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Burkina Faso’s Troubled Legacy of Dictatorship
Burkina Faso’s Troubled Legacy of Dictatorship
Burkina Faso: A Report’s Conclusions, Presented on the Ground
Burkina Faso: A Report’s Conclusions, Presented on the Ground
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.

Cynthia Ohayon donne en main propre le nouveau rapport de Crisis Group au président du Centre des maîtres coranics du Burkina Faso et à un marabout, le 10 octobre 2017. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
Impact Note / Africa

Burkina Faso: A Report’s Conclusions, Presented on the Ground

Un rapport de Crisis Group est le fruit de plusieurs mois de travail de terrain, de rédaction et de débats. En outre, comme le montre ce reportage photo, le moment où l'analyste présente cette nouvelle publication à ses lecteurs est également le point de départ d'un nouveau cycle de recherche.

To mark the publication of the Report The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North on 12 October 2017, West Africa Analyst Cynthia Ohayon and Project Director Rinaldo Depagne presented their conclusions and recommendations in Ouagadougou to the various protagonists. Cynthia has travelled regularly to Burkina Faso over the past three years; Rinaldo previously lived and worked in the country for more than seven years. Their aim with the report was to persuade political decision-makers and other influential figures to address the root causes of the social crisis in northern Burkina Faso, and to avoid rushing into single-track counter-terrorism strategy at a time when violence is spreading in the north of the country.

Long spared by the Sahel’s armed groups, Burkina Faso – and particularly its northern region – has faced increasing insecurity since 2015. Crisis Group’s many interviews on the ground show that the crisis stems more from social unrest than from the growth of an Islamic movement.

Street life in Ouagadougou's city centre at noon, on 13 October 2017. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

On the day of the report’s publication, Crisis Group held a launch event at a hotel in the capital, organised jointly with Luxembourg’s delegation in Ouagadougou. The number of attendees far exceeded our expectations. Present were representatives from several ministries, Burkinabè army officers, former ministers, the emir of Djibo, traditional Fulani chiefs, diplomats, academics and civil society activists.

Cynthya Ohayon introducing the findings of Crisis Group's latest report on northern Burkina at report launch in Ouagadougou. on 12 October 2017. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
Rinaldo Depagne discussing with Captain Longpo and MP at Crisis Group report launch in Ouagadougou, on 12 October 2017. CRISISGROUP/ Julie David de Lossy

At the event a young man from the north detailed the difficulties faced by his village; a traditional chief reminded those present that rebel fighters were also citizens of Burkina Faso who felt abandoned by an elite fixated upon events in the capital. “I came here thinking that the attacks were terrorism-related. After listening to you today, I now realise courage is needed to meet society’s expectations”, one gendarmerie captain said. “We’ve learned a lot today”, concluded a former minister, in recognition of Crisis Group’s role.

Cynthya Ohayon introducing the findings of Crisis Group's latest report on northern Burkina to marabouts (Quranic masters), on 10 October 2017. CRISISGROUP/ Julie David de Lossy

The Crisis Group team then presented the report, its conclusions and recommendations, to the Quranic teachers with whom Cynthia had met five months earlier. Lively discussion quickly followed. The marabouts recounted how the situation in the north had worsened. Basing her comments on the report, Cynthia summarised the points of view of all parties to the conflict. These moments – when various actors feel themselves understood, while listening to the perspectives of others – are at the core of Crisis Group’s advocacy work. On these foundations future solutions can be built.

Crisis Group prides itself on engaging all actors involved in a crisis, as well as others who have something to bring to the table. Our team met with Tanguy Denieul, director of the French Development Agency (AFD), to discuss our conclusion that the crisis is rooted in a sense of abandonment, as demonstrated by the north’s severe underdevelopment. The meeting was focused on the sustainability of financing development in the north, the training of mayors and the supply of electricity to the principal towns.

Cynthya Ohayon talks to Afd Director Tanguy Deneuil about Crisis Group latest report on northern Burkina, on 10 October 2017. CRISISGROUP/ Julie David de Lossy

Brigadier-General Oumarou Sadou, chief of general staff of the armed forces, granted an audience to Crisis Group in the presence of three of his officers. We presented our report and discussed the north’s problems, including an ossified and unequal social order and a lack of engagement by the state.

The soldiers asked a number of questions about Mali, regarding the border situation, civilian opinions of the security forces, response times and military abuses. It was a constructive exchange, made possible by mutual trust built up over several previous meetings. The Burkina officers’ priority is to prevent the jihadist violence in Mali from spreading any further into Burkina. Rinaldo Depagne noted down lessons from this meeting to apply to his work on stability in the Sahel and his advocacy for a regional force. The discussion ended with a Burkina proverb: “If your neighbour’s wall has fallen down and your property is in danger, you should help him rebuild it”.

Cynthya Ohayon and Rinaldo Depagne with army Chief of Staff Oumarou Sadou (centre). Ouagadougou, on 13 October 2017. CRISISGROUP/ Julie David de Lossy
A military at chief of staff's office in Ouagadougou, on 13 October 2017. CRISISGROUP/ Julie David de Lossy

Crisis Group’s credibility in Ouagadougou was already high thanks to its July 2013 report, Burkina Faso: With or Without Compaoré, Times of Uncertainty. This report’s analysis of Compaoré’s vulnerability as a ruler proved prescient, as the president was ousted the following year after a popular uprising. Crisis Group puts great store in maintaining an open and respectful relationship with each of its interlocutors. One of the significant meetings during Cynthia’s and Rinaldo’s trip was with Bénéwendé Sankara, the first vice president of the National Assembly, to discuss how focusing on politics in the capital can distract the government from the task of developing national policy. Only policies that apply nationwide can defuse tensions in the country.

Cynthya Ohayon and Rinaldo Depagne with Maitre Sankara, National Assembly's acting president. Ouagadougou, on 13 October 2017. CRISISGROUP/ Julie David de Lossy

Our team also visited historian Hamidou Diallo at his university office in Ouagadougou. Diallo, who has frequently debated his ideas with Crisis Group over the years, shared his concerns. After exchanging views, we left with new avenues to explore and an agreement to meet again soon.

Hamidou Diallo, historian at the University of Ouagadougou with Crisis Group's latest report on northern Burkina, on 11 October 2017. CRISISGROUP/ Julie David de Lossy

Successful advocacy often depends on our analysts’ flexibility in seizing opportunities. When Cynthia found out that Fulani representatives from Burkina, Mali and Niger were meeting that day in a downtown hotel, she asked if she could join them. The Fulanis from three countries in the region were ready to listen. Some of them were already familiar with Crisis Group’s work, noting its quality and respecting our neutrality.

The imam Ilboudo from the Islamic Education, Research and Study Centre (CERFI), a man highly respected in Ouagadougou’s Muslim community, is a major player in Crisis Group’s advocacy work. Sipping hot tea under a mango tree by the mosque, the imam shared with our team his reactions to their presentation of the report.

Fulani representatives meeting in Ouagadougou, on 11 October 2017. CRISISGROUP/ Julie David de Lossy
Cynthya Ohayon and Rinaldo Depagne introducing the findings of Crisis Group's latest report on northern Burkina to imam Ilboudo, president of the CERFI (Cercle d'étude, de recherche et de formation islamique). Ouagadougou, 11 October 2017. CRISISGROUP/ Julie David de Lossy

Three months after its publication in French and English, the report The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North has already been read more than 21,000 times. The second phase of Crisis Group’s work is to help the actors understand their rivals’ viewpoints and to reflect on the issues at stake. This is the most delicate stage of the proceedings.

Rinaldo Depagne and his team at the West Africa program will keep the report in circulation among the various protagonists on the ground. By continuing to engage in dialogue, they will formulate new approaches as well as understand future obstacles, so as to halt the downward spiral of a deadly crisis.

The meetings held around this new publication were also a point of departure for our West Africa team. Our analysts’ notebooks were already filled with ideas collected on the ground to prepare for our next report on the deployment of a G5 Sahel joint force.

The airport cantina, Ouagadougou, on 9 October 2017. CRISISGROUP/ Julie David de Lossy
Burkina Faso: A Report’s Conclusions, Presented on the Ground. CRISISGROUP/ Julie David de Lossy