Early hours of coup attempt in Burkina Faso, the morning is crucial

Elements of the Presidential Security Force (Régiment de sécurité présidentielle, or RSP) attempted a coup in the afternoon in Ouagadougou at the Presidential Palace in Burkina Faso.  They have taken President Marcel Kafando and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida (who used to be the number two man in the RSP) prisoner, and possibly many of the ministers in government.  They have apparently released the four female ministers. (What can you say about that?  One of the ministers, Josephine Ouédraogo, was an ally of Thomas Sankara and went into exile in 1987 after the Blaise Compaoré coup against Sankara.. presumably she’ll be on the front lines tomorrow.)

It is likely that tomorrow morning there will a massive popular mobilization against the RSP.  There is virtually no segment of the population of Burkina Faso in favor of this coup attempt, except possibly some members of the old presidential party (the CDP… and apparently the number 2 guy in CDP, Léonce Koné, openly supported the coup on France24).  But those members of the CDP deluded into thinking that somehow the return of the Blaise order might be as easy as his ouster, should view this coup attempt with trepidation.

Coups have an internal logic that is relatively easy to understand in theory but very hard to implement in practice: all the coup leaders, and their potential opponents, have to come to a realignment of expectations very quickly.  In November 2014 (which could be interpreted as a coup, since RSP number 2 Isaac Zida ended up taking power) the coordination was easy because all the opponents simply fled after the second day of the uprising, so the only coordination was to fill the vacuum (rather than choose a side to fight for).  In this coup attempt, it is very clear there will likely be a lot of resistance by that same mobilized youth, so sides will have to be chosen and hence coordination will be quite hard.  The coup in its present form seems to me very unlikely to succeed.

Either the coup will fail rapidly (i.e., tomorrow the RSP soldiers will negotiate for a large sum of money and safe passage to Côte d’Ivoire) or it will lead to a violent interregnum (tomorrow the RSP will shoot a lot of civilians, and that might lead the army to group itself in Bobo-Dioulasso, leading to a Côte d’Ivoire-ish standoff, with low level violence for some and penury for many).

I hope that U.S. Ambassador Tulinabo Mushingi takes the high road, and rejects likely RSP efforts to somehow link their coup to “war on terror” issues.  He will of course do that publicly, but it is what he and the embassy (as well as France) do behind the scenes that matters.  What do they communicate directly to the coup leaders to cause them to reverse course?  What intelligence and logistics support do they give to the pro-democracy opposition (elections were scheduled for next month, October 11!).

The situation in Burkina Faso is messy.  The leading contenders for the Presidential election were both former members of Blaise Compaoré governments; Roch Marc Christian Kaboré only left the CDP in February 2014.  The transition regime rather arbitrarily ruled last week that former CDP ministers and deputies could not run for office.  The youth mobilization that ousted President Compaoré also destroyed the National Assembly.  They were not “elected” by anyone to oust the president.  President Compaoré also had taken power in a military coup in 1987.  His predecessor and friend Thomas Sankara had taken power in a coup in 1983.

Messy notwithstanding, the elections scheduled for October 11 were the best option among many bad transition options.  There was widespread consensus that the elections would mark alternance, which is what most Burkinabè (in my opinion) hoped for: change in leadership, more accountability, less corruption, no privileged oligarchy.  So that democratic moment has to be restored.

About mkevane

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