The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mutinous soldiers announce overthrow of Burkina Faso president

Mutinous soldiers in Burkina Faso guard the entrance of the national television station in Ouagadougou, the capital, on Jan. 24, 2022. (Sophie Garcia/AP)

Military officers have ousted the president of Burkina Faso, a group of soldiers announced Monday on state television, after steering a 36-hour uprising that toppled the third West African head of state in eight months.

“A decision made with the sole purpose of allowing our country to get back on the right track,” said Capt. Sidsoré Kader Ouedraogo, flanked by 13 men in camouflage gear.

They have suspended the constitution, dissolved the government and closed the borders, Ouedraogo said, without spilling any blood. They are holding President Roch Marc Kaboré and other politicians in a safe place, he added, that “respects their dignity.”

The words of Burkina Faso’s apparent new rulers contradicted Kaboré's party, which had asserted an hour earlier that the leader had survived an assassination attempt.

Confusion abounded about the fate of Kaboré, who took office in 2015 and faced Islamist insurgencies that only grew during his tenure, leading to thousands of deaths and leaving more than a million people homeless. As regional leaders called for his release, Kaboré — or someone running his official Twitter account — wrote a plea to his captors: “I invite those who have taken up arms to lay them down in the higher interests of the nation.”

Kaboré's private residence lay in ruin, the People’s Movement for Progress said in a statement, and soldiers had taken over the national television station. “Our democracy is in peril,” the party said without clarifying Kaboré's whereabouts or condition.

Authorities initially denied that Kaboré was taken into military custody, asserting that all was calm even as gunfire rang out Sunday. Then the mutineers reached the presidential palace and Kaboré was physically removed from office, said a Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, condemned the “attempted coup d’etat” in a statement Monday afternoon, urging the military to keep Kaboré from harm.

A Burkinabe counterterrorism officer said Monday that the president “is in good hands.” Soldiers were fed up with what they saw as a lack of support from the top, said the officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

“We need a strong man with clear ideas,” he said.

The overthrow came after hundreds of protesters marched in the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, demanding Kaboré’s resignation. Militants linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have upended life in the nation of 21 million over the past seven years, rendering much of the countryside ungovernable and driving at least 1.4 million people from their homes.

More than 2,000 Burkinabes have died in the violence.

“The whole territory must be secured,” the Burkinabe officer said. “All the displaced people must be able to return home.”

Insurgencies that took root in the region a decade ago sparked Burkina Faso’s insecurity.

After the collapse of the Libyan government in 2011 sent mercenaries who worked for Moammar Gaddafi back to their native Mali, some of those ethnic Tuareg rebels forged a shaky alliance with Islamist militants seeking a foothold in the country’s north.

Although French and regional forces initially beat them back, the militants scattered and drilled into Burkina Faso, setting off a conflict that has turned much of the nation known for sprawling croplands and a celebrated African film festival into a battlefield.

In recent years, park rangers in Burkina Faso have described losing protected land for elephants and lions to extremists exploiting forest cover for their hideouts. Refugees from Mali who sought shelter in Burkina Faso, meanwhile, say they have had to pack up and run repeatedly as the threat drew closer to Ouagadougou.

The power grab in Burkina Faso comes after special forces toppled the president of Guinea in September and military officers ousted the head of neighboring Mali in May for the second time since August 2020.

“The longer the conflict lasts, the more states become fragile,” said Serigne Bamba Gaye, a security analyst in Senegal, which has flagged extremist activity near its border with Mali. “From setback to setback, morale is at rock bottom.”

As video captured shots ringing out in the capital Sunday, protesters trashed the headquarters of Kaboré’s ruling party. Another photo showed bullet holes in an SUV belonging to the presidency.

Authorities implemented a curfew and ordered schools to close. Phone lines and Internet access stopped working, leaving millions in a communications blackout.

Hours before his detention, Kaboré drew backlash after he tweeted about soccer.

“I express to you the pride of the whole nation,” he wrote to Burkina Faso’s team, which bested Gabon on Sunday in the Africa Cup of Nations, advancing to the quarterfinals in the continent’s largest soccer tournament. “We are all behind you.”

On Monday morning, demonstrators on motorbikes rolled through Ouagadougou, honking their horns and singing the country’s national anthem.

This marks the eighth coup d’etat in Burkina Faso since it asserted independence from France in 1960 — the most of any African nation.

ECOWAS imposed its harshest sanctions yet on Mali this month after the country’s military leaders said they would not hold an election to restore civilian rule until 2026, citing security concerns.

Now most West African nations have closed their borders and halted trade with Mali — except for Guinea, whose transition government led by a special forces officer has not yet set its own election date.

Borso Tall in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.