How 1,500 Elite Soldiers Hijacked a Country
Burkina Faso's citizens and elected leaders live in fear of a praetorian guard
A shadowy menace haunts the West African nation of Burkina Faso. The country’s hated and feared Regiment of Presidential Security–a praetorian guard-like military force–works behind the scenes, and the interim government cowers whenever this branch of the military threatens a coup d’etat.
The soldiers have killed regime critics and investigative journalists. Even the International Crisis Group–a non-profit organization working to prevent conflict–recommends against angering the elite soldiers lest they endanger the upcoming elections scheduled for Oct. 11, 2015.
During a trip to Burkina Faso in the first week of August, multiple sources told War Is Boring they considered the regiment–often simply called the RSP after its French acronym–to be the greatest potential threat to the country’s democratic transition.
Burkina Faso’s military has a long and rarely proud history of meddling in politics. Of the country’s eight heads of state since independence in 1960, seven were either military officers or were installed by the military in coup d’etats.
A prime example of Burkina Faso’s breed of camouflaged soldier-politicians was long-time president Blaise Compaoré. In 1983, he staged a coup and installed the charismatic socialist soldier Thomas Sankara as head of state. Compaoré staged a second coup in 1987 to take the job for himself.
Compaoré held onto power for more than 27 years until a popular revolution in October 2014. Again, the military played a decisive role in shaping Burkina Faso’s fortunes. During the uprising, most protesters demanded that Compaoré simply refrain from altering the country’s constitution to allow him to stand for re-election. However, the military’s top brass feared that the protests would get out of hand, so they forced Compaoré into exile.
The old president was gone. But the military’s meddling didn’t come without its own bizarre, internal power struggles. Initially, Gen. Honoré Nabéré Traoré–the military chief of staff–declared himself head of state in the wake of Compaoré’s resignation.
But only a few hours later, Lt. Col. Yacouba Isaac Zida, deputy commander of the RSP, made the same claim. Disparities in rank notwithstanding, Zida won out over Traoré. The military leadership–including Traoré–confirmed Zida as interim head of state over on Nov. 1, 2014.
“There was a play of power,” Jean Baptiste Natama, a former defense minister and military officer under both Sankara and Compaoré, told War Is Boring in Ougadougou. Natama is currently preparing a bid for the presidency. “The side with the better equipment won.”
Zida gave up the presidency only a few days later under pressure from the African Union. Together with representatives of political parties, civil society and Burkina Faso’s traditional kings, the military appointed long-time ambassador to the United Nations Michel Kafando as interim president. Zida was in return appointed prime minister. The transitional government included military officers appointed to key ministries.
Since then, Burkina Faso has existed in a state of uneasy political cryostasis, with the RSP lurking in the background and exercising veritable veto power over the country’s government. The RSP is a military unit that, while responsible for the security of the president, is not integrated into the military chain of command. Rather, the unit reports directly to the president. This is a common arrangement in Africa.
Under Compaoré, the RSP’s role expanded. Traditionally a bodyguard unit, it became Compaoré’s personal militia and secret service. Keenly aware of the regular army’s ability to stage a coup, Compaoré made sure that the 1,500-strong RSP acted as a counterbalance. Its soldiers received the best training, the best equipment and higher official and unofficial benefits than the regular army.
In the almost three decades under Compaoré, the RSP became a widely feared and hated actor. The RSP was also at the heart of the country’s most significant political scandal–the assassination of investigative journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998.
Zongo was investigating the death of the chauffeur of Blaise Compaoré’s younger brother, François, widely considered the grey eminence behind the throne. Then the burned and bullet-riddled bodies of Zongo, his brother and two other people turned up.
Originally referred to by the government as an “accident,” massive demonstrations forced a somewhat independent inquiry that revealed the responsibility of members of the RSP for the deaths of the chauffeur, Zongo and his companions. Several people were indicted in the matter, but all were either acquitted or had their sentences commuted.
Faced with a possible violent escalation during the 2014 October revolution, the RSP finally abandoned Compaoré, but the regiment is certainly not ready to abandon its social status and economic privileges.
In the summer 2015, Zida came under pressure from civil society groups to abolish the unit. First, he proposed to first dissolve the RSP and later reassign its officers. In response, the RSP openly threatened a coup and triggered a political crisis.
All sources we spoke to in Burkina Faso agreed that the RSP’s main objective is to safeguard its elevated social status, limit accountability for its past crimes and retain financial benefits derived from its special role.
Further, these rogue soldiers have succeeded in making the rest of the country cower in fear. But this is more because of a menacing and carefully cultivated image, rather than actual military capability.
“I can only laugh about the threats of a coup d’etat by the RSP,” former German army officer Ralf Wittek told War Is Boring in Ouagadougou. Wittek serves as a regional coordinator for the Hanns Seidel Foundation, which cooperates closely with the security services of several West African countries on security sector reform.
“Realistically speaking, the unit has up to 1,500 men,” Wittek said. “That gives you an effective fighting force of maybe 500 men. The rest is logistics, communications, transport. But the whole country shakes in fear of the RSP. Just try to control a country with 500 men. That would be completely crazy. It couldn’t work.”
Wittek pointed out that during the October 2014 revolution, more than a million people protested against Compaoré. If the same numbers turned out to oppose the RSP, the regiment wouldn’t have a prayer of controlling anything. He also argued that the RSP’s grievances could be easily addressed while still limiting the unit’s future role in politics.
“We should tell these guys–listen, you will continue to be a special snowflake,” Wittek said. “You will be our special forces for international missions, United Nations missions or peacekeeping. You will be able to keep some of your privileges, but you will have to integrate into the regular army. On this basis, I am sure you could talk to these guys, but so far nobody has tried that.”
Wittek said the rest of the army has recently shown little of the institution’s traditional interest in politics. According to several analysts, Compaoré intentionally weakened the regular armed forces, both in terms of equipment and social standing, to the point that he even had all ammunition confiscated from regular army units after a mutiny in 2011.
Threats from the military is a regional phenomenon. In 2012, a demonstration of renegade soldiers in Mali escalated more or less by accident into a coup, paving the way for the almost complete collapse of government control over large parts of its territory. Mali has still not fully recovered.
In 2008, Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara took power in Guinea, taking advantage of the death of Pres. Lansana Conté and internal divisions within the military. Camara ruled Guinea until a failed assassination attempt on him a year later, during which he was gravely wounded and exiled to Burkina Faso.
Which shows that threats from even a fringe section of the armed forces carry weight, especially in West Africa.