On Wednesday Sept. 16, troops of a special presidential guard unit, The Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), burst into a cabinet meeting and arrested the interim president of the West African country of Burkina Faso, Michel Kafando, the Prime Minister, Isaac Zida, and two other cabinet ministers. General Gilbert Diendéré, a close associate of the deposed dictator Blaise Compaoré who was overthrown in October of 2014, announced that he was taking power and postponing elections scheduled for October 11. Most observers see the coup as a return to power, if not of Compaoré, who has been living in exile in neighboring Ivory Coast (where he has the support of the president, Allasane Oattara) at least of his circle.
Protesters quickly gathered in the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, but were fired on by the RSP, with a toll of at least 10 deaths.
Burkina Faso, population 17,333,000, is one of the poorest countries in the world with a per-capita gross domestic product of $1,666 (Purchasing Power Parity Method). It is landlocked and largely agricultural, with cotton being its major export crop, but a large proportion of the population involved in subsistence farming on land that is subject to the desertification process of the whole Sahel region. Like other countries that depend on export of commodities, it is often at the mercy of price fluctuations which make economic planning difficult.
Under its old name of Upper Volta (Haute Volta), it was a French colonial possession from 1897 until its independence in 1960. After independence came a series of coups d’état with military governments replacing civilian governments or each other. In 1983, an unusual military figure, Captain Thomas Sankara, took power in a coup and, instead of looting the country, set it on a course of progressive social reforms that greatly benefited the poor majority and especially women, while reducing the power of foreign capitalists and the country’s small elites. Sankara changed the name of the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, “Land of Upright Men”. But in 1987 another military man, Blaise Compaoré, overthrew Sankara. Sankara and a number of his associates were murdered, and the new government quickly reversed his reforms, especially those that had antagonized the former colonial power, France. Presently Compaoré made himself president, and ruled the country until October of 2014, when he was driven from office by popular protests provoked by his attempt to alter the constitution to allow himself another term in office. The president and prime minister overthrown last week were appointed on an interim basis after Compaoré‘s flight.
Thomas Sankara’s family fled the country after the 1987 coup, but have not given up demanding justice for the murdered former president, an act which they blame on Compaoré and people around him, including especially General Diendéré. Sankara’s widow, Mariam Sankara, who returned from exile earlier this year, has been demanding a full investigation of her husband’s death. After Compaoré was driven from power, the transitional government had begun to accede to those demands, starting with the exhumation of Sankara’s body. In fact a report on the investigation of the murder of Sankara and 12 of his associates was supposed to be announced on Thursday September 17, the day after the coup. The transitional government had also dismissed General Diendéré from his command of the RSP, and was threatening to dissolve the unit. Compaoré loyalists were not being allowed to run for election in October. All of these things represented a serious threat to Compaoré‘s associates.
The country’s location, bordered as it is by Mali and Niger to the North and Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Ghana, Togo and Benin to the South, automatically makes it the focus of Western military efforts aimed at blocking the advance of armed Islamist uprisings in the Sahel region such as the ones that have destabilized Mali, Niger and Northern Nigeria in the last few years. The United States in particular, as part of its growing military presence in Africa, has been providing support and training for the Burkinabe military. General Diendéré, the coup leader and new strongman, is closely linked to the U.S. military mission in the area, as well as to the French military.
The U.S. State Department, the French Government, the African Union and the European Union quickly condemned the coup. There is plenty of leverage; France has substantial control over Burkina Faso’s currency and both the U.S. and France could cut off military aid. The United States and its allies see the Burkinabe military as key in the struggle against the militant insurgents in the Sahel.
Meanwhile Compaoré opponents, including labor unions, have announced the formation of a united front to drive the military from power.
On Monday September 21 ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, announced that it had reached an agreement with Diendéré whereby he would step down in exchange for amnesty and authorization for candidates backed by ex-president Compaoré being allowed to run in the elections, which would be delayed until November. West African leaders are set to meet in Nigeria on Tuesday to discuss endorsement of this plan. Meanwhile President Kafando and Prime Minister Zida have been released, according to some sources.
But the anti-Compaoré demonstrators denounced this agreement as tantamount to a surrender to the coup forces, since it basically gives in to all Diendérés demands.
Diendéré is now threatened from another quarter. On Monday troops not affiliated with his special presidential guard unit were moving to attack him and his men if he did not step down and restore the interim government.