Peaceful mass protests defeated a coup in Burkina Faso. Here, protesters chant slogans against the presidential guard in the capital Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Sept. 16, 2015. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

On Sept. 16, the presidential guard (Regiment de Sécurité Présidentielle, or RSP) in Burkina Faso took the Interim President Michel Kafando and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida hostage, along with two other government ministers.

This threatened to send the country into political chaos. The RSP claimed control of the country and suspended the transitional government, which had been in place since October 2014, when a popular uprising brought down the previous authoritarian regime, as I’ll explain below.

But thousands of ordinary Burkinabè, led by civil society groups, took to the streets to grab the country back from the RSP. Outraged citizens confronted the RSP in the streets of Ouagadougou, the capital, and in cities across the country. In doing so, they rejected the possibility of another strongman seizing power.

After dramatic weeklong negotiations among leaders of ECOWAS, the RSP, the regular army and members of the transitional government, the coup collapsed. The RSP’s leader, General Gilbert Diendéré, publicly referred to his actions as an enormous mistake (but has nevertheless been charged with high treason and the murder of the 14 civilians who died in the coup).

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

What happened here? How were the Burkinabè people able to restore their transitional government in a region well known for military interventions? Will this transformation spill over into other nations in sub-Saharan Africa?

Burkinabè citizens step up to take back their country

For my dissertation, I have been interviewing people at every level of Burkina Faso: leaders of the transitional government, political parties, and civil society, as well as people in the streets. Here’s what I’m discovering: Ordinary Burkinabè citizens are insisting on having a voice, and are forcing their leaders to listen.

Landry Signé’s recent post on the same events points to new research that maintains that what prevents unconstitutional seizures of power are political institutions that provide “horizontal accountability”– checks and balances on power, such as an independent judiciary or limits on presidential terms. Horizontal accountability is often missing or ineffective in sub-Saharan African countries.

[What went wrong in Burkina Faso and what’s next?]

He’s right. But the story is more complicated, as I am finding. In countries where elites manipulate political institutions, ordinary citizens can hold their leaders accountable by taking to the streets or mobilizing in other ways. The street protests that halted the recent coup in Burkina Faso are an excellent example.

For those following Burkinabè politics, unruly demonstrations against this most recent coup hardly came as a surprise. In some ways they resembled events from less than one year ago during the popular uprising that ended the former authoritarian regime.

The October 2014 uprising came when, after nearly three decades in power, then-president Blaise Compaoré—who is widely believed to have murdered his predecessor—called on his ruling party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress or CDP, to change the constitution and end presidential term limits. That would have allowed him to run for a fifth time in 2015, solidifying his strongman rule.

But hundreds of thousands of people held demonstrations across the country, protesting Compaoré’s attempt to hang on to power. That became a popular uprising, which, on Oct. 31, 2014, overthrew Compaoré and pushed him into exile.

Compaoré and his party had overlooked an important fact: During his rule, civil society had grown strong. My recent chapter in “Democratic Contestation on the Margins” explored in more detail how civil society pressured the Compaoré regime for liberalizing political reforms. And it was in part those reforms that enabled the insurrection.

The RSP coup: a final attempt to grab power away from Burkina Faso’s citizens

The RSP had been Compaoré’s personal guard. Its leaders were frequently involved in illegal behind-the-scenes activities, allegedly organizing political assassinations and profiting from the illicit trafficking of just about anything in the sub-region. By taking the country hostage, the RSP hoped it might influence the political transition to protect their own interests.

But to put it mildly, the RSP was not popular—and it was about to be brought to account for its misdeeds. The RSP had tried to disrupt the political transition in December 2014, February 2015, and June 2015. The transitional government’s Commission for National Reconciliation and Reform released a 500-page report on Sept. 14—just two days before the attempted coup—that recommended disbanding the RSP.

And so the RSP’s leaders took the president and prime minister captive. They might have succeeded, had it not been for the demonstrations rapidly organized by Burkinabè civil society groups.

Some observers believe  that ECOWAS’s attempted mediations were just as important in ending the coup. It’s true that the special ECOWAS mediation team’s arrival did reduce both the demonstrations in the capital and the RSP’s violent repression. But after negotiating with the RSP’s leader Gen. Diendéré, the mediators drafted a 13-point proposal that struck many Burkinabé as giving into nearly all the RSP’s demands.

That outraged the nation. Public outcry erupted into demonstrations throughout Ouagadougou and many provincial capitals. In support of those demonstrators, on Sept. 22 the national military surrounded the capital and gave the RSP an ultimatum: disarm or be disarmed by force.

The RSP refused. Diendéré announced that while neither side wanted to shed blood, the RSP would defend itself if necessary. ECOWAS leaders met at a special summit in Abuja, Nigeria. Minutes before the army prepared to march on the RSP, the summit leaders finally sided with the citizens, calling on the RSP to disarm and the national military to stand down from violence.

Like the national military, ECOWAS recognized that popular sentiment against the coup was so strong that any ECOWAS action that could be interpreted as support for Diendéré would be rejected. The coup had failed.

A nation insists on democracy

On Wednesday, Sept. 23, ECOWAS leaders attended a public ceremony that officially reinstated interim President Kafando and the political transition. The newly restored president had one point for the audience: The political crisis that had engulfed the country for an entire week had been and would be resolved by Burkinabè themselves.

Social movements can be crucial when political institutions are manipulated by authoritarians, While a popular movement is not a substitute for constitutional “checks and balances,” it can fill that void by holding leaders accountable.

That’s what has happened in Burkina Faso. After a week of political upheaval, the transitional government is once again leading the country to elections, now rescheduled for Nov. 29. This may offer the best hope for establishing democracy in a country previously ruled by a single strongman for decades. Could Burkina Faso signal the beginning of the end for sub-Saharan African strongman politics and a new wave of democracy?

Daniel Eizenga is a research associate with the Sahel Research Group and a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at the University of Florida. He is currently based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, conducting research.

The Monkey Cage’s analysis of events in Burkina Faso, the rest of which you will find here, includes: