What’s the Best Way to Make a Bunch of Elite Soldiers Really Angry?
Threaten to disband their unit
The Presidential Security Regiment is probably the best-equipped, highest-paid and most capable unit in Burkina Faso’s military.
There’s a very deliberate reason for that. Former dictator Blaise Compaoré founded the regiment, which reported directly to him as a personal Praetorian Guard during his 27-year-long hold on power.
But the landlocked, West African country experienced a popular revolution in 2014, which overthrew Compaoré and established a transitional government. Burkina Faso’s new prime minister—a former guardsman himself—then threatened to abolish the regiment.
The soldiers weren’t amused.
It was the presidential guard that supported Compaoré until the very end, when more than a million people took to the streets in Ouagadougou—Burkina Faso’s capital—to protest his rule last October.
Compaoré took power in a 1987 military coup and presided over four elections marred by irregularities and accusations of ballot-rigging.
After serving two five-year and two seven-year terms, Burkina Faso’s potentate wanted to change the constitution to allow him to run again.
Protesters stormed parliament on the day of the scheduled vote, and marched on the presidential palace to demand Compaoré’s immediate resignation.
Presidential guard soldiers fired into the crowd as it gathered outside the palace. At least 10 people died, according to Amnesty International. But it didn’t stop the protests, and the killings further increased international pressure on Compaoré to step down.
Ironically, it was a member of the presidential guard that sealed the ex-dictator’s fate.
Lt. Col. Yacouba Isaac Zida, second-in-command of the elite unit, emerged as the head of a military junta that forced Compaoré to resign. Two weeks later, Zida handed power to a civilian government led by Michel Kafando, Burkina Faso’s former ambassador to the United Nations.
In an obvious nod to the influence and power of the military, Kafando named Zida as the prime minister and minister of defense. Zida then publicly demanded the disbandment of the presidential guard.
It’s easy to see why. A lot of Burkinabé hate the elite soldiers. And despite having been the unit’s second-in-command, Zida had a certain measure of credibility.
By most accounts, Zida changed sides to the opposition when his commander ordered the unit to open fire on civilians. His appointment also goes back to 2011 mutiny, when he was one the few officers to successfully negotiate between unhappy common soldiers and the government.
Of course, the elite soldiers weren’t going to accept the move to abolish their posts—and therefore their privileges—without putting up a defense.
They even counterattacked. On Feb. 4, the soldiers demanded Zida’s resignation and blocked the entrance to the presidential palace. This move threw the transitional government into crisis.
The guard troops demanded the government keep the regiment, pay last year’s delayed bonuses and appoint a new commander. One point of dispute is that Zida installed Theophilus Nikiéma—a personal confidante—to the post following the revolution.
After intensive mediation, Zida accepted the soldiers’ demands. He won’t resign. But the only concession to the guard’s opponents is a token commission of inquiry that will develop recommendations for the unit’s reform.
It’s no surprise Zida and Burkina Faso’s other politicians felt compelled to walk back their promises to bring the presidential guard to justice.
Men with guns are scary, especially if they’re a cut above the rest of the armed forces … and guard the entry to your office.
Moreover, for a country in transition, a schism inside the military can have catastrophic consequences. But it’s still a slap in the face to the victims’ families. Justice for the deaths of unarmed protesters is now an increasingly unlikely proposition.
Zida and his supporters within the military deserve much of the blame for that. While many Burkinabé greeted their support for the popular revolution, Zida’s insistence to inject himself into the transition process has set a dangerous precedent.
Far from representing a clear break from the past, Zida’s involvement in Burkina Faso’s politics just continues the intense linkages between the government and the security forces left over from the Compaoré regime—just with different players.
Little wonder that the presidential guard feels that it can take its piece of the pie, too.