WHAT THE FUSS IS ALL ABOUT: Burkina Faso’s quick-fire coup, quickly explained

Why does the often-quiet country matter to Africa? And to the world? What next? Mail & Guardian Africa breaks it all down for you.

THE NEWS

BURKINA Faso interim president Wednesday swept back uneasily to office Wednesday, as the authors of a a coup signed a deal that allows back the transition administration. 

As coups in Africa go, this was probably one of the more short-lived, lasting just six days.

THE BACK STORY

ON September 16, Burkina Faso’s presidential guards, supposed to be guarding the interim leader, instead burst into a cabinet meeting and seized Michel Kafando, his deputy Isaac Zida and at least two ministers before declaring they had taken power.

While the rest have been freed, nothing is known of Zida’s whereabouts—he was a former member of the presidential guard but who in the vacuum of the popular ouster of long-time leader Blaise Compaore last October quickly sought to fashion himself a place in the resulting order, running afoul of his former unit.

But global condemnation came fast and unanimous, and together with the internal opposition from a population keen on a return to constitutional order, left the coup’s authors extremely isolated.

WHY IT HAPPENED

The presidential guard in Burkina Faso, a Praetorian Guard of sorts, occupies a special place—numbering just 1,300, they are the best trained and armed of the country’s military forces, and due to their role in propping up Compaore’s 27-year rule, had amassed themselves a privileged position, and always being within earshot—and privy to the goings on at the former imperial presidency. 

That they allowed Compaore’s rule to fall apart so spectacularly last year was a surprise, but they correctly judged popular opposition to his pursuit of a third term as too strong, and opted to seek to protect their place in the post-Compaore order, taking comfort in the fact that they had friends in high places, including Zida, before he turned on them.

The leader of the coup, Gen Gilbert Diendere, a close friend and former chief of staff of the ousted president, said their putsch was meant to forestall election “chaos” and fraud. But this looks to have been a smokescreen: Just three days earlier a national reforms body had recommended the disbandment of the guard, seeing its overbearing nature and leadership vacuum since Compaore’s departure as a major obstacle to the fragile transitional period.


Gilbert DIendere

But many see this as a smokescreen: earlier Compaore’s former backers had been barred from participating in elections scheduled for October 11, many of them with ties to the presidential guard—including Diendere’s wife. 

The exclusion of Compaore’s party, including its presumed presidential candidate, further removed future guarantors of the guard’s future, while the turning wheels of justice into significant events such as the murder of revolutionary Thomas Sankara and killed journalist Norbert Zongo, threatened to strike closer home. In other words, the coup was a self-preservation instinct following uncertainty of the post-election order.  

HOW IT WAS RESOLVED

Following intense international diplomatic pressure and a hostile ground domestically, the coup leaders had few options than to negotiate a face-saving exit. Pressure was dramatically ratcheted up when the regular army marched to the capital, looking to disarm them.

Following a frantic week West African leaders managed to hammer out a deal that essentially gives the coup makers amnesty and assures them of their safety and that of their families—and notably, an agreement was signed with the regular army.

The deal has however been widely criticised for allowing the coup makers to get off with a slap on the wrist, but in the interest of the country’s stability and its strategic position in West Africa, mediators would have recognised such a trade off, even if unpopular, was necessary.

WHY IT MATTERS

Burkina Faso may appear to be a minor player, being a landlocked country with a Gross Domestic Product nearly 50 times less than Africa’s largest economy Nigeria, but this belies its importance. Quietly under Compaore, it had carved out a place as a key mediator in a region that has had its fair share of instability—in a way ironic as the former leader ascended to power through a coup. 

With neighbour Cote d’Ivoire—the biggest economy in French-speaking Africa—also set for crucial elections next month, in addition to polls in Guinea, allowing Burkina Faso to become more unstable would have risked weakening what is already a fragile calm in the region and potentially drawn in Ghana, Togo and Benin. As it were, the leaders of Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Benin and Togo arrived in the country to reinforce the deal—and were received by Diendere.

Burkina Faso also has additional as a bulwark against international terrorism, along with Mali and Niger, which have vast territory that acts as a launching pad for jihadists, in its immediate background. France retains special forces in the country as part of its anti-terrorist Operation Barkhane.

The country is also a poster child for how a strong civil society can influence politics in Africa—far too often they are seen as an adversary by those in power.

WHAT NEXT

The most urgent thing would be to keep the election on course. It is possible that a delay of a few weeks may be called, but the international community remains keen on seeing a ballot held as soon as possible.

Longer-term the presidential guard will find its future increasingly bleak, but it will be important to bring back everyone, including Compaore allies, into the national fold to avoid further disruption. But until this can be accomplished the fragile nature of its political fabric will remain a major source of concern.

For now the region will have breathed that much easier having bought some additional time to strengthen the post-Compaore country.

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