After the coup in Burkina Faso: unity, justice, and dismantling the Compaoré system

By Brian Peterson*

The courage of the Burkinabé people has been demonstrated once again, but so has the fact that the Compaoré system is still intact. Will the next president uproot it?

After a spectacular series of events − which involved an overthrow, an uprising and an apology in little more than a week − Burkina Faso finds itself back on its transitional track.

Former president Blaise Compaoré is no longer in power, but the Compaoré system may still be in place. Photograph by CTBTO
Former president Blaise Compaoré is no longer in power, but the Compaoré system may still be in place. Photograph by CTBTO

On 16 September, the elite Presidential Guard (RSP) seized power under the leadership of Colonel Gilbert Diendéré, a close ally of former president Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré’s 27 years in office had come to an abrupt halt just 11 months earlier amidst a popular uprising in October 2014, and there were concerns that the RSP’s coup had essentially reversed Burkina Faso’s revolution.

However, Burkinabé demonstrators took to the streets in huge numbers once again, and with the army marching on the capital Ouagadougou vowing to disarm the RSP, the coup leaders eventually backed down. Diendéré promised to hand back power to civilian rule and apologised for the coup.

These latest events demonstrate the ongoing determination of Burkinabé civil society and its ability to mobilise. But despite its strength and victories this past year, a survey of Burkina Faso’s political landscape going forwards, including in and around the upcoming elections, suggests that huge challenges for those demanding change lie ahead.

The dignity and bravery of the Burkinabé people in staging not one but two popular uprisings is humbling and clear to see. But dismantling an entrenched political system that has had nearly three decades to take root could be a challenge of a different order − though the failed coup could provide the opportunity needed.

Burkina Faso after the coup

So what does the Burkina Faso’s political landscape look like today, in the wake of the coup and with elections on the horizon?

Most immediately, it is certain that a Compaoré-backed CDP (Congress for Democracy and Progress) candidate will not be occupying Kosyam Palace anytime soon. But it’s difficult to know how the CDP will perform in the legislative elections.

Before the coup, the ruling party with its considerable financial advantage was polling strongly in certain provinces. However, the coup will likely reduce the CDP’s influence and legitimacy across the country. Even the image of a contrite Diendéré regretting the loss of life, and acknowledging that the coup was “wrong” and a “waste of time,” will not repair things. Thus, the political damage of the coup to Compaoré’s CDP is significant. At the very least it will have far less clout in the National Assembly, and is likely lose its ruling position, which has been instrumental in maintaining the Compaoré system.

The disbanding of the RSP and its reintegration into the army − plus the fact the army stood behind the people − are positive signs and steps in the right direction of sending the soldiers “back to the barracks” and establishing the right balance in civil-military relations. For the National Transitional Council (CNT), following its various missteps and scandals over the past 10 months, it should find itself in a much stronger position vis-à-vis the people, the military, labour unions, and the international community. The CNT had taken considerable heat for its handling of a range of issues, from the electoral code to the budget, and beyond. However, it steered the country through this recent crisis with admirable skill.

Because of the short duration of the coup it likely will not produce much in the way of major political shifts within the opposition. The main opposition parties and presidential candidates – and the entire civil society – came out strongly against the coup. It was Bénéwendé Sankara, of UNIR-PS (Union for Rebirth, Sankarist Party) that stood out, leading the call for “active resistance”. Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of the MPP (Movement for the People’s Progress) similarly protested the coup and called for civil disobedience. Zephirin Diabré only offered a rather sombre and brief missive in which he extended condolences to the families of victims and bemoaned the “terrible ordeal”.

On the other hand, Djibril Bassolé, Compaoré’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, and presidential candidate who was barred from the electoral list on 10 September, implicitly accepted the coup, picking up on Diendéré’s comments about electoral exclusion.

Among civil society, there was no pro-coup faction to speak of, aside from reports of a few fake protesters (identified as RSP members in plainclothes). Even Diendéré’s own home village turned against him. Aside from the labour unions, the grassroots movement Balai Citoyen, the youth, traditional leaders (such as chiefs, hunters associations, and the Moro Naba), and the heralded broom- and spatula-wielding women, all rallied to the cause of opposing the coup.

It was a virtual total mobilisation and it speaks volumes to the Burkinabé sense dignity and courage. The civil disobedience also showed great discipline in limiting gratuitous violence and preventing looting. And in the same way that the Burkinabé responsibly queued up to pay their telephone bills the day after Compaoré abdicated, the people went out following Diendéré’s resignation and picked up their brooms to sweep the streets.

Uncovering the past

Mr Kafando (L) and Prime Minister Lt Col Isaac Zida (R) took power 10 months ago
Mr Kafando (L) and Prime Minister Lt Col Isaac Zida (R) took power 10 months ago

The way in which the people and the transitional government handled this worst of all political nightmares on the eve of an election should give the Burkinabé people greater confidence in their belief that they can shape their country’s destiny. Through this whole process, the people have also discovered a newfound courage to speak their minds.

Furthermore, victims of torture and former political prisoners are finally coming forward with their stories. On 10 September, a few days before the coup, Dr Valère Somé − a childhood friend and close ally of former revolutionary president Thomas Sankara − went public with his experiences of torture under the Compaoré regime. Flanked by Mousbila Sankara, Firmin Diallo, and others who had also endured torture and imprisonment, Somé held a press conference at the Center for the National Archives in central Ouagadougou. The occasion was the recent publication of Somé’s memoir about his torture ordeal in which he implicates numerous pillars of the Compaoré regime, including former chief of staff, Salif Diallo, who is currently the Vice-President of Kaboré’s MPP party.

In recent conversations with Somé, he explained to African Arguments how he wanted to prevent such things from ever happening again in Burkina Faso. He understands the risks involved in going public with his story, but he feels that the time is finally ripe. Revelations also came out about Saran Sérémé’s torture ordeal at the hands of Diallo. She is a presidential candidate with the PDC party (Party for Development and Change). It remains to be seen how these revelations will influence the political scene, but as more victims start coming forwards it will likely implicate many high-level political figures formerly associated with the Compaoré regime.

Tied to such torture revelations is the Sankara dossier, which for months has been moving slowly through legal channels – although, as some have observed, it has been too heavy for President Michel Kafando to handle within the context of the transitional government. But once a new government is formed, it’s crucial that the Sankara dossier swiftly take its course. Many powerful players will be implicated, including Diendéré and of course Compaoré. But the truth must come out for Burkina Faso to move forwards.

The results of forensics and ballistics tests stemming from Sankara’s exhumed remains were to be delivered to the Sankara family on 17 September. And the timing of Diendéré’s coup had many wondering whether he was trying to stop the investigation. However, in his recent apologies, Diendéré stated that he would cooperate with the judicial process. The movement for justice surrounding Sankara’s murder and Blaise Compaoré’s overthrow of him are inextricably linked processes. Transparency starts with establishing the truth around one of Burkina Faso’s most important historical events.

Elections cometh

At this point, the two main presidential contenders in the upcoming election are Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of the MPP and Zephirin Diabré of the UPC. Kaboré, a former banker, has been called out for his participation in Compaoré’s government. Diabré, the former Africa Director for the French nuclear company, AREVA, and minister in the Compaoré government, has been harangued mostly for being a “neoliberal”. At a certain point, Diabré simply responded by saying, “I’m not afraid or ashamed to say I’m a neoliberal. We will need to go outside to get aid.”

Both candidates have ample funds; and have been embraced because of their electability over Eddie Komboïgo, the candidate for the CDP, a close friend of Diendéré who was banned from the electoral list in late August.

This leaves the main Sankarist candidate, Bénéwendé Sankara, whose UNIR-PS has been in the opposition since 2000. A lawyer who has handled the Thomas Sankara dossier for 18 years, Bénéwendé Sankara has endured attacks, arrests, threats, and all sorts of Compaoré’s dirty tricks over the years. For all this, he is respected by the youth. However, unlike Kaboré and Diabré’s parties, UNIR-PS has virtually no money to spend on elections. This means that beyond Ouagadougou and the larger towns its networks and outreach are limited.

The youth will be a force at the ballot box with 700,000 new registered voters. Although most of the youth seem to self-identify as being on the left, it is unclear which candidate they will support, particularly in rural areas. Their participation may produce some election surprises. According to the most recent (pre-coup) polls, Kaboré (27%) has been enjoying a solid lead over both Diabré (21%) and Sankara (5%). The most likely outcome appears to be Kaboré taking the presidency, with Diabré named as Prime Minister. An important question will be what alliances are forged.

Indeed, one of the great challenges moving forwards will be forging national unity. Since the fall of Compaoré in October 2014, the opposition has still shown itself to be rather fractious leading up to the elections. However, recent events may well force the political class to reconsider their positions and embrace the wisdom in making alliances with those once deemed “opportunist,” “neoliberal,” and so forth.

With municipal elections also around the corner in 2016, and the possibility of more direct forms of democracy taking root in Burkina Faso, the putsch should serve as a wakeup call that the Compaoré system will not be uprooted so easily. Indeed, many in Burkina Faso had already worried that the revolution of October 2014 risked being “confiscated” while the transition was mired in confusion and infighting, having lost sight of its primary goal: preventing the “dynastisation” of the Compaoré family. As Valère Somé recently commented to African Arguments: “We’re still under the regime of Blaise, just without Blaise.”

Indeed, the system is still intact; the Compaoré family, and their allies such as Diendéré, control much of the economy. However, with the failed coup, and riding the wave of popular support, the opposition now has an important historical opportunity to begin dismantling Compaoré’s patrimonial system. One can only hope that the quest for unity and justice will prevail over the kinds of personal ambitions that can take over once political victory, however ephemeral, has been achieved.

*Source African Arguments.Brian J. Peterson is Associate Professor of History, Union College, New York. A specialist on francophone West African history, he has written a book on Islam in Mali, entitledIslamization from Below: The Making of Muslim Communities in Rural French Sudan, 1880-1960 (Yale University Press, 2011). He is currently completing a book on the life, political thought, and legacy of Thomas Sankara. 

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