What You Need to Know About the Coup in Burkina Faso

Less than a year since Blaise Compaoré was ousted from power in Burkina Faso, presidential guard forces just took over the reins of power in Burkina Faso. Members of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) interrupted a cabinet meeting of the transitional government yesterday, and took the interim president Michel Kafondo, and the interim prime minister, Isaac Zida, hostage. With national elections less than a month away, this coup is a blow to the – so far – effective transition, and dangerously undermines the success story that was supposed to be Burkina Fasos’s triumphant democratic transition.

The coup is led by General Gilbert Diendéré, the leader of the presidential guard forces, which happens to not only be the same force that supported Compaoré for many years during his rule, but also where the current interim prime minister, Lt-Col. Zida, hails from. The 1,200-men strong force is not only fully enmeshed in Burkinabe power politics, but it is also a powerful, well-trained group of elite officers. Tensions between the RSP and the interim government have been roiling the transition process, but the conflict took another turn when a report was issued by the government on Monday this week recommending that the RSP be disbanded. Clearly, not a proposition that sat well with General Diendéré.

A representative from the RSP explained in a televised address that a new “national democratic council” had taken control to end the “deviant regime.” Given the hostage situation,  interim parliament speaker Cherif Sy is now the most senior acting official in Burkina. Since the coup, he has been exhorting the public to take to the streets to defend their country. Meanwhile, protesters have taken to the streets in the capital, Ouagadougou, but also in other cities and towns across the country. In the capital, RSP forces have major roads on lock-down, and organizers – such as the popular Balai Citoyen group – are claiming that they are being shot at by the RSP when groups gather on the streets in protest. Media reports that while no official curfew has been instated, the streets of the capital were very quiet – save for some intense exchanges of gun fire – last night.

The situation is still evolving in Burkina Faso. At this early stage, even the next few days are uncertain. If General Diendere manages to continue to hold control of the presidential palace, and the capital, it is unknown what his political intentions or aspirations are. Surely, though, if the coup is not stifled very, very soon, it endangers the upcoming elections, and likely makes them near impossible. As of now, the rest of Burkina Faso’s armed forces – outside the RSP – have not made attempts (at least not overtly) to challenge the coup. While the international community – including the United States and France, as well as the United Nations, the African Union and ECOWAS – have all issued strong condemnations of the coup, it’s not immediately apparent if and how these actors can do more to help ensure that Burkina Faso can rectify the course as soon as possible.