Transitioning nowhere: Burkina Faso’s coup d’état

ROAPE’s Bettina Engels argues that the coup in January 2022 in Burkina Faso was not a surprise. Frustration and anger within the state security forces, among activists and the population in general have steadily increased since the elections in 2020. Engels argues that it remains urgent to think about how radical political-economic transformation can be truly realised.

By Bettina Engels

On Monday, 24 January 2022, a military coup removed Burkina Faso’s president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and his government. Early that morning shootings were heard at the president’s residence and at some military garrisons in the capital, Ouagadougou. A couple of hours later, the president was reported to have been detained. Later the same day, a military junta led by one of the country’s highest military ranks, lieutenant-colonel Paul-Henri Sandogo Damiba, announced on television, that the army had “decided to put an end of the power of Roch Marc Christian Kaboré” in order to “enable the country to get back on the track”, to restore its “territorial integrity” and its “sovereignty” (BF1 2022). Kaboré would be removed from the presidential office, the parliament and government dissolved, and the constitution suspended. The putschists call themselves Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (Mouvement patriotique pour la sauvegarde et la restauration, MPSR). Two people are reported to have been killed related to the coup and a dozen of civilians injured during the shootings ( 2022).

On 3 February, the MPSR installed a 15-headed (14 men, one women) commission to work on a programme for the “transition phase”, including journalists, academics and civil society representatives ( 2022) (excluding political parties), all selected and appointed by the MPSR. The commission submitted its report on 23 February. On 1 March, Damiba signed the charter of the transition. On 5 March, the transitional government was presented to the public. There were 25 (19 men, six women), including a couple of ministers who were office holders before the putsch, e.g. the minister of defence, General Barthelemy Simporé. The transition period is scheduled for 36 months; after that, the constitutional order is supposed to be reinstalled and free elections organised. Damiba stated that he would not present himself as a candidate.

A coup “ against terrorism”?

The putschists’ justification for the coup was the inability of the previous government to deal with increasing security threats by various armed groups that Burkina Faso has witnessed for a couple of years. Two and a half thousand schools have been closed due to the security situation, with catastrophic consequences for access to education. Between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 people have been internally displaced. More than 2,200 people have been killed in 2019-2020, including civilians and members of state security forces and non-state armed groups. Reported fatalities in 2021-2022 thus far amount to more than 2,800 people (ACLED data 2022). On 14 November 2022, in one of the most severe attacks against the state security forces, 50 members of the gendarmerie were killed. Frustrations are high within the armed forces, as many feel that they have been left alone and ill equipped in the peripheral regions of the country where they are targeted by non-state armed groups.

Unsurprisingly, the “fight against terrorism” is the first and principle aim declared in the transition charter (article 2). Beyond this, the charter does not say much. It defines the institutions of the transition (the president of the transition, the transitional government, the council of orientation and monitoring of the transition, and the legislative assembly). President Damiba is presented as the unambiguously most important figure. The legislative assembly is composed of 21 members appointed by him; 13 members representing the country’s regions who must not be affiliated to any political party; eight representatives of political parties; 16 representatives of the state security forces, and 13 representatives of civil society organisations (article 24).

Damiba is one of the leading military figures in the country. In recent years, he became popular for his engagement in the fight against the security crisis. Not two months before the coup, he was promoted as a commander of the central military region covering Ouagadougou and the cities of Manga, Koudougou and Fada N’gourma and tasked to lead anti-terrorism operations in the North.

If the principal justification for the putsch is the ongoing security crisis, the question emerges why the military seizes state power if it is not to strive for political and economic change but just for what it is supposed to do rid the country of (“fighting terrorism”, restoring the country’s “territorial integrity” and “sovereignty”)? The coup was not a coup against the military leadership but only to remove the president. How likely is it that the same army and the same military leader will be more successful in fighting armed groups in the country now that Damiba is not only commander of the most important military region in the country but also president? Has the previous government hindered military commanders from any strategy or action that would have been effective to combat insecurity in the peripheral regions? Rumours abound on whether members of the military collaborated with the non-state armed groups. With that said, people in Burkina Faso watch the new leaders with caution.

An unsurprising coup

The coup in January 2022 was not a surprise. Frustration and anger within the state security forces, organised civil society and the population in general have steadily increased since Kaboré had been re-elected for his second term as a president in late 2020. Kaboré succeeded Blaise Compaoré who himself became president by a putsch in October 1987 and then stayed in power for 27 years until on 31 October 2014, he was turned over after mass protests. Finally the military forced him to announce his resignation. Former diplomat Michel Kafando was appointed transitional president. He immediately appointed a senior military officer, lieutenant-colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida, vice commander of the presidential guard RSP, as prime minister. Many activists were disappointed. They felt that the military had “stolen” the revolution. Chrysogone Zougmoré, chairman of the Burkinabé human rights movement (Mouvement burkinabé des droits de l’homme et de peuple, MBDHP), at a press conference on 2 November 2014, declared that the army had conducted a coup d’état. This “paves the way for anti-democratic activities, as the history of our country has taught us”. The most recent events prove him right.

On 16 September 2015, the RSP, led by its commander, General Gilbert Diendéré, launched a coup d’état against the transitional government. Immediately, the trade unions declared a general strike and virtually all civil society groups mobilised to resist the putsch. Six days later, on 23 September, Diendéré caved into the mass resistance. Presidential elections were held on 29 November. Kaboré won in the first ballot. He was the chairman of the Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrès (MPP), a more or less social-democratic political party founded in January 2014 by politicians who quit Compaoré’s Congrès pour la Démocratie et le Progrès (CDP). According to civil society groups, the transition ultimately amounted to one faction within the CDP succeeding against another. Among the official political parties, there is virtually no serious opposition to the MPP and their allies.

Nothing to defend

During the insurrection in October 2014 and the resistance in September 2015, the popular classes in Burkina Faso have demonstrated that they are able to turn over a regime and oppose the armed forces. The lack of active resistance against the recent putsch does not mean that people were unable to mobilise. The trade unions and the organisations of the human rights and youth movement, of university and high school students, are capable of mass mobilisation at short notice. The trade union alliance, the Unité d’Action Syndical (UAS), on 26 January published a declaration condemning the coup.However, the trade unions and other organisations have not mobilised popular resistance against the coup as they did in 2015. In 2015 they had not defended the transitional government of Kafando and Zida as individuals. A leading activist explained that instead, they defended democracy, liberty and the importance of government institutions. With Kaboré, there was nothing to defend. Radical activists and organisations in Burkina Faso oppose military coups as a matter of principal. However, many are not convinced that the governments of Compaoré and Kaboré were more legitimate than a coup d’état. Kaboré became president through what is called free and fair elections. However, this points less to broad support and people’s satisfaction and more to the perceived lack of alternatives.

The Kaboré government has considerably curtailed liberties and tried to limit oppositional activities. Referring to the security crisis, basic civil rights have been restricted by the state authorities. In June 2019, the Criminal Code was amended by adopting a new law that criminalises any acts that may “demoralise” the state security forces. Human rights groups complain that the law is used to intimate and persecute activists, journalists, and bloggers. The right of assembly has been restricted because of the state of emergency declared on 31 December 2018 of the increase in terrorist attacks. The state of emergency is frequently used to ban, often at short notice, activities by oppositional organisations. From the perspective of critical civil society groups, the government uses the terrorist threat as an excuse to oppress oppositional activities, especially by leftist organisations. Activists feel that they were denounced as terrorists, and threatened both by terrorist groups and by the state security forces. A well-known example is the case of two activists of the Democratic Youth Organization of Burkina Faso (Organisation Démocratique de la Jeunesse, ODJ) who were killed on 31 May 2019 (Engels 2019).

On 20 November 2021, the authorities suspended mobile internet in the country for one week as a reaction to people blocking a French military convoy. Though the majority of the population does not have access to internet anyway, the suspension of mobile internet to hamper protests is paramount for the behaviour of the Kaboré government towards critical civil society – those organisations that led the insurrection of 2014, and thus paved the way for Kaboré and his companions. In this context, it is hardly surprising that they do not mobilise resistance against the recent coup.

If the car is broken, it does not matter who is driving

In the view of many activists, the coup is the result of the Kaboré government. The UAS states that ‘this situation is the consequence of how the county has been managed by the regime’. For many people, it is obvious that the ruling class cares little about whether people have access to food, education and health care. That Kaboré has been replaced by Damiba does not imply any significant political change. If a car is broken, you would not repair it by changing the driver, as one leading activist put it. So it would not make any difference whether a civilian or a military driver.

With this said, doubts can be raised whether the “transition” will come with any substantial political-economic change. Thus the question remains, what does transition actually mean – transition towards what? With regard to the political economy of the country, radical activists in Burkina Faso insist on the (re-)nationalisation of subsoil and agricultural resources and of other economic sectors; professional education and industrialisation, so that the country would become independent from foreign capital and capable of benefitting from its value chains. Furthermore, they insist that foreign military forces should fully leave the country.

The core questions remain: what is the character of political authority and how is it to be delivered and by whom? Elections, at least in the form that they take in many contexts, so far have not turned out to lead to substantial change. After the insurrection of 2014, the “international community” called for elections. Most civil society activists in Burkina Faso, in contrast, were more concerned with the investigation of the political and economic crimes of the Compaoré regime and less with elections. Many people in Burkina Faso have little confidence in the institutions of liberal representative democracy. So does this mean that military coups “are more legitimate than elections” (Serunkuma 2022)? If not, what are legitimate forms of regime change?

One lesson learnt from the popular insurrection of 2014 is that even if a regime is overturned by a broad alliance of social forces, if there is no vision and strategy of what should come next, little of lasting change will take place. The euphoria of the insurrection lasted three days; what followed was a hangover with the revolution “stolen” by the military and bourgeois political opposition, the latter being just another wing of the previous regime.

There is no euphoria regarding the end of the Kaboré government. Though it remains urgent to think about how radical political-economic transformation can be truly realised.How will institutions of political authority be reformed and what would they look when created and sustained by the broad masses of people to effectively guarantee decent livelihoods for the popular classes rather than to serve the interests of a small, rich and powerful elite?

Bettina Engels teaches at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, Freie Universität Berlin, in Berlin. Bettina is an editor of ROAPE.

Featured Photograph: Troops patrol the capital, Ouagadougou, after the coup (25 January, 2022).


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