The military’s misadventure in Burkina Faso
The September 17 2015 coup in Burkina Faso against the country’s interim leadership contains important lessons in democratic consolidation in Africa. Under pressure from demonstrators, striking labour unions and the continental regional organizations - the African Union and ECOWAS - the coup leader, Gen. Gilbert Diendere was forced to ‘step aside’. President Michel Kafando and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida were restored to power as transitional leaders of the country.
The trigger for the coup was dissatisfaction by members of the elite presidential guard (RSP), which was set up by Blaise Compaore after he overthrew Capt Sankara in a military coup in 1987. Sankara, regarded as Africa’s ‘Che Guevara’ who had changed the name of the former French colony from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“land of honest men”) - lost his life in the coup. In 2014 a failed attempt by Compaore, (who had transformed himself into a civilian President and had then ruled for a total of 27 years), to extend his tenure beyond the constitutionally allowed two terms led to uprisings that forced him into exile. A new transitional government in the country came up with a new electoral law banning candidates linked to the failed 2014 bid to elongate the tenure of Blaise Compaore - mostly members of the elite RSP and the former ruling party CDP - from contesting in the elections scheduled for October this year. One of those affected by the ban was General Diendere’s wife.
There are a number of lessons to be learned from the short-lived coup:
One, though democratic consciousness is growing in the continent, the coup reveals that the continent does not lack adventurist soldiers who may want to exploit popular discontent to supplant legitimately constituted authority. There have been over 26 attempted military coups in the continent in the past five years alone. The failed coup attempt in Burkina Faso was the second military coup in the country in one year.
After decades of military rule, the rationalizations for the military’s intervention in African politics no longer wash with people who are old enough to remember what life was really like under military rule. The good news however is that only very few military coups succeed these days. General Diendere who led the recent coup in Burkina Faso was later to confess that “this coup was the biggest mistake…. One should not have taken such action”. Certainly the current international environment does not encourage military incursion in politics and both the African Union and regional organizations such as ECOWAS are increasingly taking very hard line approaches to coup makers. In Nigeria, most of the current structural problems facing the country were arguably created by the military.
Two, Africa seems to have moved from the era of military coups to constitutional coup attempts. As military dictatorships and one party rule became passé with the end of the Cold War, Africa entered the so-called ‘third wave’ of its experiment with liberal democracy. Across the continent liberal democracy was being universalized, usually with term limits. However the continent’s liberal democracy project faces resistance from two forces: adventurist soldiers who nurse a nostalgia for the period when the military was the shortest route to power in Africa and civilian beneficiaries of this ‘third wave’ of democracy who nurse a nostalgia for the period of one party dictatorship that prevailed in most parts of the continent shortly after independence until the end of the Cold War. Nearly all the beneficiaries of the current ‘wave’ of democratization which began in Africa in the 1990s tried to elongate their tenures beyond the constitutionally allowed term limits. Even those once lionized by the West as representing a new crop of African leaders such as Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal and Paul Kagame of Rwanda all tried (or in the case of Kagame suspected of nursing the ambition) to elongate their tenures. While Obasanjo tried and failed in Nigeria, Wade succeeded in changing his country’s constitution in Senegal to permit him to run for a third term but then lost the presidential election in 2012. Paul Kagame, of Rwanda, who was much beloved in the West had been Rwanda’s Vice President and Minister of Defence from 1994 to 2000 when he became his country’s substantive President. He won an election in 2003, under a new Constitution adopted that year and was again elected to a second term of seven years in 2010. Though his term expires in 2017 and should not be constitutionally extended, his body language has clearly shown an inclination to tinker with the constitution to elongate his tenure.
Resistance to tenure elongation has been fierce in several countries. In Burkina Faso, the 2014 coup was caused by attempts by Compaore to extend his tenure. In Niger, where four successful military coups have occurred since 1974, the February 2010 coup in that country which ousted President Mamadou Tandja followed the grumblings that attended his decision to amend the country’s constitution to remain in power beyond the constitutionally allowed two-term limit. Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza who violently resisted months of popular discontent eventually got his third term in office but at a bloody cost. From Burundi to Benin, Rwanda and Congo Kinshasha to Uganda, Algeria, Angola, Chad, Djibouti and Cameroun, there are or have been attempts at tenure elongation – often leading to violent clashes on the streets or animating the hunger of some military adventurists for a piece of the action.
Three, the fight against terrorism in Africa embeds in it a potential threat to democracy. Counter terrorism measures have not only led to measures that curtail citizens’ freedoms such as imposition of curfews and roadblocks, but also people trained in the new techniques for fighting terrorism could become security risks to the state. For instance the leader of the recent coup in Burkina Faso Lt General Diendere was the president of the country’s Flintlock 2010 Committee, which is a major US-led military exercise designed to “enable African partners to combat violent extremist organizations” and provide “increased interoperability, counterterrorism and combat skills training while creating a venue for regional engagement.” Remarkably, Lieutenant Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida who served as Burkina Faso’s acting head of state in November 2014 after seizing power in the aftermath of the 2014 uprising that forced the abdication of Compaore, also previously received US military training. Again Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, who led a renegade military faction that overthrew the democratically elected government in Mali in 2012 equally received US military training. We may therefore have to keep an eye on soldiers receiving advanced military training to help combat the current terrorist challenges. In the 1960s and 1970s, the ‘modernization thesis’ – the idea that relative to the civilian political leadership, the military, by its training could be considered modern and therefore better equipped to run than the civilians, was one of the excuses used to justify military coups in Africa. With new training in counter insurgency, the soldiers may also get into the temptation of feeling that by their new training they are better equipped to confront the current challenges of our time.
Five, the impasse in Burkina Faso following the short-lived coup was resolved, not through military means but through dialogue. There were fears that the country would descend into chaos or factional armed conflicts after the ECOWAS mediators initially failed to reverse the coup. Though Burkina Faso’s Army chiefs sent regular troops to Ouagadougou they refrained from leading a direct offensive against the RSP but rather were persuading Diendere’s men to return to their barracks. The ECOWAS mediating group also toned down its rhetoric. Dialogue prevailed throughout as even rival generals sought to find a peaceful solution to avoid further bloodshed. By embracing dialogue, Burkina Faso’s Army chiefs gave Africa’s armies an important lesson in showing restraint and trying to avoid confrontation at all costs.
The above lesson is also applicable to other African leaders confronting other challenges - whether we are talking about terrorist groups like Boko Haram or insurgency movements such as MASSOB and OPC or dealing with other ‘de-Nigerianized’ Nigerians. Dialogue is never a sign of weakness. Rather it remains the best tool for achieving reconciliation especially in deeply polarized societies.