Burkina Faso and Civilian Control of the Presidential Guard (RSP)

In The Dilemma of Getting to Civilian Control,  Dart-Throwing Chimp comments on a post by Alex Thurston at Sahel Blog, summarizing:

In a recent briefing, the International Crisis Group (ICG) surveyed that landscape and argued in favor of deferring any clear decisions on the RSP’s status until after the elections. Thurston sympathizes with ICG’s view but worries that deferral of those decisions will produce “an atmosphere of impunity.” History says that Thurston is right to worry, but so is ICG. In other words, there are no obvious ways to climb down from the horns of this dilemma.

Admittedly this is indeed a tough dilemma if options are disband or not disband.  There are, however, other strategies to pursue, including mixes of strategies.  Here are five:

  • Mobilize and prepare Balai Citoyen and Radio Omega and other civil society organizations etc. now to energize anticipatory civilian resistance to military coup.  As we saw in October 31 2014, civilians have a huge role to play in controlling the RSP.  Burkina Faso population is ready for deepening of the meme that RSP is fundamentally illegitimate, and the regular army is the legitimate guarantor (the word the military guys like to use).  Civil society groups have been doing this, but of course they can always do a lot more with more help from transition government.
  • Along the same lines, it was clear in October 31 2014 that the regular army and RSP had fundamental differences.  Gen. Nabéré Traoré and others presumably stood down because it was made clear to them that they were going to lose, the RSP having far superior firepower and unit cohesion.  (Or maybe a large cash transfer was involved, who knows!)  In any case, if the firepower and cohesion was the issue, then the regular army’s firepower and cohesion need to improved in the remaining four months, as they act as the credible counterweight to RSP.  Presumably Cote d’Ivoire is key here in the strategic planning (offering logistics support etc in southwest, because that would be the likely scenario, with RSP taking over Ouagadougou and regular forces taking over Bobo-Dioulasso).
  • Move the Presidency.  This would be a huge symbolic move, for Kafando to say he is not confident that the RSP will respect the democratic process, therefore he is moving the Presidency (maybe just his office) to (say) Nongremasson.  Then he would be farther from the U.S. Embassy in case he needs to jump the fence, and the matching armchair photos would not be so nice.  But at least it would shake things up.  Along those lines, taking some voluntary hostages (i.e. prominent internationals who agree to stand by Kafando and civilian presidency in the event of a coup) would bring huge media attention to the coup (Robert Nozick argued that the time for heroism was when you are pretty old and have little lifespan left, so I guess I’m going for Jimmy Carter and George Bush father here.)
  • Unleash the dogs of humor.  Getting shot by an RSP soldier is no laughing matter, but the RSP soldier is maybe less likely to want to shoot in the first place if all the people in the frontline of a demonstration against RSP are wearing t-shirts with cartoons that make fun of him.  Achille Mbembe and many others have written about the important role of satire and humor in resisting autocrats.  That same humor can prevent the autocrat in the first place.
  • Scaffolding.  Not the hanging kind, but the elementary teacher kind.  In primary school, teachers learn that kids need to be scaffolded.  They need to start with easy, participatory questions where they can successfully demonstrate knowledge. Then the teacher builds on that positive experience and goes up a small level.  Then a little bit higher.  The RSP needs to be scaffolded into more and more acquiescence to civilian rule.  Maybe they should attend some town meetings with ordinary civilians for some nice “not so bad” question and answer sessions.

I think Burkinabè political opposition leaders are well-aware of all of these strategies.  Bénéwendé Sankara, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and Zépherin Diabré, however, have been keeping a low profile on these matters (well, at least it seems to me, the latter two especially).  Hard to know whether they should step out more and be more assertive, perhaps even agree to a unified anticipatory no-coup stance. A different dilemma.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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