Burkina Faso: A Turbulent Struggle for Democracy

Nearly a year since President Blaise Compaore was swept from power by violent protests, Burkina Faso has once again hit turbulence in its struggle for democratic elections. On 16th September 2015, the Presidential Guard, known locally as Le Régiment de Sécurité Présidentielle (RSP), stormed into a cabinet meeting to arrest the interim President and Prime Minister. Up until now, the revolution has been, at least superficially, a fairly clean affair. With Roch Mar Christian Kabore for the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP) and Zephirin Diaper for the Union for Progress and Change (UPC) as clear frontrunners for the upcoming elections on October 11th, there were high expectations, both domestic and international, for a peaceful shift to a democratically elected civilian government. Despite this, underlying tensions have been bubbling with many claiming that in spite of Compaore’s exile, his state has remained alive. These tensions escalated for two predominant reasons. The first is related to the controversial election law passed by the interim government in April, which stipulated that anyone who supported ‘constitutional change’ was ineligible to run. Put simply, this law excluded members of Compaore’s regime and its supporters from the upcoming elections, provoking condemnation not only from Compaore supporters but also from the ECOWAS court of justice. The second follows the announcement by the country’s National Reconciliation and Reforms Commission on 14th September, which recommended the disbandment of the RSP.

Leading the campaign against the RSP was Prime Minister Isaac Zida – a former senior officer in the RSP who assumed the powers of head of state amidst the unrest in October 2014 – whose current detainment under house arrest is drawing widespread condemnation. On Friday morning, the coup leader General Gilbert Diendere showed some signs of yielding with the announcement that interim President Michel Kafando, who had been detained alongside Zida, had been released and returned to his private residence. There have been no confirmed sightings of him in public and international powers, including ECOWAS and the UN, have continued to demand for the immediate release of the other hostages. In a statement read by Colonel Mahamadou Bamba on Thursday, the coup leaders pledged to put an end ‘to the deviant transitional regime’ and assured international audiences that all hostages were in good health. Coup leaders have also reiterated that the intention was to hold elections but that the proposed date of 11th October was too soon, providing an ominous echo of the words of President Jammeh of the Gambia over 20 years ago. In the meantime they have: forced some radio and television stations off air; instigated a night time curfew; closed land and air borders; and reportedly dissolved the government Associated Press. In response, transitional parliamentary speaker Cheriff Sy declared himself leader of the country and called on people to ‘immediately rise up’ against the coup. These calls were met as protesters gathered in the streets of the country’s capital, Ouagadougou and other cities across the country including Bobo Dioulasso. However, protesters have been confronted by heavily armed troops, and by Thursday evening there were 3 confirmed deaths and 60 injuries. At the time of writing, no further official figures had been released. News of gun shots have reportedly contained rather than silenced protests and with continued calls from protestors for ‘elections’ and the fall of the RSP, it seems likely that civil society is prepared to mount a serious challenge to the coup.  Furthermore, as former right hand man to Compaore, Diendere’s position as head of the junta has provoked speculation that the former president may be behind events. Although Diendere has assured the populace that he has had no contact with Compaore and at this stage these seem to be mere speculations, the promulgation of these theories will likely inflame the situation further.

With two West African leaders due to arrive in Burkina Faso on Friday afternoon to help ‘mediate’ the situation, the outcome of the coup still remains unclear, plunging the country into fresh uncertainty. What is apparent is that if the army and civil society continue to challenge the junta and the officers refuse to back down, the situation could deteriorate very quickly. Referred to by commentators as the ‘black spring’, the events of October last year signified a new era for the country, one in which Burkinabes hoped to partake in the recent sweep of democratic elections across the Continent. And having removed one leader through popular protests, it does not seem likely that the people will accept this takeover. Furthermore, Burkina Faso’s proximity to Mali will make it of strategic interest to western powers, especially the former colonial power France, no doubt ensuring close monitoring of the situation and making intervention in any ensuing escalation likely.

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