Short-lived Burkina Faso coup had very little support

Previously: 2015 Burkina Faso Coup

Good news: Not only did the regular Army quickly intervene to eject the Presidential Guard and restore the democratic transition, compelling the putsch leader to apologize publicly (also admitting a serious unforced error that will likely doom the Guard to demobilization) and surrender, but also the people of Burkina Faso very broadly and decisively rejected the coup.

This is explored in Brian J. Peterson’s analysis at African Arguments entitled “After the coup in Burkina Faso: unity, justice, and dismantling the Compaoré system”:

Among civil society, there was no pro-coup faction to speak of, aside from reports of a few fake protesters (identified as RSP members in plainclothes). Even Diendéré’s own home village turned against him. Aside from the labour unions, the grassroots movement Balai Citoyen, the youth, traditional leaders (such as chiefs, hunters associations, and the Moro Naba), and the heralded broom- and spatula-wielding women, all rallied to the cause of opposing the coup.

(Additionally, not one political party besides the pro-Compaoré party supported it.)

The way in which the people and the transitional government handled this worst of all political nightmares on the eve of an election should give the Burkinabé people greater confidence in their belief that they can shape their country’s destiny. Through this whole process, the people have also discovered a newfound courage to speak their minds.


Burundi coup fails; mutineers surrender

The attempted military coup in Burundi this week, which sought to halt the president’s unconstitutional bid for a third term and to end the violent police crackdowns on protesters, has failed decisively, after a day of heavy fighting in the capital. The putsch lasted about two days before fizzling.

Several coup leaders have been arrested and the ringleader (who may or may not have been among those arrested already) publicly admitted failure:

Gen Niyombare, who launched the coup attempt on Wednesday, told the AFP agency: “I hope they won’t kill us.”
“We have decided to surrender,” Gen Niyombare told AFP. He added that troops loyal to the president were approaching him.

A co-conspirator had admitted defeat earlier and acknowledged that the army is overwhelmingly standing by the president:

General Cyrille Ndayirukiye told the AFP news agency that most in the military wanted to keep the current government in power.
“Personally, I recognise that our movement has failed,” he said, according to AFP. “We were faced with an overpowering military determination to support the system in power,” he added.

The loyalist faction’s leadership was jubilant and explained how they had persuaded a majority of the army not to join the coup:

Army chief of staff Gen Prime Niyongabo [who remained loyal to the president] told the BBC’s Maud Jullien the number of soldiers backing the coup had fallen.

“On Wednesday evening we gave them the chance to rejoin the army to avoid a bloodbath. But they [likely a smaller faction] tried to attack the radio station today (Thursday) – the army repelled the attack.

“We are in control of all strategic points in the country. Burundi is a democratic nation. The army does not interfere in politics. We are obliged to follow the constitution.”

To their credit, the loyalists are using the words “democratic” and “constitution” a lot, while emphasizing non-interference, in explaining their opposition to the coup. But of course it’s worth remembering that the president isn’t following the constitution either.

Still, I suppose political neutrality is a better impulse than coup. But it might not be an enlightened decision so much as a result of careful planning since the end of the civil war that resulted in the restructuring of Burundi’s armed forces to make the army’s kaleidoscope of factions so internally jumbled that allegiances either lie with no one or with the political system, but not with specific leaders (whether military or civilian). If one person attempts to stage a mutiny or rebellion, it is difficult to rally significant forces quickly to the mutineers’ cause: Read more

The “Burkina Faso effect” is still unclear

Six months later, we are still no closer to a definitive answer on the question: “Burkina Faso’s Printemps Noir: A Black Spring or a fizzle?”

In other words, has the surprise popular/military ouster of Burkina Faso’s authoritarian president over a term limits dispute had any ripple effects across the rest of sub-Saharan Africa’s countries with long-serving leaders — many of whom are also currently trying to change their constitutions to seek additional terms? Will people be inspired to challenge attempts to revise term limits and nip their potential future strongmen’s careers in the bud?

A partial map of the years that Sub-Saharan African strongmen took office, in relation to Blaise Compaoré's 1987 coup in Burkina Faso. (Map labels by Arsenal For Democracy.)

A partial map of the years that Sub-Saharan African strongmen took office, in relation to Blaise Compaoré’s 1987 coup in Burkina Faso. (Map labels by Arsenal For Democracy.)

In Burundi this week we got perhaps the clearest parallel so far as a major military coup attempt was made against the president after weeks of increasingly bloody protests over his planned third term. It’s currently still too early to tell what the outcome of that uprising will be, since the army was divided over the decision to intervene in the political sphere.

Fighting raged in the capital last night. Reuters:

“The coup attempt failed, loyal forces are still controlling all strategic points,” said Army Chief of Staff General Prime Niyongabo in a statement broadcast on state radio.

A Reuters witness reported a journalist at the state broadcaster had said there was still heavy gunfire being heard around the state television and radio station in the capital on Thursday morning. Another Reuters witness said loud blasts were heard in the capital.

The Guardian:

Witnesses said rival factions of the armed forces, divided between supporters of the coup attempt and the president’s loyalists, were exchanging heavy machine gun and rocket fire around the state television and radio complex, which is held by the president’s supporters.

According to a pro-coup military source, the RTNB complex was attacked in the early hours of the morning after Burundi’s armed forces chief used state radio to announce that the coup had failed.

A journalist inside the complex confirmed heavy fighting raged through the early hours of the morning and after dawn, with heavy weapons including cannons and rockets being used.

Regardless of the outcome in Burundi, however, there is a bigger picture also still unresolved. Even beyond the “super-dicator” types — those who have ruled for 30-40 years and show no signs of budging or don’t even bother with real elections — there are almost a dozen wannabe-strongmen who are similarly trying to change the rules to contest semi-competitive elections and plan to coast to re-election on popularity or intimidation and join the ranks of the super-dictators.

The trends on the latter front appear to be quite unclear, with some countries and organizations showing positive signs and others making the same unfortunate decisions as we have just seen the president of Burundi undertake. An op-ed in Al Jazeera English summarized the state of play in the various countries with similar situations:

The forced resignation of Burkinabe President Blaise Campaore in October last year, following similar protests in Ougadougou is a case in point.

Perhaps that influenced President Thomas Yayi to accept the Benin constitutional court’s refusal to amend the constitution for a third term, and he has publicly stated that he will not seek re-election next year.
Meanwhile in the DRC there has already been strong opposition to President Joseph Kabila’s attempts to amend both the constitution and the electoral law, including from within his own party.
In other parts of the continent, the signals are mixed. In stark contrast to Burundi and DRC, in neighbouring Rwanda, two million people have petitioned parliament to amend the constitution in order to allow Paul Kagame to extend his rule for a third seven-year term in 2017.
Last month, Togo’s Faure Gnassingbe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir were both re-elected as their countries’ leaders, despite high questionable track records and notwithstanding protests against Faure’s third-term bid and an opposition boycott of the poll in Sudan, where Bashir has been in power since 1989.
However, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) looks set to change such apathy this week, when it will table a new clause that would prohibit presidents of member countries from ruling for more than two terms. It is also said to be considering adopting a new legal regime that will make all ECOWAS decisions immediately applicable and binding on member states.


Burundi: Major military coup attempt in progress

Update May 15, 2015: The coup has failed.

A military coup attempt is in progress after weeks of demonstrations against the president’s unconstitutional re-election bid for a third term and against his violent security forces or youth paramilitaries. BBC Africa covered the blow-by-blow events of the day on its live feed.

President Pierre Nkurunziza was in Tanzania for a regional leaders meeting when General Godefroid Niyombare — a former intelligence chief fired in February for advising the president against seeking a third term — took to the airwaves to announce he was closing the airport and borders to keep the president from returning and would be taking power. Protesters began leaving the streets, after initial celebrations alongside the supportive troops, on the orders of pro-coup forces who began arriving in tanks and armored vehicles. Police fell back.

President Nkurunziza’s team said its loyal security forces remained in control of key government and broadcast functions as well as the presidential palace. They dubbed the coup attempt a failure:

“It is with regret that we have learned that a group of soldiers rebelled this morning and made a fake declaration about a coup. The Presidency of the Republic wants the public opinion both in Burundi and abroad to know that this coup attempt has been stopped and that the people who read that statement on private local radio are being sought by the defence and security forces so that they are brought to justice. The Presidency of the Republic is asking the people of Burundi as well as foreigners to keep calm. Everything is being done to maintain security across the national territory.”

However, I fear we might be looking at a South Sudan situation in Burundi. The coup attempt may only partially succeed but it will likely not completely fail either (given the large presence of participating tanks and troops already). The military is multi-ethnic and comprises multiple factions from the country’s civil war. Some of them will back the president, some will back the coup, and some will back neither. It will also likely be a more violent split than in Lesotho last summer. And it will certainly not be as clean a break as the Burkina Faso military coup last October, which also involved an unconstitutional re-election bid.

As another complication, Nkurunziza had indeed been elected democratically but was now attempting to violate the constitution and has been widely accused of deploying death squads against his political enemies. Thus the coup is (if successful) removing a democratic leader but one who had become about as undemocratic as possible over the course of his tenure.

Flag of Burundi

Flag of Burundi

Lesotho holds special election to try to resolve coup crisis

Previously from Arsenal For Democracy:
“Possible coup attempt in progress in Lesotho” – 8/30/14
“Lesotho military appears to fracture after coup attempt” – 9/8/14
“South Africa making headway in Lesotho crisis talks” – 10/26/14

As part of South Africa’s mediation plan to resolve the crisis following a failed military coup in Lesotho last August and an earlier suspension of parliament, the people of Lesotho voted this weekend in a special election for a new parliament. Most of the same faction leaders in the crisis are running again, but with their various security forces on the sidelines. Although the election seems to be going smoothly, it’s not clear it can actually bring any additional stability to the country.

Justice Mahapela Lehohla, chairman of Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission, said: “The voting has been proceeding peacefully and according to plan.”

There are 23 politicians vying for the top post, with another coalition likely, according to analysts.

A final result may not emerge for days due to the remoteness of some communities voting.

If nobody gets a majority and the same people are returned to power and opposition leadership (or the same unstable coalitions are formed again), I have a hard time seeing how this moves the country forward. The fear and mutual recriminations within the country’s elite are likely to continue, particularly in such a small country where everyone in politics knows everyone else in politics and have long (often bitter) histories with each other.

Michael J. Jordan, who styles himself on Twitter as “the lone Western foreign correspondent” in Lesotho, has reported extensively on the crisis, the mediation, and the new elections. His latest report (which was also published in Foreign Policy magazine) does not paint an encouraging picture either:

With shared roots in the country’s first post-independence party, the factions are distinguished more by personality than politics, with little difference between their ideologies. But as one civil servant who requested anonymity said, “Whichever side doesn’t get to be a part of the next government, I’m afraid they will cause some troubles — I think they’ll fight.”
“Lesotho is in some ways a victim of its narrative — as the ‘first coalition government in southern Africa’ — because it was a very fragile, shaky edifice, driven by personal splits within the parties,” says John Aerni-Flessner, a Lesotho specialist and professor of African history at Michigan State University. “It was never based on ideological unity, but on politics as convenience. To see it disintegrate isn’t as surprising for Lesotho-watchers as it is for those who bought into the narrative.”

Ironically, the seeds of unrest were planted by the success of the 2012 elections. The upending of the old power structure created an opportunity for the new government to pursue corruption cases against members of the ancien régime, who for years had acted with impunity, accused of fixing contracts and taking kickbacks for everything from agriculture and infrastructure tenders to diamond and water projects. Soon after taking office, Thabane (himself a survivor of 50 years in southern Africa’s rough-and-tumble politics), launched his crusade, digging into the purported crimes of his political rivals.

While Thabane’s critics accused him of conducting a vengeful witch hunt — and others accused him of hypocrisy for his own checkered record — his campaign opened the door for the small handful of local anti-corruption lawyers contracted by the state’s Director of Public Prosecutions, to take on a handful of top officials who had abused their power during the 14-year rule of former Prime Minister Mosisili.

By late 2013, prominent business, political, and security elites named in these investigations soon found they were being made targets. As more were forced to hire lawyers to avoid prosecution, the political fight boiled into violence, culminating on Aug. 30 with an attempted coup.

Jordan suggests, as well, that South Africa didn’t really try to solve the underlying causes of the crisis, but rather just tried to end the surface-level breach of constitutionality and lack of law and order. Hence the big push for quick and early elections that will probably just leave Lesotho waiting for the next shoe to drop. There are also serious, credible complaints that the election wasn’t conducted in a fair or clean manner.

Map of Lesotho's location in southern Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

Map of Lesotho’s location in southern Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

Civilian Kafando takes Faso presidency, but with military premier

Yesterday, Burkina Faso made the next step in its transition with Michel Kafando, the country’s former longtime UN Ambassador, being formally sworn in as the civilian Interim President until elections are held next November.

However, in a troubling development announced Wednesday, Lt. Col. Isaac Zida — who headed the military government for three week’s following the October 31 and November 1 coups, was appointed Interim Prime Minister, the crucial post which will actually appoint all the cabinet ministers for the coming year.

Civilians consider Zida’s appointment as a betrayal of their “revolution” and Guy Herve Kam, spokesman for the Citizen Broom association said “we are worried, but that’s all.”

There are reports that Western diplomats have advised against Zida’s nomination.

A senior military official revealed that the military and the politicians had a gentleman agreement. He said that “it was on this understanding that we gave the post of president… to civilians.”

In another worrying turn, it was revealed that the Transitional Charter governing the country for the next twelve months will include an interim legislature, as opposed to the restoration of the existing (elected) National Assembly, suspended by the military during the coup. That would make sense if the principle of the move was to rectify the fact that the Assembly’s composition is heavily skewed toward the ruling party of former dictator Blaise Compaoré, except that we have no idea who will choose its members. And that’s a bad sign…

As traced on this blog in the past three weeks, initially promising suggestions of a representative process to choose an interim president from suggestions by a wide range of interest groups and constituencies ended up simply evolving into the military submitting a short list of candidates (with a clear preference for Kafando), followed by the appointment of the coup leader to the prime minister’s post. We can reasonably expect a similarly flawed selection process for the temporary legislature, with a heavy hand of the military behind the scenes.

However, as I argued previously, it’s still possible (though unlikely) that this is less a power grab and more a recognition of political realities in a country stunted by 27 years of one-man-one-party rule and fractured opposition:

In fact, I’m not fully convinced that a stable transition is even possible in Burkina Faso without substantial military involvement (and heavy supervision from the international community). On the one hand, military-guided transitions to democracy have a super high failure rate (not sure if that’s adjusted for economics though); so that’s an argument for a rapid transfer. But on the other hand, Burkina Faso has 40+ political parties, an absurd and borderline non-functional constitution (now suspended by the military), no legitimate successor to the presidency, and so on. Thus, I’m kind of thinking the military might actually be the only valid option here for overseeing the transition, as it serves as a unifying factor cutting across competing affiliations.

I just don’t think Zida can be trusted any more, if he ever could, now that he’s maneuvered himself into the premiership, a job he has no place being — both in terms of governance experience and in terms of permitting a legitimate transition to democratic, civilian rule.

And then there’s this reminder from Reuters:

Zida, previously considered a close ally of the president, received counter-terrorism training in the United States in 2012 on recommendation from the U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou. He attended a second U.S. military course in Botswana.


Burkina Faso Army preps to hand back control to civilians

In continuing the rapid implementation of the ECOWAS-sponsored transition plan, the military government in Burkina Faso (which took power just 15 days ago) today gave civilian groups a one day deadline to narrow down their proposed interim leaders to a consensus choice, who will govern until November 2015 elections. Here are some key highlights from the BBC report:

Burkina Faso’s military ruler has told activist groups they have until Sunday afternoon to provide a list of candidates for interim national leader.

Lt Col Isaac Zida agreed [to] a transition plan with civilian political groups on Thursday, but no leader was named. The groups have agreed to submit a list of candidates to a 23-member council, which will then select a single leader.

In a communique on Saturday, Col Zida said civilian groups had until noon on Sunday to provide a list of candidates to serve as interim president. He also said the constitution was back in force in order to “allow the start of the establishment of a civilian transition”.

Under the charter agreed on Thursday, the interim president will be chosen by a special college composed of religious, military, political, civil and traditional leaders.

Let’s take another look at that constitutional power vacuum situation that led to the temporary — and thankfully apparently short-lived — military takeover after President Compaoré‘s resignation. Since many Western media sources were being a bit lazy about reporting the details accurately, I spent a number of hours immediately following the coup carefully parsing the constitution along with 2012, 2013, and early 2014 news articles from the country. My conclusion: Due to an ongoing political dispute well before the current crisis, Burkina Faso doesn’t actually have a Senate set up to fill the role of Senate President, even thought that position is designated without alternative in the 2012 Constitution as the Acting President if the Faso presidency becomes vacant.

In other words, there was no way any transition would have been constitutional, even if the Army had not suspended the constitution and assumed control. So, the “restoration” of the constitution today by the military doesn’t really fix that fundamental, unavoidable problem that led to their takeover in the first place.

However, here’s some good news: The uncreated Senate was supposed to have been composed of indirectly-elected representatives of the local municipalities (etc), worker groups, industry groups, religious groups, and (some) customary/traditional authorities (I think most were disbanded in the 1980s by Sankara). Thus, the plan announced Saturday essentially “restores” the Constitution to the extent actually possible and seems to try to emulate its spirit as closely as possible to fill the remaining gaps where it’s simply not feasible to follow the letter. For example, the acting civilian president will be chosen — by a 23 member council of representatives from the aforementioned interest groups — from a list submitted by those same groups and the 40 odd political parties in the country (or a lot of them anyway). That’s basically as close as humanly possibly to a duly-composed (in spirit) pseudo-Senate choosing a leader to fill the role of Acting President in lieu of a Senate President who never existed. Moreover, the military government has not attempted to rewrite, amend, or promulgate a new constitution.

If this plan holds up, this may prove to be one of the most efficient and minimally invasive military interventions in the democratic system of a country in recent memory. The real test, of course, will continue through the transitional civilian leadership period and into new elections (and presumably a less arcane and broken constitution eventually). But this is still a huge step, and a lesson to other would-be military interventionists both in Burkina Faso and abroad.