The Evolving Coup in Burkina Faso: Observations from the Field

[This guest post is part of a series on Burkina Faso’s ongoing political turmoil. My colleague Daniel Eizenga, a Research Associate with the Sahel Research Group and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Florida, has been based in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou since before the coup of September 17 conducting dissertation research. He has generously offered to share his updates from the ground as the situation evolves. – Alex]

Date: Wednesday, September 16, 2015 evening

 Some comments on the rapidly evolving situation in Burkina:

First, guns are being fired (along with what I presume is tear gas) in the streets within ear shot of where I am living in Ouagadougou, as I’m writing this. So whether there will be a successful coup or unsuccessful coup is far less important than the fact that the hard fought peaceful and stable electoral transition is very much at risk and may already be lost.

Second, a crucial factor will be the level of unity within the RSP (the presidential guard) and then the larger security forces. The RSP is the best armed and previously was the best-funded unit in the military. If they are unified around taking control of Ouagadougou and derailing the electoral process they have the means. They pose a real threat to the central government, but their presence is not nearly as strong throughout the country. This matters because when people mobilized against Compaoré, they mobilized practically everywhere (or at least in every significant urban center). These same demonstrators would presumably be against any kind of military action that prevents upcoming elections and therefore might riot again. If this is the case, other factions of the military would need to actively participate in order to repress the crowds. People are already demonstrating here and given the gunfire it is not likely peaceful.

Third, the RSP threatened the Prime Minister several weeks ago, even perhaps over a month ago, but after those events they fell silent. They were almost entirely off the political radar as the elections, and the final reforms of the transitional government, were advanced. Two days ago, the commission charged with national reconciliation and reform within the transitional government submitted a final 500 page report. Per the military and the RSP, the report recommended a complete re-organization of the security forces and the dissolution of the RSP altogether. My guess? That plays a big role in the current events. Most presidential candidates—an exception being Bénéwende Sankara of UNIR/PS—have not directly stated what they would do to reform the RSP if in office. Sankara made it clear they would be disbanded under his administration.

It appears that the well-known academic and civil society activist who has been serving as Minister (Ministre de la fonction publique, du travail et de la sécurité sociale) Prof. Augustin Loada is one of the hostages taken by the RSP. He and another minister, Rene Bagoro, were meeting with President Kafando and PM Zida when the RSP took over the presidential palace. Here is a link where you can read the statement made by the President of the CNT, Cheriff SY..

Date: Thursday, September 17, 2015, morning

One Gen. Diendéré is now president of the Conseil national pour la démocratie which has been created by the RSP. Diendéré has been by Compaoré’s side since Sankara’s assassination, and his wife was member of the National Assembly for the CDP for many years. He is infamous amongst Burkinabè.

While the CND has installed a curfew, closed the borders, and claimed control of the state. The President of the National Assembly, Cherif Sy, is not giving up without a fight. He has proclaimed himself acting president since Kafando and Zida are being held hostage. He also called on regional military leaders to do whatever is necessary to put an end to this coup.

Last night there was sporadic gunfire throughout the night until around 2:30AM. Then gunfire woke me up this morning around 6:45AM and has been more prevalent with some periods of calm. People must be demonstrating because the gunfire continues and there are occasional ambulance sirens.

All stores and businesses are closed. Most informal vendors have also stayed home.

Date: Thursday, September 17, 2015 afternoon

I have not found any evidence to corroborate that President Kafando and the other hostages have been released, despite one earlier report which made such a claim. I fear this means Prof. Loada and the others are still under guard at the Presidential Palace.

For the last several hours, the gunfire has died down dramatically. Still, the situation remains very tense. Political parties met earlier today around noon, after which they joined their voices calling for civil disobedience. They claimed to have a plan which would begin to take place over the next few hours. Some of the leaders of one of the more prominent and vocal civil society movements, Le Balai Citoyen, have been arrested.

Large convoys of RSP soldiers are moving around the city while others are stationed at road blocks or other check points. They have done a very effective job, so far, of denying protesters the ability to assemble in popular meeting places located in downtown Ouaga e.g. La Place de la Revolution, Round Pointe des Nations Unis, La Maison du Peuple. Still, there are reports of those who have been killed while confronting security forces. Reports vary from 1 to more than 10 dead, alongside some 60 wounded.

Diendéré pops up in all of the worst places when you look through Burkina’s recent history, so it’s hard for me to believe this will go well over the next few days. RFI does a decent job of offering some background on Diendéré and had an interview with him in which they posed some pointed questions.

Cherif Sy the President of the National Assembly has been someone to watch all day today as well. I’ll have more to say about him tomorrow depending on what happens. Briefly, it’s worth saying I met him on my first trip to Burkina and it was clear from the meeting he is an activist.

The newly established curfew starts in around two hours at 19H here and a violent storm is passing over the city right now. Let’s hope the storm does not portend coming events.

I think we are in for another tumultuous day tomorrow.

Date: Friday, September 18, 2015 at 7:56 AM

Last night was calm, but the ambiance remained wrought with tension. Cherif Sy, President of the National Council of the Transitional Government once again declared himself Interim and acting President, while President Kafando and PM Zida continued to be held hostage. Sy called on all ‘patriotic’ and ‘republican’ officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers to stand by the Burkinabè and confront the RSP (the presidential guard responsible for the coup). Then this morning, he raised the rhetoric by demanding, as acting president, that all members of the RSP immediately lay down their weapons. Those who refused, he said, would be treated as deserters and rebels. He called on the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces to implement this order. The specter of military conflict seems much closer than anyone would like.

After all attempts by civil society to organize movements against the coup were successfully repressed yesterday, new efforts were launched this morning. Balai Citoyen, an organization which spearheaded much of the mobilization against former president Blaise Compaoré and his bid to change presidential term limits in 2014, called on all Burkinabè to ‘occupy’ the governors’ offices throughout the regions. The movement also called their supporters in Ouagadougou to meet at the airport around 10AM to await the arrival of Macky Sall (current President of ECOWAS) and Boni Yayi, who intend to begin negotiations with the Gen. Diendéré and the National Council for Democracy (read: coup perpetrators). Balai Citoyen hoped to demonstrate to the regional leaders that Burkinabè were solidified against the coup and not in support of any negotiations with what the movement deems ‘domestic terrorists.’

It’s unclear whether anyone was able to make it to the airport. Balai Citoyen claims that members of the CDP (the former political party of Blaise Compaoré and one of the few parties not to have condemned the coup) informed the RSP of their plans. Consequently, they argue, the RSP was waiting for the demonstrators as they headed to the airport from their various neighborhoods. It is of course possible that the RSP is simply very well positioned throughout the city and was, thus, able to prevent any movement toward the airport. Demonstrators are being arrested, their motos are being confiscated, and they are being shot at to disperse. I’m afraid more deaths and many more wounded will be counted by the end of today.

From my home, the streets are empty of their normal activity. For anyone who has ever lived on a busy road in a city, it sounds like Sunday, except for the sporadic gunfire. The firing began later in the morning today around 8:30AM, but it has been for more sustained periods of time. This could suggest that either demonstrators are becoming more defiant or soldiers less cautious. Neither case seems to bode well for the calls of peaceful civil disobedience.

In a piece of good news, I believe Prof. Augustin Loada has been freed. RFI is reporting that an official communiqué from the CND states that President Kafando and two ministers have been freed. It makes no mention of PM Zida. The liberation of Kafando, could be a big development and is no doubt a strategic move by the CND considering that it in effect removes Cherif Sy as interim president.  We should know more soon if any deals were brokered between Kafando and Diendéré for his release.

It is also expected that the borders will be reopened at noon local time.

Date: Saturday, September 19, 2015 at 11:15 AM

The arrival of Macky Sall, current president of ECOWAS, to mediate between the different groups involved in the on-going crisis in Ouagadougou helped to restore a tenuous calm to the city. During the night a few gunshots could be heard presumably to enforce the 7PM to 6AM curfew which remains in effect. Saturday morning continued to be calm as the RSP does not appear to be patrolling the city and limited movement around Ouagadougou is being allowed.

I was able to leave my home for the first time in three days within this context. The streets are not as busy as they would be normally and most businesses are closed. Tires and other debris are gathered at strategic intersections where I assume demonstrators intend to barricade the route later on. The remnants of burnt tires can be seen throughout the streets and in certain areas I noticed shell casings from automatic weapons which must have been discharged yesterday. Small shops were open and many people were stocking up on basic goods such as rice and pasta. Throughout my neighborhood large groups of young men were passing the time talking along the sides of the streets. For a Saturday morning this would normally be unremarkable, except that they were often hanging out close to large stacks of old truck tires…

Balai Citoyen warned its supporters not to confront the RSP directly and to avoid wearing black t-shirts (the organization’s t-shirt is black with white styling) as it might make them targets. Posts on their Facebook page show several towns throughout the country which are mobilized against the coup d’état. In Bobo Dioulasso reports confirm that the curfew was not observed last night and that security forces there allowed demonstrators to protest in to the night. For the moment, these protests, marches, and other demonstrations have remained peaceful. Allusions to a large scale mobilization in Ouaga to put an end to the coup once and for all are being rumored and circulated through social media, but nothing has materialized as of yet.

Mediation efforts by Macky Sall and Thomas Boni Yayi started anew Saturday morning with the political opposition and civil society. Both groups are refusing any negotiation with the RSP other than the full reinstatement of the institutions and leaders of the transitional government. Yesterday, Sall was able to briefly meet with all of the different groups: the political opposition, the political parties tacitly in support of the coup, civil society, leaders of the transitional government, and leaders of the coup. These meetings left the Senegalese president to describe the situation as “complex.”  The African Union may have further complicated the mediation process by sanctioning Burkina Faso, suspending it from all activities in the AU because of the military coup. It remains to be seen, today, whether Sall and Yayi can make any headway. The word on the street is that neither side is willing to back down…

Date: Sunday, September 20, 2015 at 2:35 PM

A tenuous calm over Ouagdougou continues to reign as mediation efforts from representatives of ECOWAS offer a cautious hope of putting an end to the political crisis. Macky Sall and Boni Yayi continued their negotiations with the RSP coup leaders as well as representatives of the political opposition, transitional government, and civil society. By the end of negotiations Saturday night, Boni Yayi hinted that an agreement might be found by Sunday, but offered no details on what it might entail.

Also Saturday night, the Army Chief of Staff made a public announcement. In the announcement he offered his condolences for those who have been wounded and killed in the confrontations between demonstrators and the RSP patrols. He also called on the people not to lose confidence in the regular army, in a clear effort to distance the rest of the military from the RSP’s actions. Finally, he called on the army to remain true to the republican nature of the military and to stay out of political affairs citing their duty to uphold social order and peace throughout the country. His words offer some hope to the situation, but at the same time the military has done very little to get in the way of the RSP. After his announcement, civil society called on the regular army to do more to circumvent the ‘domestic terrorism’ being perpetrated by the presidential guard.

On Sunday, the civil society movement Balai Citoyen called on its supporters to meet at the Place de la Revolution to make their demands heard by the ECOWAS mediators. However, the RSP prevented them from meeting at the locale and the movement attempted to reorganize it, meeting outside of the hotel where the negotiations are taking place. Their demands are straightforward: a return to the status quo before the coup, and the arrest of all those involved in the coup. At the hotel, clashes broke out between the demonstrators and a contingent of pro-CDP (the former ruling party under Blaise Compaoré) coup supporters. The pro-CDP demonstrators support the coup as they view it as a means for their party to be reinstated in the electoral process—most CDP members were barred from participating in elections because of their previous support to change presidential term limits in 2014 which would have enabled Compaoré to potentially stay in power. The national army and gendarmerie broke up the fights and demonstrators on both sides were removed from the premises.

Very little continues to be known about the mediation process except that Macky Sall and Boni Yayi remain optimistic that a solution is close at hand. Some reports surfaced today that Gen. Diendéré, leader of the RSP and coup, has agreed to allow the transition to resume, but under the condition that he remains president until the end of the transition. This demand is hardly tenable given the stance of transitional government representatives like Cherif Sy and civil society organizations like Balai Citoyen. Other reports have hinted that presidential elections may be delayed more than a month from their originally scheduled date of October 11. I wrote a short piece for the website Africa Is A Country which offers and analysis of potential motivations behind Diendéré and the RSP’s actions.

Protests continue in other cities across the country. Today protests in Koudougou, an opposition strong hold during the times of Compaoré, were in full swing. Their support for organizations like Balai Citoyen circulated within social media networks.

The curfew from 7PM to 6AM remains in effect. Although last night the air was scented with burning rubber. At least, for two days now there has been very limited gunfire suggesting that confrontation between demonstrators and RSP patrols may be, at least temporarily, finished.

Date: Monday, September 21, 2015 at 1:15 PM

The US Embassy just sent an e-mail informing all registered US citizens that the main internet service provider in Burkina Faso, Onatel, is experiencing difficulties because the RSP destroyed some of their facilities. This does not bode well for me as Onatel is my gateway to connecting to the internet. Let’s hope Onatel is able to keep internet access available and I’m able to continue to send these updates.

It’s not hard to imagine why the RSP would attack the internet connection of most Burkinabè. The proposed ‘deal’ negotiated by Macky Sall and Boni Yayi which was finally revealed last night received an enormous amount of criticism from civil society in social media. The deal outlines 13 steps to be taken to put an end to the current political crisis. Several of those 13 steps appear to be huge victories for the RSP. To underline just a few of the propositions: the transitional government will be reinstated, but unable to implement any actual law as their responsibilities would be restricted to preparing upcoming elections. Those who had been previously barred by the Constitutional Court from participating in the legislative and presidential elections because of their support for modifying presidential term limits in 2014 would now be allowed to participate in elections. The elections would be delayed until a date no later than 22 November. And perhaps the most contentious points, all reforms of the military, notably the RSP itself, would be left to the newly elected administration and all those involved in the coup would be pardoned and granted amnesty for their actions.

When Macky Sall and Boni Yayi presented this provisional agreement you can imagine how civil society and then social media reacted. The regional leaders were accused of betraying the Burkinabé people, of giving in to strong men and showing Africa that military coups can still dictate personal agendas, the agreement was deplored as shameful, deceitful, and completely out of touch with the citizenry. Professor of Law and civil society leader Luc Ibriga also expressed his disillusionment with the ECOWAS delegation when he spoke with RFI about the proposed agreement. He suggested that the agreement offered alarmingly negative signals, setting a precedent for other countries where coups might be used as leverage to gain or secure political agendas. Abdoul Karim Saidu, a political scientist by training and current director of the think-tank Centre pour la Gouvernance Démocratique declared that the proposed accord has no chance of being accepted by the political opposition or civil society in Ouagadougou.

Many people are shocked and disenchanted with the proposed accord because it seems to give the coup leaders more or less everything they have demanded. The proposal will be voted on at a special ECOWAS meeting in Abuja, Nigeria tomorrow September 22. Nevertheless, it is already being rejected here in Burkina Faso. Cherif Sy, president of the assembly of the transition government, denounced the proposal almost immediately calling on all Burkinabé to converge on the capital to demonstrate their anger. Then, only moments ago, the President of the transition and former hostage of the RSP, Michel Kafando, publically stated that he had a number of reservations regarding the proposed agreement and could not associate his name with it. It appears the ECOWAS negotiation team may have been too hasty in finding a solution and misjudged the importance of the players outside of the coup-leaders. Perhaps, in their desire to restore calm to the city and avoid further casualties and wounded Sall and Yayi were overly eager to agree to the demands of Diendéré and the RSP. Reports vary, but as of today there are between 10 and 20 deaths and over 100 wounded as a result of clashes between demonstrators and the RSP.

Despite this, Ouagadougou remained relatively calm today. On social media a number of followers of Balai Citoyen were asking: what’s the next step? Tell us where to be and when? C’est quoi le mot d’ordre ? No response regarding mobilization – I assume the leadership of the organization is in the process of determining their next best move, but we’ll see if the same popular mobilization that brought down Compaoré can be replicated. Given the general sense of calm, I decided to go out and see what I could in the streets. Make-shift barricades continue to block many of the main routes. The barricades are composed of tires, stones, cut-down trees, branches, and other random debris. The dark stains of burnt-out tires can be spotted throughout the city. Almost everything is closed – it may be Monday, but the streets look like its Sunday with about half of the normal Sunday activity.

I stopped to stock up on some water and phone credit when I received a text from a friend. The text read: stay home there are segments of the military that may be fighting each other. Naturally, I returned home immediately and got online to find out what I could learn. Apparently, three separate detachments of the regular army left from military bases in the west, the east, and the north of the country to converge on Ouagadougou early this afternoon. The Army Chief of Staff has called on the RSP to lay down their arms peacefully and gather themselves at a military base in Ouagadougou. So long as they compile with the order, ‘they and their families will be safe.’ For now the military has not yet arrived at Ouagadougou, but their arrival is imminent. At around 3PM the contingent traveling from the west of the country arrived at Koudougou to an ‘over-joyous’ crowd leading an RFI report to describe the atmosphere as ‘phénoménale.’ RFI will be updating regularly an article covering the arrival of the armed forces here.

In the hours to come we can only hope that the RSP accepts the demands of the national Army. If not, Ouagdougou may be in for yet another restless night.


One thought on “The Evolving Coup in Burkina Faso: Observations from the Field

  1. Pingback: Bibi Takes Burkina turns to Bibi Takes Togo | Bibi Takes on Togo

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