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Burkina Faso’s Troubled Legacy of Dictatorship
Burkina Faso’s Troubled Legacy of Dictatorship
The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
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

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.

Commentary / Africa

The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat

With jihadists and armed groups exploiting political and security vacuums across the Sahel, Mali and neighbouring states will continue to face insecurity. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to rethink international development strategies and to support local government initiatives that combat radicalisation.


This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

Despite significant international sweat, the Sahel remains on a trajectory toward greater violence and widening instability. Jihadists, armed groups and entrenched criminal networks – sometimes linked to national and local authorities – continue to expand and threaten the stability of already weak states. Across the region, citizens remain deeply disenchanted with their governments. International actors must review their current strategies, which tackle the symptoms of the Sahel’s problems without addressing their underlying cause: central governments’ long-term neglect of their states. In particular, they should act urgently to prevent the collapse of the peace process in Mali – a genuine danger this year that would have serious implications for security across the Sahel.

Widening Cracks in Mali’s Peace Process

At the heart of the Sahel’s instability is Mali’s long-running crisis. It is spilling over into Burkina Faso and spreading to fragile Niger and more stable Senegal. Twenty months since the government and armed groups signed the Algeria-brokered Bamako peace agreement in June 2015, implementation is faltering and the deal’s collapse is a real possibility. Despite publicly claiming to support the process, Malian parties lack confidence in a deal that was signed under international pressure and has serious shortcomings. It does little to tackle the violent war economy in which prominent businessmen rely on small private armies to protect trafficking routes. It also fails to restore a viable balance of power between northern communities and leaders who compete for resources, influence and territory.

Map of Sahel. International Crisis Group

The recent fracturing of the main rebel coalition, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), has seen the creation of new community-based armed groups, such as the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad and the Congrès pour la Justice dans l’Azawad, and may further aggravate insecurity. More worryingly, the appointment of interim local authorities and the launch of mixed patrols comprising army soldiers and former rebels in the north have failed to demonstrate much positive impact at the local level.

Meanwhile, jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Eddine and al-Mourabitoun, remain active. Having been chased out of major towns, rather than trying to hold urban areas they are striking provincial and district centres from rural bases. Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the bombing on 18 January that killed 61 personnel of the mixed unit in Gao region.

Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas.

At the same time, insecurity is rising in areas long neglected by the state such as central Mali, which is not included in the northern Mali peace process. Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas. Bamako still has no effective response to the jihadists’ strategy of threatening or killing local authorities or civil society members that stand against them. In addition, the rise of a new group, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and the possible influx from Libya of defeated Islamic State (IS) fighters are further sources of concern.

Jihad Sans Frontières

Despite international military intervention including by UN peacekeepers, jihadists are making inroads into other Sahelian countries. In late 2016, jihadist fighters based in central and northern Mali launched attacks in western Niger and northern Burkina Faso, underscoring the region’s vulnerability and the serious risks of overlapping conflicts across the greater Sahel. On 6 February, the G5 countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) met in Bamako to announce the creation of a regional force to tackle terrorism and transnational crime. It remains to be seen how effective this ambitious project will prove.

Mali’s neighbours are right to point out that Bamako is responsible for failing to prevent radical groups using its territory. However, they should also pay closer attention to their own internal dynamics. These include years of state neglect and poor political representation of certain communities – especially nomadic Fulanis in the region of Djibo in Burkina Faso and Tillabery in Niger. Chronic resource limitations hobble Sahelian states’ ability to respond effectively: Niger’s state revenue, for example, is €1.7 billion, about as much as France invested in stadiums to host the 2016 European football competition.

In 2016, Burkina Faso suffered eight attacks originating in Mali and it remains the most vulnerable of Mali’s neighbours. The ousting of former President Blaise Compaoré in 2014 left the security apparatus in disarray. National authorities have been slow to rebuild the intelligence system and they lack a defence strategy to help security forces adjust to rapidly evolving threats. Despite recurring attacks, military posts in the country’s northern Sahel region remain poorly protected. With limited resources the government will struggle to meet demands for significant social development, which partly drove the October 2014 uprising, and, at the same time, increase spending to revamp the security forces. Should Burkina be tempted to use the social welfare budget to plug security holes, it could face new protests.

Reviving the Malian Peace Process

International forces have been slow to adjust to changing ground realities and for now there is little appetite in Bamako or the region for a major course correction. However, further deterioration – such as jihadist groups expanding westwards into Ségou region in the centre – would require a response. The European Union (EU) and its member states should anticipate this and encourage Malian parties and the Algeria-led mediation team to meet again before the process loses all credibility. New talks would offer all parties an opportunity to express their concerns about the implementation of the Bamako agreement and reenergise it. They should agree on additional appendices that include a new timetable and mechanisms to ensure that each party respects its commitments. To limit the risk of further armed group fragmentation, discussions should also focus on ways to bring splinter groups into the process. This could mostly be done by integrating them into one of the existing coalitions, the CMA or Platform.

The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure.

To avoid the further spread of violence in Mali, the EU and its member states should encourage and support central government and local authorities to mediate local conflicts. They should also assist local authorities, through training and direct support, to provide public services and ensure the equitable sharing of natural resources. Such peacebuilding support should not be framed as preventing or countering “violent extremism” (P/CVE) as these concepts lack clarity, mask the complex dynamics of jihadist recruitment and risk stigmatising communities that receive such assistance.

Vital too is the need for a shift in international development strategies. The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure. The EU and member states should pay particular attention to assisting the state’s local-level redeployment through programs that support public services. They should encourage and assist the government to improve its draft “Plan for Central Mali” and make it a useful tool to coordinate government efforts.

They should also ensure that the EU’s capacity-building mission, EUCAP Mali, closely collaborates with authorities at both central and regional levels to make Mopti region in the centre a pilot site to test policies aimed at improving local security, and specifically reforming the local police. Lessons drawn from here could be applied in northern Mali and other Sahelian regions.

Halting Jihadists’ Cross-border Spread

The EU and its member states should pay more attention to Burkina Faso, which faces a real threat from armed groups. In particular, member states with a military presence in Mali should deploy forces near its border with Burkina Faso, and provide the Burkinabè security forces with helicopters so that they can conduct aerial surveillance of the long shared border. Although the link between underdevelopment and radicalisation is complex and indirect, increasing aid in health, education and professional training particularly in areas affected by attacks, could potentially improve relations between state authorities and communities and therefore undercut an important grievance that extremist groups often exploit.