How the people of Burkina Faso defeated an authoritarian coup

On September 16th this year, both the Burkina Faso Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida and the Interim President Michel Kafando were taken hostage by the presidential guard (the RSP), seizing control of the country and threatening to send it into political chaos.

By taking the country hostage, the RSP hoped to manipulate the political transition to protect their own interests. Their criminal activities have allegedly ranged from political assassinations to illicit trafficking.

Following the coup, thousands of outraged citizens took to the streets of the capital Ouagadougou to confront the RSP and attempt to take back their country.

Following a week of dramatic negotiations and civil unrest, the coup collapsed. RSP leader General Gilbert Diendéré has been charged with crimes against humanity and the murder of 14 civilians.

Things are now returning to normal. The Burkinabé people were able to restore the country’s transitional Government and crush the attempts of an authoritarian seizure. But how?

The strength of civil society 

What the RSP underestimated is the power that society holds once they collectively take to the streets and mobilise. The defeat of this coup in many way echoes the uprising of October 2014, the overthrowing of the then-president Blaise Compaoré.

Compaoré, after nearly three decades in power, called on his ruling party the Congress for Democracy to end presidential term limits, which would have allowed him to run for a fifth term as president.

In response, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to hold demonstrations and challenge the regime for manipulating the constitution for their own benefit. On October 31st, 2014, Compaoré was overthrown and forced into exile.

The RSP coup: a last ditch attempt to seize power for Burkina Faso’s people

The RSP has previously tried to interfere with the political transition at various times throughout this year since last year’s uprising. Taking the Prime Minister and the Interim President hostage was their last ditch attempt to influence the political transition in their own interests.

Feelings against the coup were so strong that following the seizure, the national military surrounded the capital on September 22nd, giving the RSP and ultimatum: disarm or be disarmed by force.

Diendéré initially refused, saying that the RSP would defend itself if it had to. But following an emergency summit in Nigeria, ECOWAS leaders sided with the citizens and called on RSP to disarm and the military to stand down. The people had won.

The amicable conclusion to this week of political upheaval is in large thanks to society’s resolve to stand up against the corruption of their leaders.

The newly restored President Kafando had one message for the audience at his public reinstatement ceremony: This political crisis had been resolved by the people of Burkina Faso.

The events in Burkina Faso are a perfect demonstration of the power that social movements have when challenging authoritarian manipulation. The restored transitional Government are building up to elections once again, now rescheduled for November 29th.

This is the most hopeful the Burkinabé people have been for establishing democracy in a country that has been ruled by a single ‘strongman’ for decades. Do these events signal the start of a new wave of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa?

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