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Vol 56 No 19

Published 25th September 2015

Burkina Faso

The people take on the putschists

After launching a coup, soldiers loyal to ousted President Compaoré face conflict with the national army and activists on the street

The presence of coup leader General Gilbert Diendéré, flanked by soldiers from the Régiment de sécurité présidentielle (RSP), to welcome West African leaders at Ouagadougou airport on 23 September casts further doubt on the negotiations to end the coup. Diendéré has apologised publicly for his role in the coup but as the leaders arrived the RSP was still moving around Ouagadougou and guarding the state television headquarters. RSP officers were blatantly breaking their commitment to return to barracks as part of the peace deal.

The previous day West African leaders had a backed the deal to end the coup in a extraordinary meeting chaired by Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja. They agreed to fly to Ouagadougou to oversee the reinstatement of the civilian Interim President Michel Kafando on the following day. Kafando has told journalists he is back in the saddle but there are doubts about the future of the interim government and the rules for the national elections due next month.

Burkina's latest putsch drama, started on 16 September when the private bodyguard, secret police and death squad of ousted President Blaise Compaoré, the RSP, interrupted a cabinet meeting of the interim government at the Kosyam Palace. The presidential palace is in the capital's luxury area, Ouaga 2000, close to the RSP camp, at Naaba Koom. It was the fourth time that the 1,300-strong regiment had made its presence angrily felt: it has had little to do since Compaoré was overthrown last October.

On the three previous occasions, last December and this February and July, the soldiers made their demands, got what they wanted and went back to barracks. They obtained, for example, the installation of two of Compaoré's most trusted brothers-in-arms at the head of the RSP: Colonel Boureïma Kéré as Presidential Chief-of-Staff and Col. Moussa Céleste Coulibaly at the head of the RSP (AC Vol 56 No 9, The code breakers & Vol 56 No 15, Guards old and new).

This time, it was different. The RSP took Interim President Kafando and his Prime Minister, Yacouba Isaac Zida, hostage and after a night of confusion, declared the transitional institutions dissolved. A new body was set up, called the Conseil national pour la démocratie, early on Thursday morning, 17 September. The composition of the CND was never made public but at its head emerged a familiar and imposing figure, Gen. Gilbert Diendéré, the cornerstone of Compaoré's security and intelligence system.

Up until then, Diendéré had kept quiet, especially after the transitional authorities relieved him of command of the RSP early this year. The coup was his revenge, primarily against Zida, his former deputy in the RSP. Diendéré had – wrongly – calculated that Zida would be the instrument by which he could get the transitional government to do his bidding. However, Zida turned out to have a mind of his own and began arguing for the RSP to be dismantled. The coup was, first and foremost, a settling of scores between Zida and his former comrades-in-arms, who felt betrayed by their old second-in-command.

There was more, though. The CND's first declaration, on 17 September, criticised the Electoral Code adopted in April, which excluded a number of candidates from the ancien régime. Among these were Eddie Komboïgo, the new Chairman of Compaoré's old election-winning machine, the Congrès pour la démocratie et le progrès. Also excluded were Komboïgo's close friend and CDP Vice-Chairperson, Fatoumata Diallo Diendéré, wife of the General, and Djibril Yipènè Bassolé, formerly Foreign Minister and diplomatic liaison with – among others – the Ivorian former rebel leader Guillaume Soro, who is now Speaker of his country's Parliament. Politically, militarily or business-wise, all were linked to Compaoré and all maintained contact with him in his Ivorian exile.

Ever since the Electoral Code was adopted, the CDP has been harping on about the exclusion of its candidates and accusing the transitional government of readying the presidency for the leader of the Mouvement du peuple pour le progrès, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré (AC Vol 56 No 4, Between street and barracks). The CDP bigwigs have hated Kaboré with a rare passion ever since he left the party nine months before October's insurrection. Together with Salif Diallo and Simon Compaoré, Kaboré formed the MPP and took many CDP rank-and-file – not to mention party secrets – with them.

This month's coup attempt has also jokingly been described as the chance to let Mrs Diendéré become the First Lady but it was, in fact, a reckoning between the CDP hardliners and the triumvirate at the head of the MPP, who had so recently been pillars of the regime. As if to emphasise the point, unknown assailants ransacked the homes of the MPP's Diallo and Compaoré on the night of 18 September.

Demob unhappy
Other motives for the coup sprang from two related fears within the RSP. Two days beforehand, the National Reconciliation Commission had recommended that the unit be disbanded. The other source of anxiety was the expected publication on 19 September of the results of a new autopsy on the body of Captain Thomas Sankara. His own 1983 coup had ushered in a period of radical politics and he was assassinated in a counter-coup four years later by Compaoré'. Diendéré was there on both occasions. The military investigating judge, François Yaméogo, was due to meet the lawyers of various concerned parties, including Sankara's family, on 17 September to share the results of his inquiry. Fear of Diendéré and other RSP officers being implicated in Sankara's killing also drove the coup plot.

On hearing the news of the coup, the public took to the streets, setting up barricades and massing for demonstrations. Trades unions declared an indefinite general strike. The protests found a focus in former journalist and National Transitional Council member Chérif Moumina Sy, who proclaimed himself interim President of the Transition on 18 September and ordered the RSP back to barracks. The most outspoken left-of-centre presidential candidate, Stanislas Bénéwendé Sankara (not related to Thomas Sankara but one of the family's lawyers) condemned the coup, as did Kaboré and the man who was to be his main rival, Zéphirin Diabré. Bassolé declared himself 'greatly affected' but in the same breath referred to Diendéré as 'President'. Curiously, Komboïgo, who had been hyperactive on Facebook, had stopped updating his pages on 11 September and was rumoured to be in the United States at the time of the putsch.

Women took to the streets bearing cooking utensils, an act considered a dire warning for their menfolk and a symbol of the October 2014 uprising. The mass mobilisation faced no resistance almost everywhere, but Ouagadougou turned into a menacing place overnight and shots rang out constantly. The RSP took to using unmarked 4x4 vehicles, from which balaclava-clad men emerged to terrorise defiant youths and prevent journalists from working. On the Thursday morning, the studio of Smockey, the country's most famous rap musician and one of the leaders of Balai citoyen – the group at the heart of the citizens' movement that removed Compaoré – was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades.

There were rumours of attacks on the other Balai leader, Sams'K le Jah, but both men were reported well and rallying their movement. To prevent the kind of communication which was so successful last October, the RSP attacked radio stations, most notably Radio Omega, and prevented journalists from doing their work by burning their cars. Omega later resumed broadcasting from the second city, Bobo Dioulasso, which strongly opposed the coup. Meanwhile, state television broadcast Champions League football. The RSP made several attempts to shut down the internet, surrounding the sole internet service provider, Onatel, on Sunday but it continued functioning, albeit at a snail's pace. In Senegal, Belgium, France and the USA, protests took place at Burkina Faso's embassies.

Army hesitates
The protestors' initial attempt to engage the regular army, which had supported them in October 2014, encountered resistance. A ruse by the coup leaders could have been responsible. The initial televised announcement of the CND was made by Col. Mamadou Bamba wearing army uniform, which could have led loyal soldiers to believe their commanders shared the RSP's aims. 'A child of Blaise' went the scathing comments on social media. Only on Saturday 21 September did the Army Chief of Staff, Brigadier Gen. Pingrénoma Zagré, make an unequivocal announcement condemning RSP violence against citizens. This also followed widespread public anger that the army had not leapt to the side of the people. (Zagré was later at Diendéré's side at Ouagadougou airport when two regional mediators flew in.) More violent protests also occurred. Diendéré's home in the village of Yako was set ablaze and social media carried threats against the relatives of RSP members.

International condemnation came unusually quickly. The African Union suspended Burkina on Saturday and gave the putschists 96 hours to reverse their grab for power. The European Union condemned the move equally swiftly. The Economic Community of West African States quickly dispatched the President of the Commission, Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo, himself a Burkinabè former Premier, to Ouagadougou for talks. He was accompanied by the UN Secretary General's Special Representative, the seasoned Ghanaian diplomat Mohamed Ibn Chambas. Then on Friday, two neighbouring heads of state, Macky Sall of Senegal in his capacity as Ecowas Chairman and his colleague Thomas Yayi Boni of Benin, flew into Ouagadougou to mediate. RSP elements dispersed demonstrators whom Balai citoyen had called to welcome the two Presidents.

Sall and Boni began talks with all the main actors, including Diendéré and Kafando, who had been released on Thursday night. Zida remained imprisoned in a room in the presidential palace for two more days, together with Augustin Loada, a respected academic, Administrative Affairs Minister in the interim government and co-author of Preventing extremism in Burkina Faso.

While Nigeria roundly condemned the coup, Burkina's large and most significant neighbour to the south, Côte d'Ivoire, was conspicuous by its silence. President Alassane Ouattara made a few non-committal statements and went on with his re-election campaign. Reports circulated that before his coup, Diendéré had been to see Ouattara and Compaoré in Abidjan but that has not been substantiated. Ouattara and Soro have long been among Compaoré's closest regional allies.

Diendéré has many friends among the world's military. Paris even made him a member of the Légion d'honneur in 2008. He enjoyed cordial relations with French ambassadors, including Gen. Emmanuel Beth, appointed in 2010, with whom he went parachute-jumping, and his successor from 2013, Gilles Thibault, a graduate of Saint-Cyr. Ouagadougou had a logistical role in France's Opération Serval in Mali and remains in use as a base for Opération Barkhane, which has replaced Serval (AC Vol 55 No 17, Biya's answer to Boko Haram). Compaoré's importance to the multinational effort against regional jihadists did not prevent either French President François Hollande or the USA, whose military was equally enthusiastic about Diendéré, from condemning the coup. France's words were harsher than those of the White House. Ouagadougou has been a major supporter of the annual joint US operation with African militaries, Operation Flintlock, which was held in Chad in February and where Diendéré was present. The US National Security Advisor, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice, issued a routine statement about the coup on Friday and left it at that.

On the morning of Sunday 20 September, Boni and Sall, with the help of various prominent Burkinabè, including ex-President Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo, Gen. Zagré, and Bishop Paul Ouédraogo, plus Ambassador Thibault and his US counterpart, Tulinabo Salama Mushingi, gathered at the Laico Hotel, not far from Kosyam Palace, to work out a deal. Proceedings were interrupted by pro-coup demonstrators, followed by RSP soldiers who walked into the hotel brandishing pistols, harassing journalists and threatening official delegates. This prompted an unusually sharply-worded response from the US Embassy. Gendarmes then secured the building.

'Sack of money'
For now it seems the CDP has its coup: its candidates can run against the MPP. 'Komboïgo will come with a sack of money and buy everyone's vote', wrote one irate commentator. The RSP also gets what it wants for now: its continued existence and impunity are guaranteed and it retains the option to stage another coup if it does not get the election result it wants. The Burkinabè, meanwhile, have 17 deaths to mourn and may ponder the extent to which their October 2014 revolution has just been reversed. 

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