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.”

Snapshots of Ramadan in the Sahel

Beginnings

Nigeria:

The Nigerian Supreme Council For Islamic Affairs has directed Nigerian Muslims to commence their Ramadan fast on Thursday, June 18. The Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, who is the President-General of the Council, on Wednesday gave the directive while announcing the sighting of the new moon heralding the month of Ramadan 1436AH…Mr. Abubakar also called on Muslim faithful to use the Holy month of Ramadan to re-dedicate themselves to the teachings of Islam and continue to live peacefully with one another irrespective of religious and tribal differences.

Senegal:

The National Commission for the Observation of the Lunar Crescent (CONACOCC) has the task of determining the beginning of each lunar month and this week declared that Ramadan would start on Friday [June 19]. But many Senegalese Muslims began fasting on Thursday, emulating neighbouring Mauritania, Mali and the Gambia, as well as Saudi Arabia, home to the sacred pilgrimage sites of Medina and Mecca.

More here (French).

Material Conditions

Mauritania (French):

At the main food market in Nouakchott, the merchants give themselves over, apparently with complete impunity, to all sortes of speculations. The sudden rise in prices particularly affects the products that go into making the dishes most prized during the month of Ramadan; notably, vegetables and meats.

More from Mauritania: a newspaper editor on economic conditions in Nouadhibou (Arabic), including the difficult wait for a fishing agreement with the European Union.

Mali (French):

Month of pardon, pity, support, and help, [Ramadan] is also the month of high prices in Bamako…Onions have passed from 225 to 400 FCFA/kilo. Likewise, potatoes have climbed from 300 to 500 FCFA/kilo; garlic, from 1000 to 1200 FCFA.

 

Burkina Faso (French):

In Burkina Faso, Muslims are getting ready for the month of Ramadan in a very particular context. Since the popular insurrection and the fall of Blaise Compaoré, people’s purchasing power seems to degrade more and more. For merchants, business is turning into slow motion and people are already denouncing the prices of certain food products useful for the month of Ramadan. A month that could be difficult for many families.

From Senegal (French), a video about electricity and water cuts.

Messages

Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs:

[T]he holy month this year coincides with a period Muslims and indeed all Nigerians,have every reason to thank Allah for His abundant blessings. The peaceful elections and the dramatic transition of power from one government to the other are a testimony to the fact that Allah answers prayers. All right-thinking Nigerians appreciate that what Nigeria witnessed this year, despite the frightening predictions and scary projections before the 2015 elections, was simply the grace of divine intervention.

The month of Ramadan as a period of forgiveness offers Nigerians an opportunity to forgive the unprecedented abuse unleashed on their collective humanity in the recent past and to forge ahead as one nation united by one destiny. It is an ample opportunity to foster the ideals of brotherhood and togetherness after some years of crude and institutionalised divide-and-rule tactics which resulted in unprecedented divisiveness, losses, of lives, property and reputation….[F[or those who Allah Has entrusted with leadership, we urge them to remember the favours of Allah on them when He answered the prayers of the oppressed, the maligned and the persecuted by granting them success. They should complement the prayers by being good and justify the expectations of Nigerians by being fair and just to all. They should be compassionate, disciplined and exemplary. They need to demonstrate competence and sense of mission.The campaign period of sloganeering has expired and only exemplary performance can retain and sustain the massive goodwill and support of the abused masses.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari:

As we make collective efforts to bring to a permanent end the menace of the Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin countries, let me use this auspicious occasion to appeal to our misguided brothers to drop their arms, embrace peace and seek a better understanding of Islam during this Holy period and beyond.

Others:

  • Senegalese President Macky Sall (French).
  • Shaykh Aminu Ibrahim Daurawa, Commander-General of the Hisbah Board in Kano, Nigeria: “Ten Things That Break the Fast” (Hausa).
  • Ramadan information page at Mauritania’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs (French).

 

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.

Recent and Upcoming Workers’ Strikes in the Sahel

Sahelian countries are typically in the international news for elections or insecurity, but it’s interesting to follow labor issues there as well. Public employees’ syndicates in particular can be strong enough to mount newsworthy strikes. Here are a few recent and upcoming workers’ strikes:

  • Senegal, May 19-20: The Sole Syndicate of Health and Social Action Workers plans to strike. Points of contention include alleged government plans to remove certain allowances that health workers receive – see some background here (French).
  • Mali, April 21-23: Transport workers in Gao, who work on the Gao-Bamako route, struck over safety conditions.
  • Niger, April 8-10: Mine workers at two Areva uranium mines struck over non-payment of part of their bonuses.
  • Burkina Faso, April 8: The Coalition against the High Cost of Living called for a general strike, but it was only partly followed in the capital and elsewhere. The Coalition has a complex set of demands for the government, including demands for investigations into the deaths of former military ruler Thomas Sankara and murdered journalist Norbert Zongo.
  • Chad, early April: Schoolteachers struck over the government’s delayed payments of salaries.
  • Burkina Faso, March 31-April 1: The National Union of Truck Drivers of Burkina struck to demand the implementation of a 2011 convention containing provisions on salaries, allowances, and other matters.

Turning the Lights Back On

After an eighteen-month break, now seems like a good time to start blogging again. Nigeria’s elections (although postponed) are approaching, conflict in northern Mali is escalating, Burkina Faso is working through a transition, and the wider Sahel region is dealing with a number of interrelated crises.

To give a brief professional update, I spent the 2013-2014 academic year as an International Affairs Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. The program, which aims in part to give scholars a hands-on experience in government, placed me in the Department of State as a Desk Officer for Nigeria. After wrapping up the fellowship, I started at Georgetown University’s African Studies Program as a visiting assistant professor. I am teaching courses there on Islam and politics.

I have done some writing during my absence from the blog. I published two academic journal articles, one with African Affairs and another with the Journal of Religion in Africa. In fall 2014, I began writing monthly for the Global Observatory of the International Peace Institute, and I also resumed contributing periodical briefings to World Politics Review. I’ve been doing some writing about the upcoming elections in Nigeria (March 28 and April 11), and I’ll post those pieces separately. I have also completed a book manuscript on Salafism in Nigeria.

The purpose of this blog has not changed – I aim simply to provide informative commentary on current events in Nigeria and the Sahel, and to a lesser extent the Horn of Africa. I do not know that I’ll be able to maintain the pace I set before; my students and my academic research are and must be higher priorities than blogging. I may welcome a few guest bloggers from time to time in order to bring new perspectives.

What may change slightly in this new incarnation is my tone. I want to be more explicit about my values – my effort to write about people in the Sahel as real human beings, not just objects in geopolitical dramas; my distaste for analysts who write breathlessly and speculatively about Africa in order to put forth the most nightmarish picture of global terrorism possible; my opposition to targeted killings, to the West’s strategy of short-term airstrikes followed by long-term neglect (see: Libya), to the shoot-and-vote model, and to unimaginative “train-and-equip” efforts that just flood the world with more weapons; and my impatience with those who can only see Islam in Africa through the lens of “good Sufis” and “bad Salafis.”

The world has enough voices pushing simplistic narratives, quick fixes, and counterproductive violence – let this blog be an advocate for more constructive and promising paths toward peace.

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:

Niger:

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.

Mauritania:

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.