The Coup in Burkina Faso

Alexandra Reza

At around 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday 16 September, Michel Kafando, the president of Burkina Faso, was taken hostage during a cabinet meeting. Members of the Régiment de Sécurité Présidentielle (RSP) burst through the doors of the meeting room in the Koysam Presidential Palace and detained Kafando and his prime minister, Isaac Zida. The next day, the RSP announced that the borders were closed and that General Gilbert Diendéré would assume the presidency until ‘inclusive and peaceful’ elections could be arranged.

Elections were, however, already planned for next month. Kafando has been acting as interim president since a wave of popular uprisings last year drove his predecessor, Blaise Compaoré, from office. Compaoré had been in power for 27 years. At the end of October 2014, hundreds of thousands of Burkinabè citizens, mobilised by the opposition group Balai Citoyen, marched through the streets of Ouagadougou demanding Compaoré’s removal. Diendéré, then head of the RSP and Compaoré’s right hand man, stood firm against the crowds, reinforcing security around the presidential palace. Amnesty International has accused the RSP of shooting at least ten protesters in cold blood.

Diendéré has been unpopular for a long time. He is widely suspected of killing Thomas Sankara, the pan-Africanist revolutionary unseated by Compaoré in 1987, and of being involved in the 1998 murder of the journalist Norbert Zongo, who was investigating the murder of Compaoré’s brother’s chauffeur, David Ouedraogo. Diendéré has also been accused of arms and diamond trafficking in Sierra Leone and Liberia, but nothing has ever been pinned on him. It’s rumoured that he has been important for French and American intelligence in the Sahel. Nicolas Sarkozy awarded him the Légion d’honneur in 2008.

Certainly, as head of the RSP, Diendéré was key to the intelligence and security architecture that buttressed Compaoré’s regime. Created in 1995, the RSP is an elite force kept separate from the rest of the army: better trained, better paid, better equipped. Since last year there have been loud calls for it to be dissolved. Diendéré was sacked as leader. But the RSP has resisted dissolution, maintaining pressure on the government. Zida is a former RSP man.

Days before last week’s coup, however, a commission appointed to look into its future concluded that the RSP must be disbanded and reintegrated into the army. Whoever won the election planned for 11 October would have been likely to carry out the recommendation, especially since people close to Compaoré have been prevented from standing. Apart from anything else, the RSP’s storming of the cabinet meeting was an act of self-preservation.

A week later, and Kafando is in charge again; Diendéré has described the events of the past few days as ‘a mistake’. In the face of outrage and street protests, opposition from the rest of the army, and denouncements from ECOWAS, the African Union and the Elysée (Kafando sought refuge at the French embassy when he was released), the RSP was forced to back down.

The good news, according to Diendéré, is that confrontation was avoided. That’s one way of looking at it. Activists posted photographs of RSP brutality on social media: a protester lying in a pool of blood; another who appeared to have been blinded; a third with his skull split open; others were unconscious; bloodied; gouged. Radio stations were ransacked, their equipment vandalised and journalists threatened. The coup may be over but questions remain: will Diendéré be prosecuted? Will elections go ahead, and who will be allowed to stand? What is the future of the RSP?

‘Assurances were given that the RSP would not be dissolved,’ Diendéré said as he was leaving a discussion with regional mediators yesterday. Perhaps the coup wasn’t such a mistake for the RSP after all. The details of the agreement have yet to emerge, but it seems likely that it will be left to the citizens of Burkina Faso, once again, to risk their lives to hold the men in uniform to account.