Popular resistance to the Burkina Faso coup: who, where and what next?

As in October 2014, huge numbers of Burkinabé have taken to the streets. But this time round, it may be mobilisations in secondary towns that are particularly important.

By the side of the road in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Photograph by Jeff Attaway.

By the side of the road in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Photograph by Jeff Attaway.

Less than a year after hundreds of thousands of people rose up to protest the rule of President Blaise Compaoré, eventually leading to the end of his 27-year reign, Burkinabé protesters find themselves back on the streets.

On 16 September, just weeks before scheduled elections that would have ended the country’s one-year transition, the presidential guard (RSP) shocked the country by seizing power. It created an obscure National Council of Democracy (CND) and put at its head General Gilbert Diendéré, RSP chief and close ally of former President Compaoré.

The military coup involved holding hostage the transitional President Michel Kafando, Prime Minister Isaac Zida and two ministers. And in the wake of demonstrations against the takeover, it has also involved cracking down on protestors, killing at least 13 people and injuring over a hundred.

The CND justified the coup by claiming the transitional government was unable to lead the country to democracy, citing the barring of political figures close to Compaoré from running in the upcoming elections, as agreed in the Electoral Code adopted in April 2015. This argument strangely echoes Compaoré’s own justifications in 1987 after he led the assassination of Thomas Sankara and took power for himself in order to “rectify” the mistakes of the Sankarist revolution.

The RSP’s coup is not its first attempt to derail the transition, and each attempt at undermining the interim government has been stirred by fear over personal interest and desire for self-preservation. The last of a long line of recommendations that the highly trained and equipped unit with a controversial mandate be dismantled was made just last week by the Commission for National Reconciliation and Reform. Its report pointed to the lack of accountability of this “army within the army”.

Individuals within the RSP, including General Diendéré, also fear being dragged into judicial cases related to the Compaoré era, such as the re-opened case of the assassination of former President Sankara.

Echoing October 2014, however, this latest coup de force has been met with fierce mobilisation by the “˜upright people’ of Burkina Faso taking to the streets and protesting against 1,200 soldiers attempting to take the country hostage and confiscate their revolution.

The make-up of the protests

Despite managing to control the very tense capital Ouagadougou at first and imposing a curfew on the first night following the coup, the RSP soldiers patrolling the streets and disbanding attempts at gatherings have since been unable to maintain their grip. Relentless young people have erected barricades throughout the city, even within residential neighbourhoods.

Compared to October 2014, the mobilisation in the capital appears more diffuse, mainly because large gatherings have been made difficult by the RSP cracking down and shooting at protestors. The kinds of large gatherings that took place on the Place de la Nation last year have been given up this time around in favour of lower-level resistance within each quarter. That does not mean fewer people are involved, but not everyone gathered in one place.

Outside the capital meanwhile, it has been clear from the start that the RSP is not controlling the situation at all. The announced curfew was ignored in several cities, including the second-largest city Bobo Dioulasso where people stayed in the streets all night to protest. From Fada N’Gourma (East) to Banfora (South West), from Dori and Ouahigouya (North) to Koudougou (Centre), Burkinabé protesters have taken to the streets, marching to the main square or protesting in front of military camps, blocking traffic with burning tires and stone barricades. Police and army forces have not moved against them, though they have not joined the protests either.

In these towns outside the capital, the mobilisation is perhaps even more important than in 2014. In the popular uprising then, there were marches in towns across the country, but in Ouagadougou, the protest suddenly turned into an uprising with Parliament being taken over and burnt down, taking the rest of the country by surprise. This time, it could be the very large numbers that have gathered in secondary towns and cities to which one ought to pay close attention.

The ongoing mobilisation, even if concentrated in urban centres, has been wide and diverse in terms of groups taking to the streets. Women in particular are heavily involved, and images from across the country have shown large numbers of women protesting, sometimes armed with spatulas, a symbol used during women’s marches against Compaoré’s in 2014.

Protestors have responded to the call for resistance made by civil society leaders in the first hours of the coup, in particular key figures of Balai Citoyen, a grassroots movement led by music artists Smokey & Sams’K Le Jah which played a prominent role in last year’s uprising. Their calls to resist and take to the streets have been widely shared through social networks and radio stations. Political parties and trade unions have also called for strike and civil disobedience, and shops and markets have effectively stayed shut while doctors and magistrates have announced protest actions.

Despite the presence of an ECOWAS mediation, led by Senegalese president Macky Sall and his Beninese counterpart Yayi Boni, demonstrations looks set to continue. On Sunday night, following three days of discussions, a series of propositions was made, but these have already been rejected by civil society organisations, with a Balai Citoyen spokesperson deeming them “shameful”.

The proposals call for a return to the transition and for President Kafando as well as for all military personnel to leave the government and for any major legislation – including any reform of the army – to be left aside for the elected government. But more controversial is the recommendation to allow candidates previously barred by the Constitutional Court to be allowed to run in the elections, which would be postponed by up to six weeks. This inclusion by force would seem to legitimise the use of violence to enter the elections, and it notable that Léonce Koné, Vice-President of Compaoré’s former party CDP and arguably the figure most affected by the electoral restrictions, has refused to condemn the coup.

However, the stickiest point of the propositions is undoubtedly the suggestion that an amnesty be granted to Diendéré and his RSP over the deadly events surrounding the coup. This denial of justice for victims and their families is perceived by many as an incentive to resort to violence. The fight against impunity was at the core of the movement against Compaoré in 2014, and such blanket amnesties have time and again proved an obstacle to reconciliation and democracy.

We have yet to see the full reaction of the streets to the proposals made last night. Leaders from civil society and ex-opposition have expressed their disappointment with the negotiations, while Cherif Sy, the Head of the National Council of Transition (CND), the legislative assembly of the transition, has already called for people to converge on Ouagadougou to reject this exit plan.

We can therefore expect more demonstrations throughout the country. The questions that remain are: How long can this mobilisation last when the economic cost of protest may not be long bearable for already vulnerable populations? And what will be Diendéré and his RSP’s next move?

Eloí¯se Bertrand is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick working on opposition politics in Burkina Faso and Uganda.

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