Day three and I’m still here.
I’ve been getting a lot of messages via email and Facebook wishing me well and encouraging me to be safe (thank you, friends) and quite a few have encouraged me to consider getting out while the getting is good.
I realize that most people I know have no way to really understand what it’s like to be in a coup (other than some international teaching friends who have been in Africa or Jakarta), so people are basing a lot of their imagery on Hollywood movies like “Blackhawk Down” or “The Year of Living Dangerously” or “Evita” or something (I’ve actually never seen those last two…got them from IMDB). Those certainly overdramatize the whole thing, and having been in several African coups now, I want to share the experience to help people have a good sense of reality. All my coups have been very different, by the way, but as my friend Theresa says…coups come in all shapes and sizes.
First, a simplified historical framework to set the stage here in Ouagadougou.
Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) has a very complex history of shifting leaderships mixed with military overthrows, from the early Mossi warriors to the French occupation to the many recent military-based governments. In fact, one site I read claimed that Burkina Faso has had more coups than any other African country, which is quite the claim and I’m not up for substantiating it, but I believe it. They certainly have had quite a few in recent history (six or seven since their independence in 1960). Recently, however, the Burkinabe have had the opportunity to have a real democratically elected, civilian-led government for the first time in its history. Until about 3 days ago, that is. And this is why the stakes are so high right now.
Picking up the story in 1960, Burkina Faso (known as Upper Volta) got its independence when French West Africa was dissolved:
The first leader, Maurice Yaméogo, set himself up with a life of lavish luxury, which dismayed the people enough that no one minded when the army seized power from him in 1966. He was replaced by the leader of the military, Lt Col Lamizana, who ruled for the next 14 years.
Coup 1 (1966): Yaméogo replaced by Lt Col Lamizana, after 6 years.
Lamizana first established a military government, but wrote a new constitution in 1974 (ratified in 1977) to transition to civilian leadership. The military didn’t like that (and Lamizana also pissed off the labor unions somehow), so in 1980, two years into his last term, he was removed in a bloodless coup supported by student uprisings, and replaced by Col. Zerbo.
Coup 2 (1980): Lamizana replaced by Col Zerbo, after 14 years.
Zerbo tore up Lamizana’s civilian-led Consitution and set up military leadership. But he also could not make peace with the trade unions, and two years later HE was removed in a coup and thrown in jail. He was replaced by Major Jean-Baptiste Ouédreago…another military leader.
Coup 3 (1982): Zerbo replaced by Major Ouédreago, after 2 years.
Ouédreago set up a ruling committee who promised, once again, civilian rule and a new Constitution. However, they also disbanded other political parties and ruled with a bit of an iron fist, and did not do much to bring the promised civilian control.
Despite their apparently similar social goals, Ouédreago had some difficulties with two outspoken members of his military…Captain Thomas Sankara and Captain Blaise Compoaré. Sankara was a leftist with extreme Socialist leanings who wanted to manage total social reform and give control of the country to the population, and Compoaré was an organizer. In 1983, Compoaré led another coup, assisted by his close allies Capt Zongo, Major Lingani, and Capt Sankara. He deposed Ouédrago (who still lives in Ouagadougou and runs a medical facility outside of town) and put his friend Sankara in power.
Coup 4 (1983): Ouédreago replaced by Capt Sankara (with the help of Blaise Compoaré), after 1 year.
Keeping Compoaré, Zongo and Lingani as his closest advisors and Cabinet ministers, Sankara got busy…he renamed the country ‘Burkina Faso’ (‘The Country of Upright/Outstanding Men”) and implemented a wealth of social programs. He built roads and railways, gave power back to local communities, set up local governments, and drove much corruption out of government. He also planted trees to reduce the desertification of the region, resisted any controlling assistance from the World Bank and IMF, redistributed land to local farmers, set up social medical care, established for local education, vaccinated 2.5 million people, opposed forced marriage and female genital mutilation, gave women positions high up in government, and basically helped the country get on its feet.
Unfortunately, while all this restructuring was fantastic for the health and well-being of the country and for the many dirt-poor people, the powerful Middle Class felt that they were shouldering the financial burden and tried to resist him. Not to be manipulated, Sankara shut down the free press and banned labor unions, and got heavy handed with those who opposed him. As the middle class became more and more angry at his leadership, they employed his closest ally and comrade, Blaise Compoaré (along with Zongo and Lingani), who staged in a coup in 1987. After only four years, Compoaré took the place of his closest friend and ally, Sankara, who was killed ‘by accident’ during the coup. His death was never investigated.
To this day, Sankara’s memory is revered by the majority of Burkinabe as ‘the Che Guevera of Africa’ and a man with the best interests for the country and the poor. And people still harbor dark thoughts about what Compoaré may or may not have done to gain power.
Coup 5 (1987): Sankara is replaced by Blaise Compoaré, after 4 years.
One of the first things Compoaré did was to start ‘rectifying’ most of Sankara’s policies, privatizing industries that had been nationalized, and re-empowering the middle and upper class. He initially ruled alongside of Zongo and Lingani, but in 1989 he had them both arrested and put to death for ‘trying to overthrow the government’.
Here’s where it gets important to keep the players and parties straight in your head.
Compoaré ruled from 1987 to 2014. Early in his rule, well aware of the role the military has had in overthrowing governments, he formed a Presidential Guard unit to provide for his safety. This unit, called the RSP (for the french phrase “Presidential Security Regiment”) had separate funding and training, and was run outside of the tradtional military hierarchy…an ‘army within an army’, as it were, with special privileges and elite status. These are the guys who just staged the coup this week, but I get ahead of myself.
Compoaré never had the popular support of the people, however he did have tremendous support from the middle class. His first election, in 1991, was boycotted by opposition parties so he won in a minority landslide. He won his next election in 1998, partially based on promises on putting in place term limits that allowed a president to rule for only two terms, and to decrease term lengths from seven to five years.
In 2005, he decided to run again, despite the new constitutional term limits clause. He claimed that it was not retroactive so did not apply to him, and his own Constitutional Council supported this. He was re-elected in 2005 with 80% of the vote, and again in 2010…both times with the support of the middle class.
In 2014, his own party (the CDP) called for a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run again in 2015 rather than step down because of term limits. The people had had about enough, and there were massive popular uprisings with up to a million people that led to several deaths and the burning/sacking of the National Assembly and the CDP headquarters.
On Oct 30th, Compoaré lost control, dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency, counting on his trusted RSP as he established a transition government, but it was too little. The next day, after immense street violence and some serious ugliness by the RSP, he fled to Ivory Coast, leaving a power vacuum. It was filled by Compoaré’s Vice President and second in command of the RSP, Isaac Zida, after a very brief power struggle with Compoaré’s aide de camp in which the military intervened and declared Zida as the leader. Although the constitution stated that in such situations, a new election would be held in 90 days, Zida determined that this would not be possible and stated that he would set up a transitional military government, then hand it over to a civilian, who would spend a year setting up the new elections. These are the elections that are/were due to happen on Oct 11…in about three weeks.
Coup 6 (2014): Compoaré replaced by Zida, after 27 years.
The people in the streets wanted nothing to do with this new Military government, and declared that they would continue to fight. Zida ordered the RSP to maintain control of the city, and after four days the riots and uprising subsided, but not without violence and leaving some bad feelings toward the RSP from the population. However, the popular uprising drew the attention of most of the world, who hailed it as a success and an example of how African countries can take homegrown action to prevent leaders from endless rule. They called it ‘the Black Spring’.
With the full attention of the world, Burkina Faso was then given 14 days by the African Union to return to civilian rule and prepare for the elections, so on Nov 17th, Michael Kifando, a veteran diplomat and civilian, was sworn in as interim Head of State to oversee the transition government leading to the new elections, and he appointed Zida as his Prime Minister. He also ousted Compoaré’s chief of staff, General Gilbert Diendere, as well as many other loyalists from the government.
Here’s where it gets messy.
Compoaré, while hiding out in Senegal or Ivory Coast, made some statements that he was still the leader, and would remain so for a year until the next elections, overseeing the transitional government. The people balked at this, demanding a ‘peoples government’, as did Kifando and Zida which led to the beginnings of feelings of resentment between the RSP and their old boss, Zida. Although Compoaré ultimately toned down his rhetoric, when Zida later took steps to decrease the power and status of the RSP, they openly revolted against him, firing guns in the military bases and declaring that they would arrest him. As a result, knowing that he was compromised, Kifando stripped Zida of his role as overseer of the military and the RSP and took over these responsibilities himself. The RSP and many ex-Compoaré supporters declared their open animosity toward Zida at this time.
In April, Kifando signed a resolution banning any member of the CDP who supported changing the constitution to allow Compaoré to run again from participating in the upcoming elections, either as a voter or as a candidate. It also banned members of the RSP from participating. Then in early September (a week ago or so), Zida declared that the RSP should be dissolved and the members distributed into the regular army. This was the very last straw.
Three days ago, leaders of the RSP walked into a cabinet meeting of the transitional government, arrested Kifando and Zida and two other cabinet ministers, declared that there was a coup, and put Campaoré’s ex-chief of staff, General Gilbert Diendere into power. Their new political party is called the NCD, or National Council for Democracy, and their stated goal is to lead the restructuring for the new elections, but for them to be inclusive of all members of society.
And that’s how it all began.
Coup 7 (2015): Kifando replied by Diendere, after 1 year.
But wait…there’s more!
The primary position of the NCD is that these elections should be democratic and inclusive of all….presumptively the ex-CDP members. There is a lot of distrust between Kinfando’s transition government and the CDP (who sort of railroaded the country for almost 30 years). There is also seriously hard feelings between the regular army and the RSP, who have hogged all the weapons and training and military money for over two decades, as well as became oppositional to the Burkinabe citizens during the uprisings. However, one thing that seems to be in common is a sense that all this transition should be within the framework of the constitution, and be toward goal of civilian rule (but of course, the military has said that during every coup). Diendere has spoken on TV and radio, stating that he has no interest in staying in power (“I’m military. I’m not political” he said) and that they want to do everything possible to avoid violence like last year. Words and actions don’t necessarily match, as there have been violent clashes in the past two nights, with 10 (or so) people killed in major cities…the resistance is national…and hundreds injured. There is popular support for disbanding the hated RSP, and for avoiding anything that would lead to Compoaré returning, either in person or through his party.
The African Union stepped in today and invoked sanctions on the NCD, demanding that they reinstate Kifando’s government. Meanwhile, Diendere released Kinfando last night, along with the two cabinet ministers. No one has heard from Zida, and there are concerns for his well-being.
Also, the heads of some neighboring countries have been here for 24 hours mediating talks between Diendere and the NCD, the RSP, the transition government and other parties. Latest rumors (as recent as 5 minutes ago) say that they may have reached some sort of decision that involves delaying the elections by another month, reinstating Kifando (if he wants to be reinstated), and forgiving Diendere. We’ll see what comes of that.
So you see, there are lots of deep-rooted and serious forces in play. This could all fizzle down in hours, or could explode into a million-person mass uprising.
My next post will be more about what my day to day life is like right now, waiting and watching.