Burkina Faso’s Coup Leader Likes to Party Like It’s 1987
Presidential guard in standoff with the army
Twenty-eight years ago, Gen. Gilbert Diendéré was involved in a coup d’etat that overthrew Burkina Faso’s revolutionary president Thomas Sankara, also known as “Africa’s Ché Guevara.” Diendéré’s soldiers stormed a cabinet meeting on the orders of Sankara’s successor, Blaise Compaoré, and shot the charismatic president to death.
Now, let’s fast forward to last week. Soldiers from the Regiment of Presidential Security, known by its French acronym RSP, stormed a cabinet meeting. Nobody died this time, but the soldiers took interim president Michel Kafando — who assumed office after an uprising ousted Compaoré last October — and prime minister Isaac Zida hostage.
Next, the RSP troops took over the national television station and declared the interim government dissolved. In its place is a junta headed by Diendéré. To make the situation more complicated, the Burkinese army — a separate organization — is preparing to launch its own coup and overthrow the RSP.
West Africa’s regional organization ECOWAS and the international community at large, including U.S. ambassador Tulinabo Mushingi, scrambled to initiate a dialogue with the coup leaders. It probably wasn’t too hard to get Diendéré on the line — his number is likely saved as a quick dial on many U.S. and French diplomats’ and military officers’ mobile phones.
You see, apart from being a connoisseur of coups, Diendéré allegedly has excellent contacts in the CIA, the French secret service DGSE and the militaries of both countries. Once the commander of the RSP — Comparoé’s personal praetorian guard outside the regular military’s chain of command — Diendéré emerged as the president’s chief of staff and the shadowy power behind the throne.
Just this year, he took part in the annual Operation Flintlock, a U.S. sponsored anti-terrorism exercise which brings together soldiers from across the continent. In Flintlock’s 2010 iteration, Diendéré presided over proceedings with the U.S. ambassador and the chief of the U.S. military’s Africa Command. On top of that, he holds the “knight” rank of the French Legion of Honor.
Diendéré had unofficial contacts, too. On multiple occasions, he led negotiations with Al Qaeda affiliated groups for the release of hostages. France, Germany and other European nations have allegedly payed tens of millions of dollars for the release of their nationals in recent years and it is common for the facilitators to receive a cut from these transfers.
During interviews in Burkina Faso in August, civil society activists alleged to War Is Boring that Diendéré is involved in illegal activities, including smuggling rings and grand corruption. Yet he kept a low profile, which saved him when protesters toppled Compaoré last October.
After the public and the regular military had turned against the dictator, the RSP finally gave in as well. But not without forcing a compromise that saw one of its own, Zida, assume the post of interim prime minister.
One of the defining features of Burkina Faso’s October insurrection was that apart from Compaoré’s immediate family, most members of his regime didn’t even see the need to flee the country. Burkina Faso’s society strongly favors compromise.
So instead of putting ex-leaders on trial for 27 years of authoritarian rule, massive corruption and the occasional political murder, the interim government tried to guarantee smooth sailing until the elections planned for Oct. 11. The government even passed some limited reforms.
One reform barred certain members of Compaoré’s ruling party, the CDP, from running in next month’s election, due to their vocal support for changing the constitution to allow Compaoré another term in office. The authorities also started an investigation into the death of Thomas Sankara, which many Burkinse expected to implicate the RSP.
Lastly, some sections of society demanded the complete dissolution of the RSP, as it had been the only force that stayed loyal to Compaoré until the end, and is responsible for most of the dead during that time.
All of these measures, limited as they were, sat ill with Compaoré’s old guard and their allies in the RSP. These allies feared losing their political and economic privileges — and in some cases, the outcome of the Sankara probe.
So the RSP overthrew the government.
It may be just a coincidence. But only two days before Diendéré’s soldiers dissolved the interim government, a commission officially recommended dissolving the RSP. A day after the coup was also the date when Sankara’s family expected to receive a coroner’s report — from an autopsy on the former president’s exhumed body.
Diendéré’s junta gave two primary reasons for the coup. First, that the new electoral code had produced “two categories of citizens,” a clear reference to the exclusion of Compaoré’s allies from the upcoming elections. And second, a “politicization and instrumentalization of the military question,” alluding to the interim government’s plans for security sector reform.
Narrowly tailored to the interests of the old elite, only one representative of the CDP endorsed the coup. All other political parties and civil society organizations denounced it.
“Realistically speaking, the unit has up to 1,500 men,” Ralk Wittek, an Ouagadougou-based military expert told me previously about the RSP. “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.”
In hindsight, Wittek was right. The RSP, while being able to abduct the government’s senior officials, only managed to secure a few key points in the capital. The elite soldiers successfully suppressed major demonstrations with the use of force. About 10 people died in the violence.
Outside of Ouagadougou, people took to the streets in droves. In the capital itself, smaller demonstrations took place. What happens next will likely depend on the army.