What Happened in Burkina Faso?

Analysis by Kirsten WILLIAMS

On the 17th September, the interim president of Burkina Faso was overthrown by a controversial military unit known as the Regiment of Presidential Security (RPS), just weeks before an election was scheduled to take place. The president, Michel Kafando, and his prime minister Isaac Zida were arrested. General Gilbert Diendéré installed himself as leader and promised fresh elections amidst violent protests that led to at least ten deaths and hundreds of injuries. Yet after less than a week of upheaval, the president was reinstated and the coup was over. What happened in Burkina Faso?

Burkina Faso is a small and extremely poor country in West Africa. Suffering from a combination of recurrent droughts and successive coups, the Burkinabé democracy is unstable to say the least. In 2014, a civil society uprising brought down the ruthless, repressive regime of Blaise Compaoré, who had ruled since 1987. Since then, the country has been under the control of an interim government.

Gilbert Diendéré - Public domain
Générale Diendéré, who led the coup in Burkina Faso – Public domain

Among Compaoré’s many dubious legacies, the RPS – a secret service that frequently intervenes in Burkinabé politics – stands out in particular. Created by the former Burkinabé strongman, the unit is essentially independent from the army in practice and had increasingly come under scrutiny for its underhand tactics. In the months leading up to the coup, the rift between the transition government and the RPS, allegedly still loyal to Compaoré, had widened. The decision of the interim government to block Compaoré’s allies from running for political office in the upcoming election and the suggestion that the RPS might be integrated into the army, proved to be the final straw.

Leading the coup was General Diendéré. A man experienced in wresting power by violent means, Diendéré first brought Thomas Sankara to power in 1983 before helping to overthrow him in favour of Compaoré in 1987. Whilst that coup precipitated a permanent regime change, Diendéré was unable to keep control this time. Just seven days after deposing Kafando, the junta leader admitted that the coup had been a mistake.

What ended the coup after just seven days? There are a number of answers. Firstly, Burkina Faso witnessed a strong regional response to the coup. First the African Union (AU) suspended Burkina Faso’s membership, describing the coup leaders as “terrorists”. Then, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) flew in to Ouagadougou to negotiate a peace deal after violence broke out on the streets. While the EU and UN backed Ecowas’ initiative, this was an example of Africans taking the lead in African politics, an increasingly prevalent (and successful) trend, seen also in the Ivory Coast in 2010.

Nonetheless, Ecowas and the AU were criticised for their placatory tone – Ecowas recommended that Compaoré’s allies be allowed to run for office, and suggested an amnesty for the RPS members involved in the coup. In reaction to Ecowas’ initiative, the regular military – somewhat separate from the RPS – marched on Ouagadougou with citizens to demand the reversal of the coup.

Assemblée Nationale in the capital city of Ouagadougou - By Sputniktilt CC-BY-SA 30
Assemblée Nationale in the capital city of Ouagadougou – Sputniktilt, licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0

The distinction between the RPS and the regular army was both a catalyst for the coup as well as an eventual asset in its resolution. One alleged reason for the coup on the 16th September was dissatisfaction within the RPS about the prospect of being integrated into the army. In the confrontation that followed Ecowas’ recommendations on the 21st September, the army joined civilians to demand the disbanding of the RPS.

This brings us to one of the most important factors in the resolution of the coup: grassroots organisations. In Burkina Faso’s recent history, citizens have played a key role in demanding democratic development. Compaoré briefly fled the country in 2011 after a popular uprising, and was eventually overthrown by a massive civilian revolution in 2014. Undeterred by violent reprisals following those events, Burkinabé protesters were again instrumental in overthrowing the short-lived junta last week. Civil society organisations and youth groups such as Balai Citoyen (literally, Citizen’s Broom) who led the 2014 uprising, were heavily involved in the resistance to the RSP last week. Burkina Faso’s growing civil society was perhaps the decisive factor in reinstating the transition government. The world will now wait to see if elections will take place next month.

Much of the international media is now proclaiming the ‘beginning of the end of coups in Africa’. For now though, it is important not to generalise or to make grandiose statements. The bizarre relationship between the RSP and the Burkinabé normal army has yet to be resolved, with the RSP refusing to disarm despite being formally dissolved. Furthermore, not all African civil societies are supported by their military. Disunity within the Burundi army has only deepened the crisis there, with extrajudicial killings and torture occurring daily. Finally, the tragic and pointless loss of life last week means that the resolution of the coup cannot be described as a success. However, for now Burkina Faso can look forward to what will hopefully be free and fair elections on the 11th October.


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