Burkina Faso goes through three leaders in less than 24 hours as Zida wins power struggle; Compaore in Cote d'Ivoire

West Africa, as Liberia and Ghana teach us, has a long history of young officers pushing older establishment military chiefs aside and seizing power.

IN a dramatic 24 hours, Burkina Faso has gone through three leaders, but now it seems late claimant to the throne Colonel Yocouaba Isaac Zida has won the battle to keep the job.

Faced with massive protests against his plans to amend the constitution and extend his 27-year rule, late Friday morning Burkina Faso’s president Blaise Compoare resigned and fled the capital Ouagadougou.

General Honore Traore, the joint chief of staff, and Compaore loyalist, then announced that he was taking over.

Signs of a pushback  had come early, with protestors who had set fire to parliament and government buildings the previous and had gathered for another day of demonstrations, rejecting Gen. Traore as a Compoare “henchman”, and the opposition denouncing the military’s move as a “coup.”

A few hours later, Colonel Zida, said in a recorded address posted early on Saturday on the website of a national television station that he was filling the vacuum.

“While we wait to define in a consensual manner, with all of the political parties and civil society organisations, the contours and composition of this peaceful democratic transition,” Zida said. “I will henceforth assume, from today, the responsibilities of the head of this transition and the head of state.”

Mid-Saturday the Burkina Faso military chiefs have backed Zida as transitional president, in an army statement says.

The statement is set to end confusion over who has succeeded Compaore, as Traore was a signatory to the new army statement which said: “Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida was chosen unanimously to lead the transition period opened after the departure of president Compaore”.

Beware the young officers

The claim by rival military factions in Burkina Faso, was only to be expected. Zida, is the leader of a group of young army officers. 

His actions are in keeping with a long tradition, especially in West Africa as evidenced by the tragic Sergeant Samuel Doe who seized power in a coup in Liberia in 1980 when he was 29; and more propitiously Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings in 1979 in Ghana at the age of 32; and Compaore himself and his comrade-in-arms, the charismatic Captain Thomas Sankara, who was 34 when they toppled the government in 1983. Four years later, Compaore plotted to have Sankara assassinated, and took over the job.

Zida, in declaring himself in charge, drew on language that was popular with radical young African officers in the late 1970s and the 80s, dismissing as “obsolete” the earlier  power bid by Traore. 

Nearly 65% of the population of Burkina Faso is under 25, and it’s their anger at corruption and lack of opportunities that brought so many of them to the streets as they believed Compaore’s continued rule wouldn’t improve matters for them.

Seeking to position himself as their leader, Zida’s said in his statement that, “The aspirations for democratic change” of the Burkina youth “will be neither betrayed, nor disappointed”.

On social media late Thursday as it became clear that Compoare’s number was up, many people familiar with the history of power grabs by the military in Africa, were already predicting that a younger officer would step forward soon.

The Burkinabe, themselves, meanwhile seem to quickly be settling down into the post-Compaore order.

Calm in Ougadougou

After days of protests that brought tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital Ouagadougou, calm returned on Saturday, with shops reopening and calls by organisations behind the demonstrations for supporters to clean up the debris left behind.

Zida said that former president Compaore, who was said to have fled the capital Ougadougou, was “in a safe place” and his “safety and well-being are assured”.

A French diplomatic source told AFP that Compaore was travelling south towards the town of Po near the border with Ghana and that he had not asked for refuge in France, the former colonial power. Reports claim Compaore was in a convoy of 40 vehicles.

However Saturday it emerged that Compaore is currently in a luxury hotel in Ivory Coast’s capital Yamoussoukro.
“The services of the President hotel in Yamoussoukro served him (Compaore) dinner yesterday (Friday) and breakfast this morning (Saturday),” according to a hotel employee.

The uprising in Burkina Faso, which has drawn parallels with the Arab Spring and has been called the “Black Spring” by activists, has kicked off discussion about what it means for several sub-Saharan African leaders who have also stayed in power for decades, given that at least four heads of state, like Compaore, are pressing for similar constitutional changes to cling to power.

Compaore’s ‘henchman’ 

All eyes now are on what Army chief Traore will do. On Friday he said he was assuming power as head of state, a day after he ordered the dissolution of the government and a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

It will not have been lost on him that many protesters were immediately and deeply opposed to him taking power, seeing him as a close ally of Compaore.

“We do not want General Traore in power. We need someone credible. Traore is Blaise Compaore’s henchman,” said Monou Tapsoaba, an activist with the opposition People’s Movement for Progress.

Zida appears to have more legitimacy with civil society. He appeared before large crowds alongside lawyer Guy Herve Kam, leader of the Citizen Broom group that helped lead the demonstrations, in Place de la Nation on Friday.

The crisis is the worst in Burkina Faso since a wave of mutinies shook the country in 2011.

Compaore had initially rejected calls to resign. He withdrew plans for a vote on the constitutional changes but vowed to stay in power for another year.

He was only 36 when he seized power in a 1987 coup in which his former friend  Sankara was ousted and assassinated.

Known in colonial times as Upper Volta, the country became independent from France in 1960 and its name was changed to Burkina Faso (“the land of upright men”) in 1984. In the view of the youthful protestors, Compaore and his circle were anything but.

-Additional reporting by AFP.

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