Lt. Col. Mamadou Bamba announced the coup in Burkina Faso on television Thursday. (Screen shot by Issouf Sanogo/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

A military coup has abruptly interrupted Burkina Faso’s transition, removing the interim government less than a month before a democratic presidential election. The military coup occurred less than a year after the downfall of the long-ruling dictator Blaise Compaoré and was organized by close members of Compaoré’s former presidential guard. The coup last week by Burkina Faso’s presidential guard was followed by reports on Monday of other major figures in the country’s military launching a counter-coup to disarm the presidential guard. Under pressure, coup leader General Gilbert Diendéré released a press statement confirming his commitment to return power to civilian authorities at the conclusion of the final agreement to be made under the auspice of regional mediators.

Although the ousted interim government could soon be reinstated, as hinted by a mediator on Sunday, both the initial appointment of and the decisions made by the interim government during their year of tenure call into question the democratic nature and credibility of the transition and the elections originally scheduled for Oct. 11.

Even if observers in the international community were surprised by what some have called a “disaster for Africa,” this unconstitutional seizure of power was predictable, and if it didn’t happen before the elections, it could have happened after the elections. My research suggests this “disaster” is a result of weak horizontal accountability during the transition. Simply put, horizontal accountability is the ability of government institutions to check abuses by other branches of government and a system in which government institutions are independent and no agency or branch becomes too powerful compared to the others. Some may refer to this system as one with “checks and balances.”

In a working paper I wrote for the Stanford University Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, “The Tortuous Trajectories of Democracy and the Persistence of Authoritarianism in Africa,” I found a relationship between weak horizontal accountability and the breakdown of democratic regimes in Africa. Between 1996 and 2010, there were 10 cases of authoritarian reversal. I found democratizing countries in Africa with the weakest constraints on the executive branch were more likely to return to dictatorship.

In a forthcoming article I wrote with Koiffi Korha in the journal Democratization, “Horizontal Accountability and the Challenges of Democratic Consolidation in Africa: Evidence from Liberia (to be posted here soon), we argue that the quality of elections and vertical accountability are not enough to consolidate democracy in Africa. We argue instead for strong mechanisms of horizontal accountability, which include a country’s ability or willingness to perform oversight of the executive branch, the level of transparency in government, independence of government branches, and enforcement behavior of the judiciary, legislature and other agencies recognized as oversight bodies by the constitution.

Even before the coup attempt by the presidential guard, the legitimacy and impartiality of the transition was a concern for three reasons in particular. First, the transitional body was a hybrid of civilian and military rule, and not exclusively civilian. The military initially stole the transition after civil society and popular protests drove Compaoré from power, and the military managed to keep considerable power even after the appointment of a civilian president. Second, the transition process has been exclusive, despite the facade of inclusion of civil society leaders and organizations. In fact, candidates associated with the previous regime were systematically banned from the legislature and presidential candidacy, generating concerns about the fairness, inclusiveness and meaningfulness of the process. Finally, the presence of an excessively powerful and self-interested presidential guard has contributed to the failed transition.

A stolen transition with a hybrid military-civilian – instead of civilian – government

When the popular uprising successfully ousted Compaoré less than a year ago, Burkina Faso’s military initially chose Lt. Col. Isaac Zida, former second-in-command of Compaore’s presidential guard, as the new transitional president, transforming the successful uprising into another coup.

Faced with both public contestation and international community mobilization, Zida conceded the interim presidency to former foreign minister and Burkina Faso’s ambassador to the United Nations, Michel Kafando, who then appointed Zida as transitional prime minister.

The military managed to keep some control through key positions in the interim government; aside from the appointment of the prime minister, army representatives became ministers of defense, territorial administration and security, mining, and sport. Others appointed to serve in the interim government were drawn from civil society and the opposition.

The military’s heavy involvement in the transitional government created conditions for distrust and discredit and hindered the ability of the new government to organize free and fair elections.

A partial and exclusive transition (despite inclusion of civil society members and opposition parties)

Even as a military-civilian hybrid, the interim government could have led a successful transition by creating an inclusive and competitive political landscape fostering free, fair and transparent elections. However, the transition has been characterized by partial and exclusive decisions, raising questions about the potential fairness and meaningfulness of the impending elections.

For example, the Constitutional Council banned 42 potential candidates for the legislature candidacy due to disqualification under Article 166 of the newly adopted National Transition Council’s electoral code. Article 166 excludes anyone who backed “anti-constitutional change damaging the principle of democratic transition.” In other words, any candidate who supported the constitutional amendment allowing former president Compaoré to run for a third term (which generated the popular protests last year) was ineligible to run in the upcoming elections. The U.S. Department of State voiced concern: “Changes to the code would seem to be inconsistent with the democratic principles of freedom of expression, freedom of association, and free, fair, and peaceful elections. We urge the transitional government, civil society, and other actors who were instrumental in defending these democratic principles to use a coordinated, consensual, and inclusive approach in conducting the elections.”

Coup leader Diendéré justified the coup in response to Article 166, which he saw as a “law of exclusion” because it barred Compaoré’s supporters from contesting in the elections. In an interview with the French television agency TV5 Monde, Diendéré said, “We simply want to have proposals for elections that take place serenely and peacefully, and for results that are uncontested and uncontestable.”

Following the coup, Pomona College political scientist Pierre Englebert said the transitional government had “overplayed its hand” by excluding supporters of Compaoré from standing in the upcoming elections.

Relatedly, the transitional government engaged in judiciary actions considered partial to Compaoré’s rivals, such as charging Compaoré with treasonable felony; charging his many supporters with assault, murder and embezzlement; imprisoning former Compaoré ministers with accusations of the “misappropriation of public funds”; and banning some of his strongest supporters from presidential candidacy.

The transitional government’s actions do not excuse the intolerable unconstitutional seizure of power by the presidential guard, but they highlight the importance of horizontal accountability during the transition process. Powerful but excluded actors did not see the upcoming elections as fair or inclusive and had no formal channel through which they could act to check the power of their rivals in the interim government. Without a channel to engage horizontal accountability, a small, powerful faction launched a coup.

Excessive power in Burkina Faso’s presidential guard

The coup attempt’s timing suggests that Diendéré’s opinion on the “law of exclusion” was not the only factor for launching the coup. The elite presidential guard Diendéré led, known by its French acronym RSP, was threatened during the transition. A recent report submitted to then-prime minister Zida by the National Reconciliation and Reform Commission recommended the disbanding of the 1,200-strong RSP.

The RSP was “the most powerful armed group in Burkina Faso.” As Molly Ariotti and Naunihal Singh wrote Monday, the RSP is relatively small when compared with Burkina Faso’s total military strength (10 percent of the armed forces), but members of the RSP had better weapons, higher wages, and received better accommodations than their brethren in other arms of the military.

When RSP Lt. Col. Mamadou Bamba announced the coup in a nationally televised statement, he explained the interim government’s deviation from initial goals of the revolt: ensuring democratic alternation. Bamba accused the transitional government of manipulating the military and unfairly politicizing and manipulating Burkina Faso’s security forces.

Civilian control over the armed forces is a fundamental characteristic of democracies. Burkina Faso’s presidential guard became so powerful under Compaoré’s rule that it was a force to be reckoned with during the transition. When its own interests were directly threatened, it used this unchecked power to launch a coup.

What is next for Burkina Faso?

Institutions such as the African Union, the United Nations and the U.S. State Department condemned the coup and threatened to sanction its leaders. ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) also condemned the coup, and is acting as mediator in negotiations between the coup leaders and the former interim government to restore order. A draft agreement offers amnesty to coup conspirators in exchange for a return to civilian rule; there are also expectations that the elections will be more inclusive and will be postponed to November.

Developments in Burkina Faso are constantly shifting (e.g., on Tuesday morning there were reports that Zida, who had been held hostage by the coup-makers since Wednesday, was released and had returned to his official prime minister’s residence). Even as events continue to unfold, the instability since Compaoré’s reign began to falter has shown that focusing only on vertical accountability without ensuring suitable horizontal accountability can jeopardize sustainable democratic development in Burkina Faso.


Landry Signé is a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Center for African Studies, associate professor of political science at the University of Alaska Anchorage, chairman of the Global Network for Africa’s Prosperity, special adviser on institutional reform and policy implementation, and a partner and global chief strategy officer at an Africa-focused investment firm.