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.”