OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – The military seized power in Burkina Faso on Monday, toppling the country’s democratically elected president after mutinous soldiers stormed his home, in the latest in a series of military coups. in African countries struggling to repel a rising tide of Islamist violence.
President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, 64, has ruled Burkina Faso, a poor and landlocked country of 21 million people in West Africa since 2015. Burkina Faso displaced 1.4 million people and caused 2,000 deaths last year alone.
Although the militants’ violence is part of a wider campaign in the Sahel, a vast swath of land just south of the Sahara, many soldiers and civilians in Burkina Faso have blamed their president for not stopping it.
A wave of public protests in recent months has been accompanied by growing discontent within the army, which moved against him on Sunday, occupying several military bases, then ousted him on Monday.
“We were just sick of him,” said Adjara Dera, a woman carrying a basket of bananas who joined a jubilant crowd celebrating the coup in the main square of the capital, Ouagadougou, on Monday night. “Our friends are dying, our police are dying. It just wasn’t working. We are fed up.
It was the latest in a wave of coups in sub-Saharan Africa, the largest concentration in years, with takeovers in Mali, Burkina Faso’s neighbor to the north, as well as Guinea, Sudan and in Chad. But it remains to be seen whether the latest ousting of democracy will bring the balm to the militant-led misery so desperately sought by many in Burkina Faso.
The coup was announced on state television late Monday afternoon by a fresh-faced officer who interrupted a program on the fish trade to announce that the military had suspended the Constitution and dissolved the government, and that it was closing the land and air borders of Burkina Faso until further notice.
In the colloquial language of military coups, the spokesman said the armed forces were acting out of a sense of duty, reacting to “the exasperation of the people”. Next to him sat a man in fatigues whom he presented as the new leader of Burkina Faso: Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, commander of one of the country’s three military regions.
The spokesperson gave no indication of President Kabore’s whereabouts or whether he had agreed to resign, saying only that he was captured ‘without bloodshed’ alongside other leaders civilians, and that he was being held “in a safe place”.
In fact, there are plenty of signs that the ousted president, who came to power in 2015 and was re-elected in 2020, did not leave easily.
Mr. Kaboré’s troubles began on Sunday when the military seized several military bases in the capital and at least two towns in the provinces. Riot police clashed with civilian protesters supporting the army in Ouagadougou, firing tear gas to prevent them from reaching a central square.
But the soldiers kept control of the bases and, after demanding sweeping reforms in the campaign against Islamist militants – including the removal of Burkina Faso’s military leader – they acted against the president himself.
Sporadic bursts of gunfire near Mr. Kaboré’s home in the capital’s most upscale neighborhood that began late Sunday continued for hours, suggesting the army was split between rival factions that backed the president or sought to overthrow it.
After daybreak, several armored vehicles from the presidential convoy were found abandoned near the house, some of them covered with bullet holes. Then came reports that some soldiers had arrested the president, urging him to resign.
There were signs that Mr. Kaboré was resisting orders from the army, and at one point was protected by a unit of paramilitary gendarmes who were negotiating on his behalf with the mutinous soldiers, said a senior Western official who was is expressed on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive events. In the afternoon, Mr. Kaboré’s Twitter account posted a message in which he urged people to stand firm behind their faltering democracy.
“Our country is going through a difficult time,” the tweet read, urging rebel soldiers to “lay down their arms.”
But a few hours later, the men in fatigues appeared on television and announced that they were now in charge.
Mr. Kaboré never had a great interest in military matters, and his fate was sealed by a growing public perception that he was incapable of defeating the militant Islamist threat, said Rinaldo Depagne, an expert on Burkina Faso at the ‘International Crisis Group.
“He’s not absolutely awful and corrupt,” he said. “But obviously people think, rightly or wrongly, that a man in uniform with a big gun is better able to protect them than a democratically elected president.”
The United States has invested millions of dollars in training and equipping the Burkinabe military to fight insurgents – in 2016, providing what was about two-thirds of Burkina Faso’s defense budget – with little results to show.
The new leader, Colonel Damiba, is not well known to most in Burkina Faso.
Trained at the Ecole Militaire in Paris, he was previously a member of the elite force guarding President Blaise Compaoré, who ruled for 27 years until his ousting in 2014. After that unit was disbanded, he was integrated into the regular army, where he began to climb the ranks. Last year, he published a book titled “West African Armies and Terrorism: Uncertain Answers?
Two months ago, Colonel Damiba was appointed commander of one of Burkina Faso’s three military regions – a promotion that coincided with growing discontent within the ranks. In November, a regional UN envoy warned of a possible coup in Burkina Faso, and last week authorities arrested another officer accused of planning a takeover.
On Monday, even before the coup was officially announced, some residents of the capital welcomed it as a fatality.
Fleets of young men on motorbikes sped past the headquarters of the State Broadcasting Service, where mutinous soldiers stood guard at the gate, honking and cheering. At a nearby cellphone market, Kudougou Damiba theatrically dropped to his knees to show his support for the nascent coup.
” We are saved ! he stated. “Roch is gone, finally”
Mr. Damiba, unrelated to the putschist, described the president as the author of his own misfortune. “Instead of uniting people, Roch divided them,” he said. “And that allowed the jihadists to attack us. It’s his fault.”
Others at the open-air market shared that view, expressing in strong terms their frustration at the Islamist violence that has divided a country once known for coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
“For a large part of the people, life has become impossible,” said Mr. Depagne, the analyst. “They want someone to blame.”
Some of that blame has been placed on France, the former colonial power, which has deployed thousands of troops to the Sahel region to try to counter the Islamist push, including in Burkina Faso.
On Monday, many protesters raged against France, with some even accusing it of secretly supporting Islamist militants in a bid to expand its influence. “We say no to imperialism,” said Mohammed Niampa, one of the coup celebrants. “This is the beginning of our total independence.”
But others have taken a more skeptical view of Burkina Faso’s latest lurch away from democracy.
Anatole Compaoré, a 31-year-old unemployed man, took part in the recent wave of street demonstrations demanding the resignation of Mr. Kaboré. Even so, he didn’t think another dose of the military diet was the solution to the problem.
After the overthrow of Blaise Compaoré, leader of Burkina Faso for 27 years, in 2014, the military “said everything was going to change”, he noted. “But nothing has changed. And I’m not sure it will be different this time.
Ruth Maclean contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal