The army officer who has seized power in Burkina Faso amid popular protests in the West African country was twice selected to attend counterterrorism training programs sponsored by the U.S. government, U.S. military officials said.
Lt. Col. Isaac Zida, the former deputy commander of the presidential guard, emerged Saturday as the country’s ruler — at least on an interim basis — after angry demonstrators attacked government buildings and forced Burkina Faso’s longtime strongman to flee the country.
In 2012, when he was a major, Zida attended a 12-day counterterrorism training course at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida that was sponsored by the Defense Department’s Joint Special Operations University, said Army Lt. Col. Mark R. Cheadle, a spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command.
That same year, Zida attended a five-day military intelligence course in Botswana that was financed by the U.S. government, Cheadle said.
The U.S. military has developed a close relationship in recent years with Burkina Faso, which has allowed the Pentagon to operate a secretive Special Operations base that it uses to conduct reconnaissance flights across West Africa.
Although the training he received was relatively brief, Zida’s experience carries echoes of other African military officers who went on to topple their governments after being selected by the U.S. government for professional military education courses.
In March 2012, an army captain in Mali who had attended a half-dozen military training courses in the United States led a coup that deposed his democratically-elected government. The captain, Amadou Sanogo, was ousted and arrested 18 months later, but not before pushing Mali into turmoil and enabling Islamist insurgents to take over much of the country.
The United States generally is required by law to suspend military relations and security assistance to countries when elected civilian leaders are overthrown by an armed coup. Washington has not taken that step with Burkina Faso but has condemned the military takeover and urged a quick restoration of civilian rule.
“We are certainly encouraging movement to a civilian-led transition and then, of course, elections,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Monday.
Citing a “power vacuum” and the unclear makeup of Burkina Faso’s interim government, Psaki said U.S. officials had not decided whether to cut off aid. “The situation on the ground now is still very fluid,” she added.
The U.S. government has allocated more than $15 million in counterterrorism funding for Burkina Faso over the past two years.
The African Union said Monday that it will impose sanctions against Burkina Faso if it does not transfer power to a civilian government in the next two weeks.
Zida and the military took power last week after longtime president Blaise Compaoré fled the country under duress from huge crowds angry with his plan to rewrite the constitution to keep himself in charge.
About 20 U.S. military personnel are assigned to the U.S. embassy in Ouagadougou, the capital, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Vanessa Hillman, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
That figure, however, does not include U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to the country on secret or sensitive missions. Dozens of those personnel and U.S. military contractors run a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment in Ouagadougou that coordinates reconnaissance flights and medical evacuation missions in the region.
The U.S. military for years also has operated an intelligence fusion cell in Ouagadougou and trained counterterrorism forces for Burkina Faso. Although Burkina Faso does not face an internal threat from terrorist groups, many of its neighbors in West Africa have been plagued by Islamist insurgencies.