After day of violence, military takes over in Burkina Faso

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By Declan Walsh

OUAGADOUGOU— The military seized power in Burkina Faso on Monday (24), ousting the country’s democratically elected president after mutinous soldiers stormed his home, in the latest of a series of military coups in African countries struggling to beat back a rising tide of Islamic violence.

President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, 64, had been leading Burkina Faso, a poor and landlocked country of 21 million people in Western Africa, since 2015. But he faced growing public criticism over his government’s failure to stem militant attacks that have destabilized broad swathes of Burkina Faso, displaced 1.4 million people, and caused 2,000 deaths last year alone.

Although the violence by the militants is part of a broader campaign in the Sahel, a vast stretch of land just south of the Sahara, many soldiers and civilians in Burkina Faso faulted their president over his failure to stop it.

A wave of public protests in recent months was accompanied by rising discontent inside the military, which moved against him Sunday (23), occupying several military bases, and then ousted him Monday.

“We were just sick of him,” said Adjara Dera, a woman carrying a basket of bananas who joined a jubilant crowd celebrating the coup at the main square in the capital, Ouagadougou, on Monday evening. “Our friends have been dying, our policemen have been dying. It just wasn’t working. We’re sick of it.”

It was the latest in a flurry of coups in sub-Saharan Africa, the greatest concentration in years, with takeovers in Mali, Burkina Faso’s neighbour to the north, as well as Guinea, Sudan, and Chad. But whether the latest ouster of democracy will prove the salve to the militant-driven misery so desperately sought by many in Burkina Faso remains to be seen.

The coup was announced on state television late Monday afternoon by a fresh-faced officer who interrupted a program about the fish trade to announce that the military had suspended the constitution and dissolved the government, and that it was closing Burkina Faso’s land and air borders until further notice.

In the familiar language of military coups, the spokesperson said the armed forces were acting out of a sense of duty, reacting to “the exasperation of the people”.  Beside him sat a man in fatigues he introduced as Burkina Faso’s new leader: Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, the commander of one of the country’s three military regions.

The spokesperson gave no indication of Kaboré’s whereabouts, or whether he had agreed to step down, saying only he had been captured “without bloodshed” alongside other civilian leaders, and was being kept “in a secure place.”

In fact, there were many signs that the ousted president, who came to power in 2015 and was re-elected in 2020, did not go easily.

Kaboré’s troubles started Sunday when soldiers seized several military bases in the capital and at least two towns in the provinces. Riot police officers clashed with civilian protesters who supported the military in Ouagadougou, firing tear gas to prevent them reaching a central plaza.

But the soldiers kept control of the bases and, after demanding sweeping reforms to the campaign against the Islamic militants — including the removal of Burkina Faso’s military chief — they moved against the president himself.

Sporadic bursts of gunfire near Kaboré’s home in the capital’s most upmarket neighbourhood that started late Sunday continued for hours, suggesting that the military was split between rival factions that supported the president or sought to topple him.

After daybreak, several armoured vehicles from the presidential convoy were found abandoned near the house, some of them covered in bullet holes. Then came reports that some soldiers had taken the president into custody, pressuring him to resign.

There were signs that Kaboré was resisting the military’s orders, and at one point was protected by a unit of paramilitary gendarmes who were negotiating on his behalf with the mutinying soldiers, said a senior Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive events. In the afternoon Kaboré’s Twitter account published a message in which he urged people to stand fast behind their tottering democracy.

“Our country is going through a difficult time,” the tweet read, urging the rebellious soldiers to “lay down their arms.”

But a few hours later the men in fatigues appeared on television, and announced they were now in charge.

Kaboré never had a strong interest in military matters, and his fate was sealed by a growing public perception that he was incapable of defeating the Islamic militant threat, said Rinaldo Depagne, an expert on Burkina Faso at the International Crisis Group.

“He’s not absolutely awful and corrupt,” he said. “But it’s obvious that people think, rightly or wrongly, that a man in uniform with a big gun is better able to protect them than a democratically elected president.”

The United States has poured millions of dollars into training and equipping the military in Burkina Faso to fight insurgents — in 2016 supplying what amounted to about two-thirds of Burkina Faso’s defence budget — with few results to show for it.

The new leader, Damiba, is not well known to most in Burkina Faso.

Trained at the Military School of Paris, he was previously a member of the elite force that guarded President Blaise Compaoré, who ruled for 27 years until his ouster in 2014. After that unit was disbanded, he was integrated into the regular army, where he began to rise through the ranks. Last year, he published a book titled “West African Armies and Terrorism: Uncertain Responses?”

Two months ago, Damiba was named to command one of Burkina Faso’s three military regions — a promotion that coincided with growing disgruntlement inside the ranks. In November, a regional UN envoy warned of a possible coup in Burkina Faso, and last week authorities arrested another officer accused of planning a takeover.

On Monday, even before the coup was formally announced, some residents of the capital welcomed it as a foregone conclusion.

Fleets of young men on motorbikes whizzed past the headquarters of the state broadcasting service, where mutinying soldiers stood guard at the gate, honking their horns and cheering. At a nearby cellphone market, Kudougou Damiba theatrically threw himself to his knees to show his support for the incipient coup.

“We are saved!” he declared. “Roch is gone, finally”

Kudougou Damiba, no relation to the coup leader, described the president as the author of his own misfortune. “Instead of uniting people, Roch divided them,” he said. “And that allowed the jihadists to attack us. It’s his fault.”

Others at the outdoor market shared that view, expressing in vivid terms their frustration over the Islamic violence that has divided a country once known for coexistence between Christians and Muslims.

“For a large part of the people, life became impossible,” said Depagne, the analyst. “They want someone to blame.”

Part of that blame was assigned to France, the former colonial power, which has deployed thousands of troops to the Sahel region in an effort to counter the Islamic surge, including in Burkina Faso.

On Monday many protesters vented angrily about France, with some even accusing it of secretly supporting the Islamic militants in an effort to extend its influence. “We say no to imperialism,” said Mohammed Niampa, one of the coup celebrants. “This is the start of our total independence.”

But others took a more sceptical view of Burkina Faso’s latest lurch away from democracy.

Anatole Compaoré, an unemployed 31-year-old, participated in the recent wave of street protests calling for Kaboré’s resignation. Even so, he didn’t think that a new dose of military rule was the solution to the problem.

After Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso’s leader of 27 years, was overthrown in 2014, the military “said that everything would change,” he noted. “But nothing changed. And I’m not sure it will be any different this time.”

-New York Times

 

 

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