Military coup casts doubt on Burkina Faso elections

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Planned elections in Burkina Faso on October 11 do not seem likely to move forward after the country’s interim president, Michel Kafando, was ousted Thursday by the military.burkina faso flag icon

Kafando came to the presidency only last November, following a military coup against Burkina Faso’s leader of 27 years,  Blaise Compaoré, when the longtime strongman tried to amend the constitution to permit him to run for reelection yet again. Initially, during the October 2014 coup, it was Isaac Zida, a leading member of the Régiment de sécurité présidentielle (RSP, Presidential Security Regiment), a high-powered security forced that Compaoré formed as a counterweight to the regular army, who quickly emerged as the country’s interim leader. International pressure forced Zida and the RSP to hand power to Kafando, Burkina Faso’s long-serving ambassador to the United Nations, with Zida serving as interim prime minister.

That arrangement seemed to be working, with Burkina Faso — a landlocked country of over 17 million people in west Africa that neighbors Mali and Ghana — preparing for elections next month.

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Nevertheless, Burkinabés woke up Thursday morning to the sight of lieutenant colonel Mamadou Bamba (pictured above) delivering a terse statement on behalf of the newly christened ‘National Council for Democracy’ that had tasked itself with ‘put[ting] an end’ to the ‘deviating’ transitional regime and establishing a government that would ‘restore political order’ for the purpose of holding ‘inclusive and peaceful’ elections. 

Increasingly, however, the interests of the Kafando-Zida administration and the interests of the RSP had diverged. Though Gilbert Diendéré, a general with close ties to Compaoré, led the coup that ousted Kafando and Zida earlier this week, the counter-coup has more to do with the RSP’s institutional role in Burkina Faso  as it does any enthusiasm for a Compaoré restoration.

Most accounts suggest two major reasons for the coup. First, the transitional government had attempted to prevent Compaoré’s supporters from running in the October elections by barring those members of the parliament who voted to suspend term limits back in 2014 on Compaoré’s behalf. That law, passed in April, was subsequently rejected in July by the court of justice for the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Despite Kafando’s initial statement that he would abide the ECOWAS ruling, the transitional government still applied many of its terms to former Compaoré supporters, including 42 parliamentary candidates and six presidential contenders. That caused a serious electoral imbalance and threatened to invalidate the democratic credentials of next month’s voting.

But secondly, and more importantly, the transitional government had just days before recommended the dissolution of the RSP, an existential threat to an elite organization that continued to play an outsized role in Burkinabé security and politics even in the post-Compaoré era. Formed in 1987, when Compaoré came to power, the secret service played an important role in quashing the 2011 protests against authoritarian rule. But in the transitional era, there seemed to be no positive raison d’être for the RSP’s ongoing existence (as it turns out, given this week’s coup, a prescient sentiment).

Whether the new transitional government manages to establish elections as quickly as the old transitional government is yet to be seen. Even as Senegal’s elected president Macky Sall headed to Ouagadougou to broker a peaceful outcome, the coup is a lesson in institutional design. The country’s future leaders, elected or otherwise, will think twice before any loose talking of dismantling or sidelining the RSP.

So, though it came to power as a kind of ‘dictator insurance’ for Compaoré, insofar as it represented his own mercenary force of loyalists, it still continues to wield power because of the high profile it assumed for nearly three decades. As a poison pill of the Compaoré era, the RSP’s destabilizing role 11 months after Compaoré’s ouster is now a cautionary lesson about the problems of path determination and the importance of designing strong institutions for governance.

Though checks and balances are typically a great way of limiting executive overreach, they usually come in the form of legislative prerogative, an active judiciary or significant devolution to local and regional government — not the patronization of a shadowy rearguard military elite.

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