. Soldiers fired warning shots to disperse the protesters, who responded by throwing stones. Coup leader General Gilbert Diendéré told Reuters the trigger for the putsch was a proposal this week by the transitional authorities to dismantle the powerful Presidential Security Guard.

What is the Presidential Security Regiment, the military unit that recently seized power in Burkina Faso?

The Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) is the presidential guard of the former president, Blaise Compaoré, who was overthrown by a popular uprising in October 2014 as he was trying to cling on to power after 27 years of rule. The RSP is Compaoré’s most controversial legacy. In the 1990s, some of its members have reportedly been involved in many of the political killings ordered by Compaoré’s regime. This elite military unit concentrates most of the country’s weapons and enjoys better material benefits than the rest of the army. Because this special force is so closely linked with Compaoré, it became a polarising factor when he left power. The RSP and the issue of its future sparked crises in December 2014, February and July 2015, with each episode reaching a higher level of gravity. Previous crises were solved through dialogue and compromise.

What are the reasons behind the power grab?

There are two main dynamics at play: there is both fear and frustration among RSP officers because of uncertainty over their future and repeated demands of RSP dismantlement, as called for in a report of the transitional government’s reconciliation commission, handed over two days before the events. At the same time the former regime is seeking revenge: it never accepted that it lost power in the first place and that it is being excluded from the political game. This coup is a result of a joint action between RSP members and members of the ruling party under Compaoré, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP).

The RSP has several demands as made clear by the communiqué on 17 September of the self-proclaimed new rulers of the country, the National Council for Democracy. RSP officers surely know that the unit’s reform needs to happen and that it cannot remain an elite military unit with material benefits, powerful weapons, located just behind the presidential palace, dedicated to protecting the president.

But the ongoing coup is also linked to the exclusion of many figures of the former regime from contesting the October 2015 elections, as per an electoral code that was voted in April 2015. Marginalising a part of the political class can only lead to strategies of contestation and destabilisation, as Crisis Group reported in June. The former majority does not enjoy much popular support, especially in the cities, but retains significant loyalties within the RSP. Representatives of the former regime never accepted that they lost power following a popular uprising. They consider that their former comrades-turned-enemies from the Movement of People for Progress (MPP) orchestrated the uprising and infiltrated the transition to gain power. Having the MPP in power is simply unacceptable to the former ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) and its allies.

The investigation into the murder of late President Thomas Sankara is also fuelling this explosive mix. Some senior RSP officers are believed to have been involved in Sankara’s killing in 1987, and a few RSP officers have reportedly been indicted in recent weeks in relation to the investigation. Coincidentally, the results of the autopsy and ballistic examination that were carried out following the exhumation of Sankara’s grave were due to be communicated to the lawyers on Thursday, the day after the coup.

What are the possible ways out of the crisis and what are the prospects of a negotiated solution? What role can the international community play?

The only way out of the crisis is through negotiation. But at the moment there is no willingness to negotiate, and nothing to negotiate. The positions are deeply entrenched and the climate is very polarised, so it will be very difficult to reach a compromise that would be acceptable to both sides and that could put the electoral process back on track. A “transition of the transition” will only fuel more instability and uncertainty. Eventually, the way out is organising elections, but there is no consensus as to what kind of elections. The RSP and the former majority will not accept elections in which some of their candidates are excluded, and civil society and political parties will not accept to re-include them in the elections. A way out of the crisis seems far off.

There is a strong culture of compromise in Burkina Faso, as evidenced during the October 2014 uprising when domestic and popular pressure urged the military to hand power over to a civilian. There are influential figures such as the Mogho Naba, the king of the Mossis, or former President Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo, who have strong moral authority and can help mediate the crisis. But their action will not be enough. The international community also has to play its part and put intense pressure on the coup organisers to urge them to make compromises, even though they are in a position of force in the sense that the RSP has most of the weapons. The international community has the powerful lever of aid, on which Burkina Faso is very dependent. The coup is not sustainable in the long term: people will continue to mobilise, violence will only increase, and so long as the nationwide strike is followed, and if aid is suspended, the country will not be able to function properly economically. The coup organisers are aware of that and everyone will eventually have to sit at the negotiating table.

Who are the main actors of the coup, in particular General Gilbert Diendéré, who was proclaimed president of the National Council for Democracy (CND)?

Initially, non-commissionned officers from the RSP were the visible figures behind the coup. But General Gilbert Diendéré, Compaoré’s well-known but not often publicly seen personal military chief of staff, quickly assumed power. He has the most influence and authority over the RSP, even if he never had an official position in this unit. Though he seemed to have played a mediating role in the previous crises between the RSP and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, he has vested interests to preserve – interests that are shared within the hierarchy of the RSP and by members of the former regime. His wife Fatou Diendéré was a hardline CDP parliamentarian and among the CDP figures whose candidacy was rejected for the legislative elections. What is more largely at play here is the tension between aspirations for change and the conservative desire to maintain order.

The RSP says it has support from the rest of the military. Is that true, or is there a risk to see opposing military factions fighting each other?

This is not yet very clear. Until Friday afternoon, there has been no official reaction from the military. Opposition, collaboration, or neutrality between the two forces are all equally possible. The RSP is composed of 1,200-1,300 members, out of roughly 10,000 troops in total; it cannot take control of the entire country alone. Diendéré will likely have to find allies if he wants to control the whole country.

Frustration has built up within the regular military and the RSP, in part because of a new June military code which appeared to bypass the traditional hierarchies. But the army has its own longstanding grievances, which it already expressed violently in 2011. There is a divide between the RSP and the rest of the military due to the better material conditions and allocation of most of the weapons in favour of the RSP. On the other hand, the two military structures could unite due to corporate solidarity, as happened last July when the RSP and the entire military demanded the resignation of the prime minister.

Alternatively, there could be ad-hoc alliances between various components of the military and the RSP, in particular due to the generational divide within the military. The younger ranks have grievances that can be similar to those of the people: justice, equality, better living conditions. The hierarchy, on the other end, has more privileges to preserve and could be interested in a status quo on the state of the military or a return to the old order.

Colonel Mamadou Bamba, who proclaimed Diendéré president on Thursday, was wearing a uniform from the regular army, not an RSP uniform. Some say he is actually from the RSP but switched uniforms to show that the entire military is supporting the RSP. There are reports that some military officers are helping protesters to mobilise to force the RSP to backpedal. In Bobo-Dioulasso for example, the country’s second largest city, the curfew instituted by the coup organisers is not respected and the military officers have reportedly stayed in the barracks – for now at least. Fighting between military factions would bring the crisis to a much higher level of gravity.

Can the presidential and legislative elections still take place on 11 October as scheduled?

It would be a miracle. The coup organisers made it very clear that “fair and inclusive” elections are among their demands, so they will not accept anything short of an inclusion of all the candidates from the former majority. They are only interested in holding elections so far as the outcome will be in their favour. At the other end of the spectrum, the actors of the transition – civil society, other political parties – will not accept giving in to threats of force, which they see as blackmail. So much negotiation will be needed to find a way out of the crisis and put the electoral process back on track. This power grab is only making the situation more intractable by polarising the two sides, provoking an even greater popular dissatisfaction against the RSP and the former regime. Positions had become increasingly entrenched as the transition progressed amid disruptions by the RSP.

Burkina Faso has a strong civil society that played a key role in the overthrow of Compaoré. What is the role of civil society now and will it be able to reverse the situation?

This remains to be seen. Surely civil society is stronger and more organised in Burkina Faso than in many other countries in the region. Civil society organisations and political parties affiliated with the former opposition have called for people to mobilise. They are trying to get organised on the streets. The coup organisers do not enjoy much popular support. But the coup was not spontaneous, it was well-prepared. RSP officers knew that their action would trigger strong popular backlash and they are prepared to confront any popular uprising that might get under way. This includes intimidating journalists, preventing radio broadcasts, and firing live ammunition in the air and randomly at people to disperse any gathering. Understandably, fear can force people to stay at home.

The situation seems quite different in Ouagadougou, where the RSP is mostly based and which it seems to have taken over, and in other cities, where the curfew is not respected, people are taking to the streets and burning down houses of pro-coup figures, including that of Gilbert Diendéré himself in Yako (Passoré province).

When Blaise Compaoré fell in October 2014, observers suggested this could be a warning for other African countries where presidents are tempted to cling on to power. All eyes were focused on Burkina Faso as the October 2015 elections were to test the success of the popular uprising. What are the repercussions of this coup for West Africa and the rest of the continent?

This new instability is a major setback for Burkina Faso and the region. If the elections had taken place smoothly, this would have been a huge step forward for the country and this could have set a precedent for other countries. But the uncertainty that now prevails means Burkina Faso could be thrown back years in terms of democratisation. This will be used as an argument by autocratic leaders to show that when they leave power, instability automatically follows. In reality, these leaders bear the greatest responsibility in what happens after their rule: the stability that they built only revolved around them, whereas they should have worked on building sustainable stability that would last well after their demise.

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