Burkinabe General Gilbert Diendéré, leader of the Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP), Burkina Faso’s elite presidential guard
On September 16, 2015, Burkina Faso, one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s poorest countries, faced a crisis of depressing familiarity. Just a month before the country’s first competitive elections in three decades were set to happen, its democratic transition was derailed by a coup. The Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP), Burkina Faso’s elite presidential guard, announced that it had seized control of the capital and detained the transitional president and prime minister. The unit’s leader, General Gilbert Diendéré, claimed to be safeguarding the democratic process, alleging that the country’s electoral code was unfairly exclusive. His rogue soldiers quickly went about dispersing demonstrators and consolidating control over the media.
The landlocked West African country, whose name means “Land of Upright People,” has a long history of misrule, including the highest incidence of coups in the continent and 28 years of uncontested autocratic rule by President Blaise Compaoré. This latest coup came a year after protesters overthrew him for attempting to extend his own term limits via a constitutional amendment. An interim government assumed power until elections could be held in October. Though prospects had seemed bright, the RSP coup appeared to be another instance of democratic progress in the region being thwarted by extralegal violence.
However, this time proved different. The coup sparked massive protests by Burkina Faso’s citizens, who gathered by the thousands in the streets of Ouagadougou, the capital city. The army also converged on the city, stating that it would end the coup. This fierce opposition forced Diendéré to issue a statement to the media, in which he apologized for the coup and promised to return control of the country to civilian authorities. Though he released both the president and prime minister, he refused to surrender without first being guaranteed amnesty and electoral concessions.
By the end of the week, the coup failed without meeting any of its goals. Diendéré was forced to flee to the Vatican embassy in Ouagadougou before surrendering. The presidential guard unit was disbanded, and the army disarmed the last holdouts in their barracks after a brief standoff. Finally, the transitional government was reinstated and rescheduled elections for November.
Why has this coup failed when so many others in the region have succeeded, and what are the implications for future democratic progress in Burkina Faso? First, the interim government was the product of a realistic power-sharing agreement that ensured the support of key actors such as the military. The coup was also met with international disapproval and sanctions by both international and African regional organizations. Finally and most importantly, the citizens of Burkina Faso reacted immediately to the coup attempt with mass protests, labor strikes, and anti-coup demonstrations. These factors indicate that a unique opportunity exists for the peaceful and stabilizing promotion of democracy in the region.
Cutting the Coup Short
Looking back, the creation of Burkina Faso’s interim government was no small accomplishment. The Burkinabe military has traditionally been a powerful, politically active force, which has often constituted a death knell for fragile African regimes. Blaise Compaoré himself had originally risen to power in a military coup decades earlier. Indeed, just after Compaoré’s overthrow Lieutenant Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida assumed power as transitional head of state, prompting fear that the transition would devolve into military rule. However, devolution to military rule was prevented by public outrage and a subsequent power-sharing agreement which appointed civilian Michael Kafando as both transitional president and head of state while keeping Zida on as the temporary prime minister. This pragmatic arrangement gave the country’s most important factions a stake in the new transitional order and helped ensure their loyalty once the coup began.
Critically, the coup attempt was rejected by international actors. France, the region’s former colonial power, threatened to impose sanctions. Moreover, although the UN and U.S. publicly condemned the coup, regional organizations took the lead in responding. The coup leaders were suspended from and sanctioned by the African Union. Negotiations were also spearheaded by diplomats and sitting heads of state from the Economic Community of West African States. Although they were criticized for being too lenient with the coup leaders, ECOWAS intermediaries played an important role in preventing the outbreak of large-scale violence. Research suggests that membership in democratic regional organizations has positive effects on a country’s ability to democratize. The African Union and ECOWAS are at least nominally pro-democratic organizations, though many of their constituent states are distinctly authoritarian. While ECOWAS has fewer out-and-out dictatorships, most of its member countries are rated only partly free by the Freedom House. Does this mean that even imperfectly democratic regional organizations can help reinforce democratic norms? Whether spurred by institutional momentum, concerns of stability, or the desire of African leaders to cheaply gain legitimacy and democratic credentials, the answer appears to be yes.
In the end, however, the victory truly belongs to the Burkinabe people. Their demonstrations against the coup were only the latest round in a number of recent mass movements, such as protests in 2011 and the successful ouster of Compaoré in 2014. Burkinabe civil society, including youth group Balai Citoyen and various trade unions, has experienced great success in finding support across ethnic lines throughout the country. Even traditional leaders such as Mogho Naba Baongo II, king of the Mossi ethnic group, played a positive role by mediating talks between the RSP and its opponents. Despite the fact that Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world, ordinary civilians put their livelihoods at risk and brought economic activity to a standstill, creating pressure that proved impossible to resist. According to Amnesty International, this resilience cost 14 civilians their lives.
Future of the Upright People
The conditions that allowed the coup to happen reveal weaknesses in the country’s democratic transition that should be addressed. One of Diendéré’s main grievances was that the electoral code had recently been revised to exclude Compaoré’s old party and candidates who had supported Compaoré’s bid to eliminate term limits. This provision effectively prevented the former dictator’s allies from running for office, incentivizing extralegal action. A less contentious electoral code would go a long way towards ensuring rule of law.
Another worrisome factor is the persistence of the military as a decisive political actor in Burkina Faso. Proof of the military’s ultimate intentions and commitment to democracy will become clear following the November elections. In the lead-up to the elections, however, the international community should make clear its support for the Burkinabe democratic process and the costs of sabotage.
What can the international community glean from this experience? West Africa, which has recently been at the center of a global health crisis and a number of international counter-terrorism operations, will only become more important as its populations and economies grow. Actors such as the United States should recognize that a renewed commitment to democracy would have long-lasting benefits to regional stability, economic development, and cooperation. A constructive approach to the region would provide better results than a curative policy based on reacting to crises. To that end, the international community should applaud the coup’s peaceful resolution but ensure that elections proceed without further interference, using its experience with monitoring the 1986 Philippine, 1988 Chilean, and turn of the century Eastern European elections as a model. Thus, representatives from important international bodies and leading democratic states as well as observers from credible non-governmental organizations should be present. If Burkina Faso’s democratic transition continues, developmental aid should also be offered to help build strong political institutions and begin making progress on the country’s economic woes.
A successful Burkinabe election would help disprove the old myth that a tradeoff exists between democracy promotion and stability. For a populace dissatisfied with coups, corruption, and ineffective governance, maintaining the course of democratization can itself serve as a stabilizing measure. In the wake of the Arab Spring, President Obama deprioritized democratic development in favor of security issues. Since 2010, the percentage of foreign aid devoted to democracy and governance programs has declined, while military and security spending have increased. In sum, a succession of failed Middle-Eastern interventions has made the United States cautious about the efficacy of imposing democracy where support for it does not exist. This should not make the U.S. overly timid where conditions are promising.
John Indergaard is a junior at Cornell University, majoring in Government and minoring in International Relations and East Asian Studies.