Last week, the citizens of Burkina Faso woke up to the news of another army mutiny. This could have been seen as insignificant, had it not involved one of the most important units of President Blaise Compaoré’s security apparatus, the Presidential Guard. According to various media reports, elements of this unit went on the rampage, firing in the air, over the failure of Burkina Faso’s regime to pay them their benefits. Fearing for his life, Compaore fled to his hometown of Ziniare, before returning later to the capital city, Ouagadougou, having convinced himself that it was not an attempted coup d’état.
Tensions have, broadly, been building up in Burkina Faso for sometime now, and seem to be gaining impetus in the context of the widespread revolt and protests against authoritarian regimes in North Africa. It is apparent that the corresponding media attention that accompanies these protests in some cases prevents the regimes from cracking down strongly and repressing such movements, especially those who possess fearsome repressive capabilities such as Burkina Faso.
In Burkina Faso, the protests started with street riots over high food prices that have pushed citizens into poverty and destitution. Following this, students went on strike to demand the “demilitarisation” of the university campuses. These strikes claimed the lives of six students, creating anger amongst the students. .More protests were planned, but the government anticipated this and closed down schools and universities in late January. Students, then, believed that one of their leaders, Justin Zongo, was tortured to death by Compaore’s forces. The government claimed he died of meningitis. Many activists had been killed before under similar circumstances and no conclusive investigations were conducted. The assassination in 1998 of Norbert Zongo - a newspaper editor who challenged the authority of Compaore over a corruption incident - remains one of the most pernicious cases of impunity in Burkina Faso.
Indeed, internally, a huge number of people are growing increasingly frustrated over the lack of employment opportunities, service delivery and state repression. Compaore has efficient security/repressive forces, but the very soldiers who constitute his main line of defence in the event of attack have now taken up arms and rampaged through many areas of the capital. Protests by members of the Presidential Guard signify that there are major developments looming in Burkina Faso, and that tensions in the governance of the country are barely being appeased.
The contextual problems facing the Compaore regime are further beset by numerous external dilemmas, such as a re-assertive France that played a palpable role in resolving the Ivorian crisis and conflict, as well as Compaore’s past links with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, which are contributing to discrediting his regime. Compaore’s rule is also tainted by allegations of his involvement in the various wars in West Africa. Still, the one major issue that discredits Compaore remains his alleged involvement in the assassination of former president Thomas Sankara - a youthful icon of Burkina Faso revolution in the 1980s. In spite of all the attempts to wipe out Sankara’s memory, his shadow continues to haunt the regime. Even Compaore’s attempt to position himself as an important power broker in the West African region has not been successful in exonerating him from his responsibility in the 1987 coup that claimed Sankara’s life.
The immediate decision by Compaore to sack the army chief of staff and his entire cabinet in an attempt to diffuse the tensions in the country proves that the stakes are high and his rule is coming under severe threat. Compaore’s rule has always been contested, but the regime has managed to survive through repression. Unfortunately, that decision might not be enough to assuage protesters. Opposition parties are already calling for his resignation and will attempt to build on the ongoing discontent within the army. Lawyers have joined the movement while angry traders burnt down the ruling party’s headquarters.
The sacked government and the army chief of staff might want to throw their weight behind the country’s weak civilian opposition. Three major cities are now affected including Ouagadougou, Po and Tenkodogo while three important military barracks have fallen into the hands of the mutineers. These are Guillaume Ouedraogo, Sangoule Lamizana, and barrack “11-78”, which are among the most important military camps in the country. It is feared that the movement might spread throughout the country. How Compaore attempts to survive this challenge to his rule without resorting to massive repression will have implications for his rule and his remaining time in office.
Compaore has ruled Burkina Faso since 1987 and has, variously, amended the constitution to remain in power unchallenged. In the past he has abolished and reinstated term limits for presidents, leaving him in a position where he could stand for re-election without any limitation. It is an encouraging sign that people have had the courage to make political statements, seeking to restore their authority over leaders and the socio-political processes of their country. But clearly a revolt from Presidential Guards in Burkina Faso is a major development in the heart of the state’s security apparatus and threatens the survival of Compaore’s regime.
Written by the African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria Office