The Evolving Political Crisis in Burkina Faso: Observations from Ouagadougou

[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 23, 2015 at 7:33 PM UTC

Diendéré’s coup has been pronounced a failure and the General himself regrets his actions. And just like that, the political crisis in Burkina Faso appears to be headed toward a peaceful resolution.

Today, several significant steps towards a conclusion of the weeklong political turmoil in Ouagadougou were taken, beginning with an agreement signed between the presidential guard (RSP) and military last night. A representative of the RSP met with members of the ‘loyalist’ contingent of the military at the palace of the Mogho Naba, the traditional leader of the Mossi. The Mossi are the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso and the symbolic role of the Mogho Naba in the peace agreement helps reassure the seriousness with which the agreement was made.

The agreement came hours after the special ECOWAS summit in Abuja called on the RSP to disarm and the regular army not to engage in violent confrontation with the RSP. Per the agreement between the different elements of the military, the RSP has returned to their barracks, where they will remain, and the regular army moved 50 km outside of the capital. The RSP has not disarmed, however, and the agreement stipulates that the issue of disarmament will be readdressed within three days.

The special ECOWAS summit also called for the immediate reinstatement of the President of the Transition, Michel Kafando, and sent a special envoy of West African Heads of State including Boni Yayi of Benin, Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, and John Dramani Mahama of Ghana, to insure this took place. This morning Kafando gave a speech at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in which he declared he was once again taking up his responsibilities as President of the Transition. In addition to announcing his reinstatement, he offered his condolences to those who have lost their lives or were wounded in the defense of the country against would be ‘usurpers.’ He also expressed his gratitude toward Cherif Sy for leading the country as Interim President while he and the Prime Minister were hostages of the RSP. Later today, an official ceremony was held at Hotel Laico where the ECOWAS presidents, Prime Minister Zida, and President of the Parliament of the Transition, Cherif Sy, were all in attendance. These events were largely all pomp and circumstance. The actual meetings to put the transition back on track will be held tomorrow.

So, what of all the controversy surrounding the proposed points of the agreement developed by the original ECOWAS mediation envoy? In short, the ECOWAS leaders decided to leave them up to the Burkinabè people. The issue of amnesty for the coup perpetrators, the reform/dissolution of the RSP, and the inclusion or exclusion of certain political party members in upcoming elections were all left unaddressed by the summit. Instead, ECOWAS will send a team of military and humanitarian observers to insure a peaceful end to the political crisis, and the second envoy of presidents-turned-mediators will seek to achieve an agreement between the different parties which is more acceptable to the Burkinabè people. Indeed, Boni Yayi in the name of ECOWAS stated that henceforth it is up to Burkinabè to resolve this crisis through an inclusive dialogue. Perhaps more importantly, Kafando’s earlier disenchantment with the process appears to have been heard. Certainly, the decisions which came out of the special summit in Abuja give the President of the Transition much more influence over the mediation process.

The ambiance in Ouagadougou returned to calm today, especially in light of the agreement made between the Chief of Staff of the Army and Gen Diendéré, leader of the coup and presidential guard. Still, the general strike and curfew remain in effect and the streets continue to be far less active than normal. Some rumblings were heard across the news media and social networks of demonstrations and marches by civil society and political party organizations—both those against the coup and those in support of the coup (read: in support of inclusion in the next elections)—but for now nothing has materialized. It seems likely that these organizations are waiting for the results of tomorrow’s meetings before determining the substance of their respective demonstrations.

Some small demonstrations did occur, predominantly against the coup leaders and against any type of amnesty for their actions. In the upcoming days, there remains a very real possibility of mass mobilization and demonstrations depending on the decisions made by Burkina Faso’s leaders. Still, the situation has improved remarkably in comparison to last week, leading the US Embassy to relax some of its security precautions.

Perhaps, the most important event of the day has been a declaration made by Gen. Diendéré. The general announced that leading this coup was a huge mistake which he regrets because of the deaths it caused and the time lost to the transition. This declaration highlights the now complete alienation of the RSP. Even before yesterday the RSP had few friends; the AU, the UN, France, the United States, Niger, and Chad had all openly condemned the coup calling on its leaders to lay down their arms. The decision of ECOWAS to leave the future of the coup leaders unaddressed made it clear the RSP lost, what I’m sure Diendéré hoped would be, an important ally. Diendéré and the presidential guard may have temporarily held some political sway over the transition of the country as a result of the coup, but that influence has since evaporated.

The RSP now faces a Burkinabè society seeking justice for the families who lost loved ones as a result of the coup. Moreover, regardless of who is elected the next president of the country, it is hard to believe that the decision to take current president Michel Kafando captive, could possibly instill any amount of confidence in the presidential guard. Trying to envision a scenario in which the RSP is not disbanded is becoming increasingly difficult. With that said, the question of what to do with the RSP was already complicated before the coup and now, in the current context of the military versus the RSP, an appropriate and acceptable solution seems even farther out of reach.

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The Evolving Coup in Burkina Faso: Observations from the Field, continued

[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: Tuesday, September 22, 2015 at 7:35 PM UTC

 Last night the regular army arrived and negotiations began between the RSP and the Chief of Staff of the Military, General Zagré. The majority of the regular army detachments which had arrived at Ouagadougou remained at the main entry points to the capital throughout the night, then this morning some segments of the military entered the city and occupied some of Ouagadougou’s military camps. Prime Minister Isaac Zida, last of the hostages taken by the RSP on Wednesday, 16 September, was released and allowed to return to his personal residence during the night. He did not make any public statements today. The negotiations between the RSP and military continued into the morning when Zagré issued an ultimatum that the RSP lay down their arms by 10AM. The ultimatum accomplished nothing. Diendéré, leader of the RSP and the coup, called Zagré’s bluff knowing that neither side has any desire to attack the other.

Nevertheless, in a press conference held this morning by Diendéré he stated that the RSP, if given no other choice, would defend itself. He went on to reassure reporters that he did not believe there would be blood shed as both sides understood that would do nothing in service of the country. Still, Diendéré and the RSP refuse to comply with the demands of the military to disarm. He claims that he is awaiting the result of the special ECOWAS summit taking place in Abuja with the sole focus of identifying a way out of this political crisis.

The proposed points outlined by ECOWAS mediators Macky Sall, president of Senegal and sitting president of ECOWAS, and Thomas Boni Yayi, president of Benin, remain heavily criticized by Burkinabè. As I’ve outlined in previous updates there are numerous issues with the proposed agreement because it appears to concede too much to the putchists. The president of the transition, Michel Kafando, spoke with RFI about the proposed agreement making it publically known that the proposal was drafted without his input and despite one brief meeting he was not involved in the negotiation process at all. Although he does not say so explicitly, it is clear that he feels completely sidelined from the ECOWAS process as the special summit kicked off this afternoon and he is not in attendance with the other heads of state. In the interview he declined to elaborate on ‘several’ problems with the proposed ECOWAS agreement hinting that at the time he was unable to offer his specific concerns. He later left his home to take shelter at the French Ambassador’s residence, claiming that he worried for his personal safety and was seeking to leave the country.

In addition to Kafando denouncing the proposed agreement, the three main judicial unions in Burkina Faso published an open letter to UN, the UN Security Council, the AU, the Peace and Security Council of the AU, ECOWAS, the West African Economic and Monetary Union, and other regional organizations, deploring the proposed points in the ECOWAS agreement. The open letter was subsequently dispersed through social media circles receiving hearty support from civil society organizations like Balai Citoyen. The African Union has also stood firm on their decisions to sanction Burkina Faso, announcing today—and I assume intentionally in conjunction with the Abuja summit—that the coup perpetrators must lay down their arms and return the country to civilian rule.

Balai Citoyen remains vigilant in their fight against the coup leaders. Following the arrival of the military, the civil society organization advised its supporters to stay out of the streets and to let the military do its job, but at the same time remain aware and ready to march. They maintain that Diendéré and the ECOWAS leaders are attempting to manipulate the situation to gain more time. The organization suggests that the strategy of Diendéré after winning over the ECOWAS mediators, is to demonstrate that this crisis is the result of a divided society on the brink of turning on each other i.e. profiting on fears of a situation similar to the 2011 crisis in Cote d’Ivoire. From the start, the political debate surrounding the exclusion of certain candidates (read: Diendéré’s political allies including some of his family) from contesting elections has been used as an official explanation for the coup. However, a careful reading of the 13 points (sorry looked for an English version, but didn’t find one) proposed by Sall and Yayi demonstrates that Diendéré and the RSP are after much more than just the inclusion of all political party members in upcoming elections. Balai Citoyen fears that ECOWAS may establish some sort of international oversight institution which could in turn empower Diendéré’s position vis-à-vis the transition government and civil society.

It is of course impossible to know how credible any of this is… I suppose the point to take away from Balai Citoyen is that with Diendéré still in power even after the arrival of the military there is real cause for concern that some kind of power-sharing agreement might be pursued or that violent confrontation might erupt. A power-sharing agreement, understandably, would not stand in civil society circles or with many of the members of the transitional government. However, with the general strike still in full swing and economic costs mounting, those Burkinabé who are not politically active or engaged, like my neighbors, simply want this debacle to come to an end. They are indifferent to the debate about electoral inclusion or exclusion for CDP members, or even whether or not the RSP coup perpetrators receive amnesty. They would simply like to return to their daily lives.

As I write this night has fallen and the curfew, now in effect for almost one week, has begun. The occasional lone gunshot can be heard in the distance. So, what do we know about the possibility of an end to this evolving political crisis? Well, even after a night and a day of negotiations between armed forces and the RSP, and the beginning of the anxiously awaited debate over the controversial ECOWAS proposal, in short we know very little: The AU summit has concluded, but we’re waiting on the details of the results and certain heads of state are awaited in Ouagadougou. The security situation continues to be in flux. Reports are currently coming in that the regular army may have decided to move on the RSP to disarm them peacefully, but it’s too soon to tell if this is the case. I remain cautiously optimistic that a peaceful solution which can be accepted by civil society and the leaders of the transitional government exists. Hopefully, by morning here in Ouagadougou that solution will have emerged.

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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.

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Article on Salafism and Media in Nigeria

This summer is proving to be a season when some of my academic projects are coming out. Earlier this month, Islamic Africa published an article I wrote about figures I call “mainstream Salafis” in Nigeria – i.e., shaykhs who do not belong to Boko Haram, and in fact reject the movement. The article for Islamic Africa discussed how mainstream Salafis find themselves in an awkward position as they become targets of violence by Boko Haram, and objects of suspicion from the state.

Recently, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion published another article of mine. This piece deals with a similar group, but the focus is on how mainstream Salafis use electronic media, especially radio and recorded lectures. It’s called “The Salafi Ideal of Electronic Media as an Intellectual Meritocracy in Kano, Nigeria.” The piece argues, in part, that Salafis strategically use electronic media to level the playing field against religious rivals who have greater institutional power. This latter article has very little to do with Boko Haram, except perhaps for context regarding the media landscape in northern Nigeria.

One point I hope readers will take from both articles is that Boko Haram is not the only story in northern Nigeria. In fact, the Boko Haram story has distracted attention away from other, equally consequential topics. Muslim religious authority in northern Nigeria is being contested and reshaped through channels other than violence – and if one pays attention only to the violence, one will miss broader and perhaps ultimately more far-reaching changes.

The JAAR article is, for now, available for free at the journal’s website. It will at some point, hopefully this year, appear in print as well. If you read it, I  welcome any comments you might have.

Guest Post: An Account from Diffa, Niger about the War with Boko Haram

[The post below comes from Jochen Stahnke, a staff writer at the German national daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He traveled to Diffa, Niger in May of this year to report on the fight against Boko Haram. He has graciously agreed to share some of his reflections here. – Alex]

The first corpse comes into view lying in the dust two hundred metres behind the closed border between Niger and Nigeria. It is the body of a Boko Haram fighter, probably middle aged, dressed in Islamic male robes. A couple of metres further into northeast Nigeria, the next corpse lies decomposing in the sand. I walk with Lieutenant Issoufou Umara, who is in command of Niger’s 50 gendarmerie troops positioned just behind the bridge that crosses the border river Koumadougou. The soldiers close to Diffa city are tasked with curbing Boko Haram’s influx into the neighbouring states that has already been going on for long time. The army of Nigeria has fled some 30 kilometres into the province of Borno, Umara tells me. His last battle against the Islamist sect here took place at the end of February. “In the night they hung their flag in the tree over there,” Umara explains. The battle raged for more than an hour. Umara’s soldiers claim to have killed 100 fighters. But they do not bury their enemies. “These people are not human beings,“ declares Umara.

The impact of the war is visible at every corner in Diffa city. As the immediate border is closed, there are fewer goods to trade in the marketplaces. This region of Niger, probably the poorest of an already poor country, has been the worst afflicted. Diffa used to import almost everything from the big neighbour to the south. But instead of traders, soldiers now roam the streets in their pickups, machine-guns or anti-aircraft cannons welded onto their flatbeds. The soldiers belong to the armies of two countries: Niger and Chad.

Chad has deployed two Mil-24 helicopter gunships, now stationed on the airstrip at Diffa airport. French special forces patrol the airport area. But neither they nor the roughly 50 Canadian and US special forces fight Boko Haram directly. Mostly they share reconnaissance and intelligence data, predominantly gained from three drones that are operated in the region. The French and North Americans occupy two separate camps right in the middle of the garrison of Niger’s army. Colonel Major Moussa Salaou Barmou, the zone commander for Diffa province, would prefer to receive more than reconnaissance support, military advice and “non-lethal“ support. Niger and Chad run a joint operations center in Diffa. But cooperation with Nigeria was difficult – at least when I visited Diffa in May, just before Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as new president of Nigeria. At that time, Nigeria only gave Niger permission to have a single liaison officer in Maiduguri. Joint operations did not take place, even though Boko Haram has no regard for national borders.

In Diffa, the sect recruits young men mainly among the poor Kanuri population. Most Boko Haram fighters are Kanuri, the major ethnicity in this region. Indeed, says regional commander Salaou, Boko Haram is “a Kanuri thing as well.“ But not exclusively. “Over there in northern Nigeria there were a lot of bandits and gangs that fought for politicians – in return for money they intimidated political opponents.“ Upon assuming power, these politicians forgot their fighters. “And now they demand their share,“ says commander Salaou.

A couple of kilometres outside of Diffa city at the Koumadougou river lies Bagara, a small Kanuri village, where 30 or more young men have joined Boko Haram. A couple of others are detained at Diffa prison. Many of them have waited months there without trial. People in Bagara say Boko Haram pays new recruits 300.000 Francs-CFA, plus a motorbike and the promise of a bride. Often, Boko Haram issues threats via mobile phone and coerces locals in Bagara into buying food and fuel for them in Diffa city. At this time of year, the Koumadougou river is only a couple of metres wide and easy to cross. The rainy season has not yet started.

The army of Niger operates two checkpoints at the entrance to and the exit from the town of Bagara. People here are as afraid of the army as they are of the sect. There is a mandatory curfew after 6:00 pm. Recently, authorities have also banned the wearing of full-face veils. Local religious authorities are caught in between. An Imam in Bagara tells me that the boys who joined Boko Haram, while they were not his students, had not previously studied extremist ideology or attended anything like a salafi madrassa. Since the army has been operating the area, the Imam has not left his village. “I am afraid of the soldiers,“ he says.

Niger hardly spares its own population from harsh treatment. Ever since the Nigerian army has finally started entering Sambisa Forest to battle Boko Haram, a big share of Boko Haram fighters has withdrawn towards Lake Chad – a largely ungoverned area with hundreds of small islands where the sect has already suppressed the local population and controls a large portion of the fishery trade. In order to fight Boko Haram at Lake Chad, Niger has ordered all residents to leave – anybody still encountered at Lake Chad is going to be considered Boko Haram. (Chad is said to have issued the same order just this weekend). But Niamey did not prepare for what evidently had to follow: A mass flight of tenth of thousands, largely towards Diffa. Diffa city has been flooded with IDPs. To determine who is Nigerien or Nigerian is largely an academic question. Almost no one here has ID or passport. At first Niger did not allow UNHCR to set up refugee camps due to the fear that IDP settlements might become permanent and that Boko Haram could use them as hiding and recruiting grounds. But even after UNHCR was finally permitted to set up camps in Diffa, they largely remain empty. Most of the refugees and IDPs find refuge with relatives or leave Niger for Maiduguri and other Nigerian cities.

In Niamey, Niger’s Interior Minister Hassoumi Massoudou, who is considered a hardliner and close ally of president Mahammadou Issoufou, explains to me: “Soon“ there will be aerial attacks at Lake Chad. Therefore, in his view, “evacuating“ the population was inevitable. But to win the war, he says, it is absolutely necessary that Nigeria “pushes“ from south to north to prevent Boko Haram from retreating in the other direction. But can Boko Haram be fought with only military force? Massoudou explains: “Boko Haram are not rebels. They are criminals. When they raid a village, they kill almost everybody, enslave the young girls, and steal what is of value. You cannot see any logic to this mob. If they want to occupy territory, they will need to set up some kind of administration, to convince the population. But they do not do any of that.“ According to Massoudou, at least a thousand members of Boko Haram are imprisoned in Niger alone. “Many of them are also citizens of Niger.“ Boko Haram’s influence has long been spilling over from Nigeria into its neighboring countries, and this trend is not likely to end anytime soon. In fact, the most terrible part of the war, at least in the Lake Chad region, may be just about to begin. But will air raids be able to change what is also a problem of society?

Article on Salafis and Boko Haram in Nigeria

This month, the journal Islamic Africa published a special issue on Salafism in Africa. The issue includes an introductory essay by the University of Florida’s Dr. Terje Østebø, as well as articles on Tanzania, Ghana, Niger, Somalia, and Sudan. I contributed an article on Nigeria entitled “Nigeria’s Mainstream Salafis between Boko Haram and the State.” In brief, the article argues that the rise of Boko Haram on the one hand, and state suspicions of Salafis on the other hand, have made life awkward for those Salafis who oppose Boko Haram. The article deals primarily with life under President Goodluck Jonathan (served 2010-2015); at some point I may post an update here or elsewhere giving a few thoughts on how non-jihadi Salafis are faring under new President Muhammadu Buhari, but it’s early yet.

Islamic Africa is normally paywalled, but the publisher, Brill, is offering free access to those who register. Details are here.

If you read the article, please stop back by here and share your thoughts.

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.”