Pre-Transition Politics in Burkina Faso [Updated]

On October 11, Burkina Faso will hold presidential and legislative elections. Senior members of the current interim government, which took office in November 2014 following the fall of long-time ruler Blaise Compaore the previous month, are ineligible to run in the elections. For now, though, the primary political struggle in the country is not over the October vote, but over who will wield power today, and what the role of different factions of the military will be in the government.

In recent weeks, NGOs and media outlets have buzzed with discussions of tension between the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, a conflict that could, at worst, derail the transition. Although both Zida and Compaore belonged to the RSP in the past, the elite unit has reasons to fear that it will be disbanded and punished: in December, Zida called for its dismantling, and in February, a political crisis unfolded when Zida attempted to reshuffle the RSP’s officer corps (French).

The most recent crisis (French) involves suspicions in some quarters of the government that the RSP was planning to arrest Zida upon his return from a trip to Taiwan – suspicions that were serious enough to make Zida land at a military base instead of at the airport as planned (French). On June 29, the day after Zida got home, gendarmes in the capital questioned three RSP officers, including Lieutenant Colonel Céleste Coulibaly, about their involvement in the suspected plot. That evening, shots were heard coming from the RSP’s barracks, which sits behind the presidential palace. Rumors then spread that Zida was resigning under RSP pressure, but he quickly stated that he was not stepping down.

These incidents have passed without bloodshed, but they have raised fears of an RSP-led coup. For its part, the RSP says (French) that there are no plots, but that it wants Zida and other military officers, such as Minister of Territorial Administration and Security Auguste Barry, to leave the government (French). Both sides accuse the other of seeking to undermine the planned transition. Many observers now look to interim President Michel Kafando to mediate (French) between the parties.

The International Crisis Group has urged parties in Burkina Faso to look forward:

With less than four months to go, the transition in Burkina Faso must focus all its efforts on the October elections…

The transitional government is caught in its own trap. It has made many promises without being able to satisfy them. The public is still waiting to see justice served for the economic crimes and murders committed under Compaoré. However, investigations have come up against a brick wall in the form of the RSP, some of whose members are accused of being involved in such crimes. There can be no final resolution of the question of the RSP’s future without destabilising the country. The transitional government is too weak to tackle their future role head on and seems to have decided to leave it to the new authorities.

With less than four months left before the elections, the transition has no more time to begin reforms and must focus on organising the ballot and promoting a peaceful climate.

For once, I find myself torn about Crisis Group’s recommendations (usually I agree fully with them). I wonder if postponing the question of the RSP’s future is tantamount to settling it in their favor. That does not mean I think the interim government should move to disband the unit – clearly Crisis Group is correct that such a move could prompt a crisis or even a coup. But I worry about a scenario for Burkina Faso where none of the issues that prompted the October 2014 revolution find resolution, even after the elections produce a winner. It seems to that the international community should take a strong stand not for or against the RSP’s existence, but for investigations of crimes. Supporting such investigations should involve creative thinking about how to ensure that the transition to the next government does not end up entrenching an atmosphere of impunity.

[Update July 10]: There have been two very smart responses to this post:

  • Jay Ufelder relates the case of Burkina Faso to broader questions of civilian control over security forces.
  • Michael Kevane offers concrete steps that civilian authorities and civil society activists could take to reduce the risks (or raise the costs) of a coup and to move the RSP close to “acquiescence to civilian rule.”

The Guiro Affair: Corruption, Accountability, and Questions in Burkina Faso

On June 20, the Court of Appeal (French) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, found Ousmane Guiro guilty of corruption involving 900 million FCFA (about $1.5 million). The Court ordered the confiscation of his assets, gave him a suspended prison term of two years, and fined him 10 million FCFA (about $17,000). The “Guiro Affair” began in the final phase of ex-President Blaise Compaore’s rule, but has lasted into Burkina Faso’s post-revolutionary period.

The case is important because it touches on broader themes of corruption, accountability, and politics. Guiro, a former Director-General of Customs, was first arrested in January 2012. He was immediately fired by Compaore. Jeune Afrique (French) wrote at the time:

In Ouagadougou, the news surprised people, and for good reason: in the memory of the Burkinabe, it is the first time that such a high personality has been incarcerated. To cut rumors short, the Commandant of the Gendermarie Hubert Yaméogo had to appear on the set of Burkinabe national television and tell part of the story. 

Jeune Afrique noted that Guiro had survived earlier accusations of corruption in 2008, allegedly because his “well-placed friends” protected him. The magazine went on to imply, though, the in the aftermath of protests and mutinies that swept Burkina Faso in 2011 – a dry run of sorts for the revolution of 2014 – the presidency may have been willing to offer up a sacrificial lamb to the voices demanding accountability for corruption. Guiro, who apparently had trunks full of cash (French), may have been ideal because of the egregious nature of his theft.

Civil society reactions (French) to Guiro’s sentencing have been complex, with some prominent leaders saying that the sentence was too light. Burkinabe observers have raised questions about who else was involved in corruption under Compaore, and whether the relatively light sentence for Guiro sends a “noxious” message to officeholders. Some have even taken the verdict as evidence that “the system of Mr. Blaise Compaore is still intact” – that Burkina Faso’s governing institutions, including the judiciary, will continue to protect high-placed wrongdoers. Guiro now has time to appeal, but even if his case closes, the issues at stake in his trial will continue to resonate for some time.

Journalists’ Syndicate Protests in Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso, state media employees are dissatisfied with their working conditions and the censorship they reportedly face. The Autonomous Syndicate of Information and Culture Workers (SYNATIC) organized demonstrations on July 16 in Ouagadougou (French), the political capital, and Bobo-Dioulasso (French), a major economic center. In Ouagadougou, the journalists staged a sit-in by the Ministry of Communications, and in Bobo-Dioulasso they rallied in front of the regional government building.

From the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which adds that the Association of Journalists of Burkina helped organize the sit-ins:

It was the first time that journalists from state-run media have publicly broken their collective silence over what the public has long believed to be entrenched practices of editorial direction and control by official censors. The show of discontent was the latest in a series of recent demonstrations by various segments of society opposing government policies and protesting the standard of living, according to news reports.

The government tried to dismiss accusations of tampering with news coverage after the sit-in was announced. “I have never given directives to anybody,” Communications Minister and Government Spokesman Alain Edouard Traoré declared at a press conference on Monday, according to RTB. He said the station “operates in total independence” from his office. “We do not constitute a ministry of propaganda,” private news site Burkina 24 quoted him as saying.

During the first half of 2011, Burkina Faso experienced waves of protests and mutinies that drew serious concern from the government of President Blaise Compaore. The current protests have not yet reached nearly the same level of seriousness. Yet when journalists protest in Burkina Faso, it is worth paying attention. For one thing, the assassination of the journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998 continues to cast a shadow over relations between the state, the press, and the people. Protests against censorship, in other words, speak to broader tensions in the country.

Portraits of Malian Refugee Camps in Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso

Alongside armed conflict in northern Mali, Mali and its neighbors are experiencing a refugee crisis. I keep bringing this up in an effort to ensure that the scale of the crisis will not be ignored. UNHCR’s country pages for Mali and Mauritania show that massive numbers of people have been displaced: over 200,000 inside Mali, 70,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, 50,000 in Niger, and 40,000 in Burkina Faso. Those numbers are all expected to rise by year’s end, to a total of approximately 540,000.

A few portraits from camps:


The Mangaïze camp was officially created in May, following an influx of a large number of Malian families fleeing to Niger, said Idrissa Abou, a member of Niger’s National Commission for Refugees.
Besides a monthly food ration, refugees have access to drinking water from three small boreholes and primary health care. There are sanitation facilities with 250 showers and toilets, and a household waste management system. Refugees also have access to administrative services, a school and, with the opening of a police station, a security service.

“At the moment, there are 1,522 families, which amounts to a population of 6,037 mainly made up of Malian refugees, but there are also Nigerien returnees,” Abou told IPS, adding that an overwhelming majority of the refugees are from Ménaka, the closest Malian town to the Ouallam municipality in south-western Niger. He added that the numbers in the camp had increased in February after some 1,700 refugees from the nearby Bani Bangou camp were transferred to Mangaïze.


Nearly 67,000 refugees—mainly women and children—have arrived in the border town of Fassala, Mauritania, since January 2012. “At the border crossing at Fassala, Mauritania, people are arriving thirsty and showing signs of fatigue,” explains Karl Nawezi, MSF project manager in Mauritania. After being registered by the authorities, refugees wait in a transit camp before being transferred to Mbera, a small, isolated village in the Mauritanian desert, just 30 kilometers [about 19 miles] from the Mali border.

The refugees in Mbera are totally dependent on humanitarian aid. An insufficient number of tents has been distributed, however. Families are assembled under large tents called “meeting points” that leave them exposed to the elements. Fed up with waiting, some construct their own makeshift shelters out of straw mats and pieces of fabric to protect themselves from sand and dust storms. “In Mauritania, as is the case elsewhere [in the Sahel refugee camps], people are suffering from diarrhea, respiratory infections, and skin infections because of the poor conditions in the camps,” says Nawezi.

And France24 has a video report from Burkina Faso here.

Burkina Faso: After “Coupled Elections,” A Shifting Political Landscape

On December 2, Burkina Faso held “coupled” legislative and municipal elections. Legislative results can be found here, and municipal results here (.pdf, French). In the legislative elections, the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) won 70 of 127 seats in the National Assembly, a slight decline from when it won 73 of 111 seats in the last elections in 2007. The new president of the National Assembly is outgoing cabinet minister and current CDP member Soungalo Ouattara.

Two parties tied for second place with 19 seats respectively. The Alliance for Democracy and Federation-African Democratic Rally (ADF-RDA, whose French-language website can be found here), which supported President Blaise Compaoré in the 2005 and 2010 presidential elections, increased its total seats in parliament by five. The absence of the ADF-RDA (French, includes a list of cabinet members) in Prime Minister Luc Adolphe Tiao’s new government, whose formation was announced around the new year, has generated some discussion in the Burkinabé press (French). The other party, the Union for Progress and Change, is new, having been created in 2010 (French). RFI (French) calls its leader, Zéphirin Diabré, “the new head of the Burkinabé opposition.” According to Jeune Afrique (French), the president’s camp controls 97 seats (this tally must include ADF-RDA), while Diabré’s controls 30.

Turning briefly to the local elections, the Burkinabé press has two notable stories about conflicts playing out in different localities: a tense-sounding wait for revised results in certain quarters of the economic capital Bobo-Dioulasso (French), and a struggle between two conflicting versions of the official results in the rural commune of Tema Bokin (French).

Finally, this editorial (French) contains some interesting musings on the coupled elections as a “crucial step before the presidential election of 2015” and on their results as evidencing not so much “change,” but rather “renewal.” The author writes, “The national political chessboard is indeed being completely rearranged, between announced divorces and assumed reconciliations…”

Quick Notes on Elections in Somaliland and Burkina Faso

Two major elections took place recently within this blog’s zone of coverage. On November 28, Somaliland held municipal elections. On December 2, Burkina Faso held parliamentary and municipal elections.


Initial international commentary on the elections in Somaliland has largely focused on assessing the integrity of the process. You can read the preliminary report from an international election observation mission here. An excerpt:

With a fuller team assessment to come in early December, preliminary indications suggest that, despite some reports of violence, and no voting taking place in some disputed districts in the country’s east, Somaliland’s electorate has, once again,turned out with enthusiasm and in large numbers.

Particularly heartening has been wide participation by female voters, a boost in numbers of female candidates and, thanks to the lowering of the qualifying age, youthful candidates standing in significant numbers. However, at this interim stage, a few concerns have emerged, including, once again, apparent attempts at underage and multiple voting.

Observers have also reported excessive use of force by security forces outside polling stations in some areas; some poor organisation surrounding the electoral process, including delayed opening of polling stations; insufficient electoral materials; and technical problems with voter safeguards, such as the ink designed to prevent multiple voting.

Aaron Pangburn has more on various concerns about the elections. He also lays out how the outcome of these elections will affect the political arena going forward:

The new electoral law passed in 2011, allows for officially registered political associations to challenge Somaliland’s three legal political parties (President Silanyo’s KULMIYE, UCID and UDUB) in municipal elections. Five new associations (UMADDA, DALSAN, RAYS, WADANI and HAQSOOR) met the registration requirements and were approved by the RAC.

In order to become an official party, the law initially requires a minimum of 20% in each of Somaliland’s six regions. The system limits their populations’ choices to three political parties to ensure broad based policy platforms, and to avoid previous tendency of narrow clan-based coalitions. The campaign was particularly vibrant and regulated, with each party adopting a different color and symbol to bring their supporters together, but with a structured schedule for the party rallies.

Pangburn also comments, significantly, that “unfortunately for the people of Somaliland a transparent and mostly peaceful process will not drastically redefine their standing in the international community. Rather, it will be how they manage their external relationships with Somalia and their regional neighbors that will have the greatest effect on their pending application for statehood.”

Burkina Faso

International coverage of the “coupled” parliamentary and municipal elections in Burkina Faso has focused on several interlinked themes. Commentary has focused largely on assessing the prospects for the stability of the regime of President Blaise Compaore. Recurring themes in coverage include:

  • Noting that these elections follow the protests and mutinies of spring/summer 2011 (see AP and AFP);
  • Assessing the integrity of the vote, especially the performance of the National Independent Electoral Commission, which was reformed after the protests (see VOA);
  • Speculating that if the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress wins a “decisive” majority, it could seek to undo term limits on Compaore’s tenure as president (see Reuters).


Results are expected by December 7 in Burkina Faso (French), and soon (though I have not seen a specific date) in Somaliland.

What do you see as the significance of these elections?

Burkina Faso: Parliamentary Elections Twelve Days from Now

On December 2, Burkina Faso will hold elections for seats in its 111-member National Assembly, along with elections for local government positions. Parliamentary elections take place every five years, and the previous election occurred in May 2007. Presidential elections also take place every five years, but on a different track – the last presidential vote happened in 2010, when President Blaise Compaore was re-elected for the fourth time. The President’s party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP, whose official website is in French here), currently controls 73 seats in the National Assembly.

Here are several resources you can consult for information on the upcoming vote and Burkina Faso’s political landscape:

  • The Assembly’s official website and a list of members elected in 2007 (both pages are in French);
  • The Assembly’s Wikipedia page;
  • The website (French) of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI). Here, you can read about the reformulation of CENI in July 2011 in the wake of several months of protests and mutinies in Burkina Faso. You can find more on the reformed CENI and its new president, Barthélémy Kéré, here (French);
  • The International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ overview of elections in Burkina Faso;
  • and Freedom House’s 2011 “Countries at the Crossroads” report on Burkina Faso.

Given the paucity of news sites that focus on Burkina Faso, it is difficult for me to get a sense of the campaign from a distance. This article (French) reports on the campaign of a relatively new party, the Union for Progress and Change, to win the mayor’s seat in Tenkodogo (map) as well as legislative seats in the surrounding province. This article (French), meanwhile, reports on the Socialist Party’s campaign.

As the ruling CDP, under its National Security Assimi Kouanda, mobilizes its partisans for the elections (French), it seems likely – given President Compaore’s dominance and the substantial majority the Party enjoys – that they will hold the majority. Yet the election bears watching as the first contest held under the new CENI, the first vote since the crisis of spring 2011, and one possible indication of the country’s political trajectory as we look toward the 2015 presidential election.