ON WEDNESDAY, soldiers barged in on a meeting of Burkina Faso’s Cabinet, and took hostage the country’s interim president and his prime minister, along with two other ministers.
Calling themselves the National Council for Democracy, the military junta then announced they had seized power, less than a month to elections that had held great hope of a return to constitutional order for the West African country, 10 months after long-time leader Blaise Compaoré was dramatically ousted by popular protest.
The coup’s author, Gen Gilbert Diendere, set about both scuttling the electoral process while seeking to gain the goodwill of both the domestic and international community, saying the seized leaders were “doing well and will be released”, and that elections would be held later, but gave no date.
Diendere is part of the elite and powerful presidential guard known by its French acronym RSP, and which was supposed to be guarding the interim president, Michael Kafando. Ironically, the prime minister, Isaac Zida, was also a member of the 1,200-member unit.
Diendere has long been an influential figure in the army, having been Compaore’s chief of staff all through, and a friend from their youth days. He was never too far from the action despite having been relieved of his position after his superior fled, but Thursday denied having contact with Compaore after his departure.
The seizure of power by soldiers in Burkina Faso appears to have two elements that are of importance to those following developments.
One is survival instinct. Three days earlier, a reforms body had called for the disbanding of the RSP, which has been accused of repeatedly attempting to disrupt the country’s fragile transition period.
It appears that the support of the majority of the RSP for such a far-reaching decision had not been sought, leaving it threatened, with the junta on national television saying it had put an end “to the deviant regime” of transition.
The best-armed unit in the army, the RSP owed its existence to the all-seeing security apparatus that Compaore had carefully nurtured, and remained highly visible even during the transition period, while still enjoying the immense benefits it had grown used to under the former regime and always remaining in close proximity to the symbolic presidential palace.
Residents burn tyres on a street in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou on September 17, 2015 after the presidential guard declared a coup, a day after seizing the interim president and senior government members. (Photo/ AFP).
With the poll having been weeks away, it is easy to assume that all kinks had been ironed out, and everyone was on board. But in April, new rules were announced that excluded members of Compaore’s former ruling party from taking part in the ballot.
This immediately cast a pall on what had been a transitional charter drawn up with an inclusive spirit, and it was instructive that Diendere on Thursday said that his action had been taken as a result of the “exclusion measures taken by transitional authorities”.
The signs that all was not well were apparent. In February, there was major furore over the post-Compaore role of the RSP - better paid that the rest of the army - and which had briefly seized power in the vacuum following the former leader October’s flight.
The country’s assertive civil society demanded its folding into the main army, a position backed by their former man Zida. The elite unit in turn sought Zida’s resignation, the former RSP veteran having carved himself a high-profile role in any new order.
The standoff ended in a stalemate, the future of the RSP left to the discretion of any new government. It was a solution that strengthened its standing, much to the disgruntlement of Burkinabes, who perceived the unit as a guarantor of the deposed regime, and responsible for attacks on demonstrators during the uprising.
In June gunfire was heard near the presidential palace, as three officers stationed there and suspected to have attempted to detain Zida at the airport were questioned. Little was heard of the matter again.
Further highlighting the weak nature of the transition, Compaore’s former ruling party last month urged a campaign of civil disobedience and a possible boycott of the October election after a court decided to keep tens of its candidates off the ballot.
The party had retained hope that they would be allowed to compete, but the constitutional court locked out more than three dozen allies, further fanning the discontent.
While international condemnation of the coup has come thick and fast, it was worth noting the position of former colonial master France, whose president Francois Hollande said his troops, despite being stationed in the country, would not intervene—something it regularly did in its Francafrique heydays.
Hollande said he saw “no reason” to step in, even as he condemned the putsch, suggesting intense negotiations with the coup leaders were underway to rescue the electoral process. It would appear such talks have come too late.
Bulwark against terrorism
But the holding back highlights the second element. Burkina Faso is a small, landlocked country with little economic clout - per capita GDP is $717 - but under Compaore had been a major ‘regulator’ of regional peace, the strongman having carved out a curious niche as the ultimate mediator in regional crises, despite having come to power through a coup.
Burkinabe women wield wooden spoons against Compaore in last year’s protests. (Photo/ File).
With nearby Ivory Coast also having crucial elections next month, a conflagration in Burkina Faso risks further destabilising the region, a situation that the international community would be loathe to see play out.
The country is also a bulwark against terrorism. Hollande’s troops are in the country as part of a regional force fighting jihadists in West Africa, with the arduous peace process in neighbouring Mali already endangered after a rebel group party to a rickety June ceasefire threatened to take up arms this week.
French troops were key to keeping the country intact after a 2012 coup created a vacuum that northern separatists took advantage of.
In the neighbourhood also is Niger, which has been battling Boko Haram terrorists, and would be under immense strain if it had to deal with another instability front. With Ghana, Togo and Benin caught in the middle, the RSP would know it has a strong hand in negotiating for its future.
But it also knows it cannot survive international isolation, in addition to domestic hostility from restless youth and a significantly influential civil society that bred comparisons of Africa’s first ‘Black Spring’.
As the brinksmanship goes on, Burkina Faso faces a longer wait for a much-elusive democracy.