Following the not unexpected coup on 16 September 2015, Burkina Faso has been plunged into a constitutional crisis and political turmoil. The Presidential Guard, known by its French acronym as RSP, after taking the transitional President Michel Kafando, Prime Minister Isaac Zida and two ministers hostage and dissolving the government announced the formation of a new entity, which ironically decorated itself with democratic façade naming itself National Council for Democracy, headed by no other than General Gilbert Diendéré, leader of the RSP.
Despite the apparent sway that the junta Diendéré leads holds at the moment as the de facto authority, the head of the National Transitional Council, Chérif Sy, has defied the dissolution of the transitional government declaring himself the be the legitimate “Interim President of Burkina Faso” while the transitional president and PM are being held.
This unsavory move that the junta made also interrupted the country’s less than one year difficult but promising journey of transition to a new democratic beginning. While the election planned to take place on 11 October is unlikely to stand, it remains uncertain if and in what form the transitional process will be restored.
As a counter revolutionary act aimed at protecting elements of the old regime, the coup set off widespread opposition in Burkina Faso that turned violent. It has not only triggered protests in the capital and other parts of the country but also produced a confrontation with the RSP whose violent response led to the death of 13 protestors and the injury of more than 100 others.
Although after Senegal’s President Macky Sall and Benin’s President Boni Yaye visited Burkina Faso ECOWAS announced a peace plan, this was received with dismay and anger on the part of the Burkinabe public and the transitional authorities. Many view the deal as a reward to the coup makers for using force to safeguard their narrow interests that came under threat due to the reform process initiated under the transitional process.
Civil society groups and opposition politicians, who said they had not been informed of the document’s contents before they were announced, totally rejected the 13-point ECOWAS peace plan, which included an amnesty for the coup leaders. Despite the fact that the initiative from ECOWAS led to the release of the leader of the transitional government, President Kafando rejected the ECOWAS plan saying that ‘I was not associated with the negotiations at Hotel Laico … It does not take into account the interests of the Burkinabe people.’
While civil society organizations, former opposition political parties and community leaders continue to oppose and mobilize against the coup, the junta has also faced a major opposition from the Burkinabe army. In a development that has threatened to push the country to the brink of armed confrontation, Burkina Faso army chiefs gave the coup leaders ultimatum to step down or forcibly disarmed by the army. Although this prompted the leader of the junt to apologize and promise to end the crisis and instigated the release of prime minister Zide, the army has been mobilized to the capital Ouagadougou to disarm the junta.
ECOWAS summit and the major sticking points
In the meantime, on 22 September ECOWAS has convened a summit level emergency meeting in an attempt to end the crisis in Burkina Faso.
As ECOWAS leaders gather in Abuja, Nigeria, there are three major issues for negotiation. The first relates to the controversy over the new electoral code that the transitional government adopted in April 2015 which has the effect of excluding politicians from the old regime who supported Compaore’s bid in 2014 to change the constitutional provision limiting presidential terms and extend his 27 years rule. Despite the fact that this new electoral rule proved contentious and a ruling from ECOWAS court of justice rejected it, the country’s Constitutional Court upheld it.
The second major sticking point concerns the fate of the RSP. The inclination of members of the transitional government and those who participated in the protest against Compaore in 2014 for the dissolution of the RSP has in previous occasions also led to attempts at derailing the transitional process.
On 14 September, the Commission for National Reconciliation and Reform (CNRR) released a report which not only criticized the RSP for lacking accountability and operating as an army within the army and but also recommended its dissolution. The coup was a direct response to this report, which the RSP considered to be a mortal blow to its existence.
The proposal in the ECOWAS plan was to postpone the determination of the fate of the RSP until the establishment of a democratically elected government. While this may in the short term facilitate an end to the crisis, it would set a precedent that the RSP may as well repeat when and if a new democratically elected government opts to follow through the recommendation of the CNRR and dissolve the RSP.
The third major issue concerns the fate of the coup makers if and after they surrendered power. One of the elements of the ECOWAS peace plan that President Sall of Senegal announced after his mediation visit to Burkina Faso was the provision to spare the coup makers from prosecution for the coup. This received the most opposition from the people of Burkina Faso.
While there is legitimate ground for compromise on the first sticking point, the two other ones are likely to prove difficult to be accepted without endangering the journey for a new democratic beginning. By end of 22 September, it is reported that the speaker of the interim parliament has signed a decree dissolving the RSP.
The line of forces (or external intervention) likely to determine the outcome of the standoff
In the light of the perception in Burkina Faso that ECOWAS has shown bias towards the coup makers, what seems to be determining the undoing of the coup are the course of events on the ground. What stands to decisively shape the course of events on the ground is the line of forces between the coup makers and those opposing the coup.
Despite the fact that the coup makers receive support only from the members and limited supporters of the old regime, they have continued to hold their ground even in the face of threat from the army. The coup makers also have strong motivation for their counter revolutionary act. While the RSP is motivated by self-preservation, its leader general Diendéré, Compaore’s long time right-hand man suspected of being in charge of the soldiers who killed Thomas Sankar, is also afraid of the opening of old files that may send him to prosecution. Apart from the fact that the RSP is bent of thwarting efforts aimed at its dismantling and is a highly trained and well-organized force, it also seem to have the sympathy, if not full backing, of quite a number of ECOWAS countries, who agreed to pretty much everything that the RSP asked for.
The opposition to the coup is also very wide and strong. It brings together political parties, civil society groups and ordinary Burkinabes. Other significant components of the camp opposing the coup are the transitional government and the armed forces of the country.
Internationally, apart from the condemnation against the coup by the UN and western powers including the country’s former colonial ruler France, those opposing the coup and demanding the unconditional restoration of the transitional government receive the most support from the African Union (AU) and the EU.
In a principled decision that stood on the side of the Burkinabe public, the Peace and Security Council, AU’s highest decision making body on peace and security, not only declared the acts of the coup makers null and void and rejected it as an act of terrorism but also slapped on them a wide range of measures including asset freeze and travel bans and launching of processes to bring them to justice. On 22 September, the spokesperson of the Chairperson of the AU Commission in an interview with CCTV on 22 stated that the AU rejects amnesty to the coup makers. Similarly the EU also called for the unconditional surrender of the coup makers and the return to power of the transitional government.
If the coup makers continue with their determination to impose their will by force and no negotiated resolution is achieved, Burkina Faso faces the unfortunate prospect of a fighting between the RSP and the army. In the light of the serious risks of the descent of the situation into such an armed conflict to the countries of the region, this scenario may lead to another intervention by the French.
Burkina Faso is on a knife-edge and the coming hours and the days ahead will reveal its fate. May the act of counter revolution fail and the aspiration of Burkinabes for a new democratic beginning prevail!