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The Paradox at the Heart of Burkina’s Failed Coup

Arsène Brice Bado

[caption id="attachment_7851" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Former President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré. Photo Courtesy of Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo via the U.S. Department of Defense Flickr.[/caption]

On Wednesday, September 23rd, Burkina Faso's elite presidential guard, the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), was forced, under intense domestic and international pressure, to return power and abort their short-lived coup. Institutions and leaders of the National Transitional Government resumed power less than a week after the coup began, and started picking up the pieces from this short, violent detour from democracy. What lessons can be drawn from these recent events?

If the coup demonstrates the fragility of political stability in Burkina Faso, it also paradoxically reveals the depth of popular commitment to democracy. Indeed, the brutality, killings, and threats of the RSP did not prevent civil society organizations, trade unions, political parties, and especially young people from taking to the streets of Ouagadougou and other major cities to make their anger and their disapproval of the coup heard. This social mobilization delivered a clear message that the putschists understood. This was directly acknowledged by General Gilbert Diendéré, author of the coup, who said as he stepped down, "we saw what happened, we knew that the people did not support this, this is why we have simply abandoned [the coup] (...) I think we have learned."1

This is a victory for the people of Burkina Faso against an attempt to establish a military regime. In October 2014, the demonstrations of thousands of people forced President Blaise Compaoré to resign after an attempt to amend the constitution to run for another term after 27 years in power. Against the recent coup, the Burkinabe people have further demonstrated their commitment against undemocratic seizures of power. This willingness of the people to demonstrate and protest was at the heart of the popular revolution in Burkina Faso, which today stands as an inspiration to a number of African countries thirsty for democracy.

The failure of the recent coup also illustrates that the era in Burkina Faso when the military easily seized political power is now gone. General Diendéré acknowledged this when he said "the biggest mistake was to make the coup because today when we talk about democracy, we can no longer allow actions of this kind."2 It seems that the Burkinabe army, which has initiated seven coups since the country gained political independence in 1960, has now realized that this practice is no longer accepted by the international community or the citizens of Burkina Faso, particularly the new generation of young people.

The fact that the rest of the armed forces refused to endorse the RSP's coup is a credible signal that the army has emerged from the influence of former President Compaoré's regime. Compaoré was able to retain power for 27 years only with the full support of the army and the RSP. By engineering this coup, the RSP appeared to have fired its last cartridge; a failed attempt to hold onto power means the unit has fallen into disgrace and lost credibility in the eyes of the population and other army units. The military's change of heart and the disbandment of the RSP could signify the destruction of the last visible, central pillar of Compaoré's regime and open a new political era for Burkina Faso.

However, although the coup lasted only one week, it cannot be considered just a parenthesis on the Compaoré era. The exclusion of certain supporters of Compaoré's regime from the presidential and parliamentary elections was the main reason for the coup. The electoral law passed by the National Transition Council last April made any candidate who actively supported Compaoré's attempt to amend Article 37 of the Constitution, which concerns presidential term limits, ineligible. Interim President Michel Kafando and the National Transitional Government must therefore find a way to pacify the socio-political environment before the elections, which are likely to be postponed to November. A negotiated compromise is needed at this critical period. Restoring political dialogue with all major societal actors is of major importance for strengthening peace.

Another revelation from the coup was the strong and swift condemnation not only by international institutions and Western powers, but also and especially by African countries and intergovernmental organizations. The roles of the A.U. and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were remarkable and effective in bringing the coup leaders to the negotiating table, and eventually pressuring them to surrender. Western powers did not need to take the lead in organizing coercive action against the junta in order to restore the legitimate authorities to power. West Africa was able to settle its own problems. Through their handling of the crisis in Burkina Faso, the African regional organizations have sent a strong signal of their determination to oppose, not only with words but also with actions, anti-democratic seizures and exercises of power.

Though Burkina Faso is still at a crossroad of political stability, the greater awareness of the people of Burkina Faso on issues of democracy is a welcome sign that in Burkina Faso the power is in the hands of the people. The return to power of Interim President, Michel Kafando, one week after being ousted by the coup, is a beautiful demonstration of the aspiration and commitment of the people of Burkina Faso to democracy.

1 Interview of General Diendéré on Burkina24 TV; see Abdou Zouré,  "Diendéré: 'Le coup est terminé'",  available on, accessed on September 29, 2015

2 Idem.

Arsène Brice Bado, a Southern Voices Network Scholar at the Wilson Center, is an associate researcher at CERAP in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. He was a visiting assistant in research at Yale University during the academic year 2014-2015. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Laval University in Canada. His doctoral research focuses on foreign electoral assistance in post-civil conflict societies.

About the Author

Arsène Brice Bado

Arsène Brice Bado

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Associate researcher, CERAP
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