The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can Burkina Faso — Africa’s most coup-prone state — become a stable democracy?

Men ride a motorcycle past a burning barricade set up by anti-coup protesters in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on Sept. 21, 2015. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

With less than a month remaining before national elections, Burkina Faso suffered yet another military coup. During a cabinet meeting Wednesday evening, members of the presidential guard (known by its French acronym, RSP) stormed a meeting of the Council of Ministers at the Presidential Palace, apprehending the interim president, Michel Kafando, and former RSP member-turned-Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, as well as two ministers, Augustin Loada and Rene Bagoro. The events of Sept. 16 are muddled, but on the morning of the 17th, a member of the RSP went on state television to announce the dissolution of the transitional government, the appointment of a new “National Democratic Council” (CND), and that the commander of the presidential guard, Gen. Gilbert Diendéré, was in control of the country.

Until last week’s coup, there was considerable hope that the vibrancy of Burkina Faso’s civil society would propel the country safely through the October election and help the country build, for the first time, authentic democratic institutions. Last fall, these groups had mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in opposition to then-President Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to run for yet another term in office after 27 years of military dictatorship and nominally democratic rule. Days after the massive street protests had begun, Compaoré had fled the country. This seemed a promising beginning, all the more so because democratic change was occurring as a result of the people demanding accountability. Civil society groups had a long history of protest, but they were becoming more vocal, and having a real effect.

But civil society was not the only relevant actor in Burkina Faso. The proximate cause of last week’s coup d’etat appears to have been the recommendation, reiterated by a reconciliation commission at the start of last week, that the presidential guard be disbanded and its members incorporated back into the regular armed forces. Although the RSP is small (only 10 percent the size of the armed forces), it is an elite institution, developed by former president Compaoré. Members of the RSP were given better accommodations and higher wages, as well as better weapons than the rest of the armed forces, and were chosen for their loyalty to the president. This was done to preserve them as a counter-weight to the regular military. This tactic was successful, given that the once highly coup-prone nation had averted coups for 27 years.

Self-preservation, however, was not the official justification for the coup attempt. Instead, the junta leader referred to issues concerning the fairness of the Oct. 11 elections. Many, including members of the RSP, had criticized revisions to the electoral code that banned the former ruling party (among others) from running for office. Excluded elites brought the modified code before the Court of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and this past July, the ECOWAS court declared this modification to be a “violation of the right to freely participate in elections.” The Burkinabé transitional government and Constitutional Council ignored the regional court’s decision, leading some to accuse the Constitutional Council of political meddling in the election.

In taking power, much of the coup followed the traditional playbook for what Naunihal Singh, this article’s co-author, calls a “coup from the middle” — that is, a coup involving officers in charge of actual fighting units within the military. To wit, on Thursday, the presidential guard shut down an opposition radio station and made a broadcast on both national television and radio announcing the dissolution of the transitional government and the appointment of the CND. The officer appeared in the uniform of the regular armed forces rather than the so-called “leopard” print of the RSP, implying that the coup was the action of the united military rather than one faction. In seizing power, they showed little regard for the opinions of the civilian population vis-á-vis the coup, and in fact have used force against civilians, even though the coup was bloodless within the military.

What is noteworthy here is that when the RSP captured both the prime minister and president, they did not immediately claim that they had seized power. Since the broadcast building is usually the very first target of a coup attempt, this raises the possibility that this coup attempt was opportunistic, and that the actions Wednesday were intended as part of a bargaining process to deter any further action against the unit. (One report suggests that Diendéré had considered mounting a coup attempt earlier, and so may have seized his chance.) If so, this would suggest that the junta may not be fixed on the goal of ruling, which would make them easier to negotiate with. This is consistent with reports from Saturday night that the negotiators had almost reached a deal to restore President Michel Kafando, the recently displaced civilian president, to power.

What’s next? One of the challenges going forward, for both the interim government and the elected civilian government that will follow, will be the continued risk of coup attempts in the country. In 1990, political scientists John Londregan and Keith Poole observed that successful coups raise the risk of future successful coups in a country, and in his book, Singh argues that this is due to the fact that any recent coup attempt, successful or failed, increases the risk of a future coup attempt.

In Burkina Faso, there are multiple reasons to anticipate continued civil-military instability. Compaoré remains at liberty in exile, and may wish to regain power; the RSP may not trust the promises they have received and decide they are safer if they can rule the country themselves, even given the cost of international sanctions. In addition, rivals of the RSP and within the RSP may anticipate a coup attempt and decide to strike first, preemptively, to protect their own position.

Given these challenges, it falls to the international community to play a constructive role and support civil society and long-term democratization. Mediators from neighboring countries are in Ouagadougou at this moment, trying to negotiate a deal that will allow for a return to civilian government and elections in the near future. In addition, Western countries are concerned about what happens in Burkina Faso because of its key location and its history of cooperation in fighting terrorist groups in the Sahel. For years, the government of Burkina Faso has worked with the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Mali, as well as with the U.S.-led Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. During Compaoré’s time in office, Diendéré was the point man for these efforts, and this cooperative relationship has continued through the interim administration. The country also hosts more than 200 French troops and a small but unknown number of U.S. troops.

Outside actors have to balance their desire for a short-term stabilization with the goal of longer-term progress towards democratization and stable institutions. While this is something Burkina Faso has yet to experience, it seems increasingly likely that this change may now be possible, as the challenges of the authoritarian legacy are slowly overcome.


Molly Ariotti is a PhD candidate in political science at Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on government formation and public goods provision in Francophone Africa, and particularly Burkina Faso.

Naunihal Singh is an assistant professor in the department of international security studies at the Air War College in Montgomery, Ala., and the author of “Seizing Power,” a book about why some coups fail and others succeed, from Johns Hopkins University Press. The views expressed here are Singh’s and do not represent those of the Air War College, the Air Force or the Defense Department.