Why This Week’s Coup in Burkina Faso Might Not Last

Forces close to the deposed former president have seized power — but the country's civil society is rising to its feet.

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On September 16, during a cabinet meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, soldiers with the elite Presidential Guard unit (known by its French initials RSP) broke into the room and placed interim President Michael Kafando and Prime Minister Isaac Zida under arrest.  After several hours of uncertainty, an RSP spokesman announced that it had overthrown the administration and assumed control of the country.

The roots of Burkina Faso’s latest coup lie in its previous one, when the former long-time authoritarian President Blaise Compaore was removed by the military in the wake of mass largely nonviolent protests last November. While RSP commanders participated in Compaore’s ouster, they were held responsible for some of the brutalities of his presidency and seen as too sympathetic to the interests of elites who had been close to him. Thus the RSP’s elimination became a major goal of civil society groups. Fearing this, the RSP struck first.

Last November, despite talk in some circles of an “African Spring,” I expressed skepticism that Compaore’s ouster would be followed by a peaceful transition to democracy. While nonviolent campaigns that overthrow dictators tend to lead to democracy and less political violence, the opposite is the case when, after being made vulnerable by the nonviolent campaign, the dictator is ousted by a military coup. As I wrote last year: “While the ouster of President Compaore by the nonviolent opposition is inspiring, the mechanism that led to his ouster is unlikely to lead to democratization or domestic peace.”

This week’s coup confirms that skepticism. In particular, it displays the challenges inherent in initiating a major political transition without prior consensus-building and without a politically savvy opposition that’s willing to reach political settlements with old regime elites. In the months following Compaore’s ouster, the new interim government struggled between the impulse to reform entrenched institutions of the old regime like the RSP, as demanded by civil society, and the need to placate these interests to prevent them from challenging their authority. In the end, they tried to clean house: the government banned all members of the former ruling party from competing in the upcoming presidential election. Most dramatically, it issued a report earlier this week calling for the RSP to be dissolved. This move is widely considered to have been the precipitating event which sparked the latest coup.

Despite these challenges, last year I expressed some reasons for hope: Burkina Faso’s civil society was strong and unified in opposition to military rule. This is still the case today. Immediately following this week’s coup, the same civil society leaders who led last year’s nonviolent uprising against Compaore, including members of the influential youth movement Balai Citoyen, have called for the people to rise up and restore the interim government to power. Despite a violent crackdown by the RSP, thousands have rallied in the streets of the capital. Trade unions have called for, and in many places initiated, a nationwide general strike. Institutionalized political forces have joined the resistance, as interim parliamentary speaker Sherif Sy has declared himself president, rallied the people to protest, and called on the regular army to obey his orders and not join with the RSP.

While it is far too early to predict the outcome of the latest political struggle, the alliance of civil society with formal political forces in opposing the RSP is encouraging.  There are significant historical precedents when united fronts of nonviolent civil resistance have been able to foil military coups. In 1920, a coup by right-wing hardliners in Germany led by bureaucrat Wolfgang Kapp was defeated when the opposition launched a general strike. Near-universal noncooperation by civil servants as part of the strike made the coup plotters’ authority purely nominal, and the coup folded from within. Similarly, in 1991, a coup by Soviet hardliners against the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev collapsed when massive nonviolent resistance, led in part by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, convinced soldiers to reject the coup, undermining its viability and ultimately restoring Gorbachev to power.

Nonviolent protests can be particularly effective in preventing coups from succeeding when they undermine the perception that the military is united behind the coup plotters. As recent research has shown, coups are primarily “coordination games” where each faction in the military has an incentive to do what it believes all the other factions will do. Thus, coup plotters must quickly gain control of the flow of information and rapidly consolidate power before dissent can become public and the various military factions have a chance to consider other options. In the case of Burkina Faso, Sherif Sy’s appeal to the regular military not to support the RSP, as well as the rapid and near-universal public resistance to the coup, appear to have been somewhat successful in turning the regular military against the RSP, putting the ultimate success of their coup in doubt.

While it’s too early to offer any confident prognosis about the future of democracy in Burkina Faso, the events of the last several days reinforce two key lessons. First, smooth political transitions rely on coming to some accommodation with elements of the old regime — alienating hardliners can have devastating consequences. Second, an active and united civil society engaged in nonviolent resistance is a central, often decisive factor. While coups tend to lead to more coups, even when carried out in the name of the people, strategic civil resistance can be a powerful countervailing force. This force will be playing out dramatically in Burkina Faso in the days and weeks to come.

In the photo, troops stand guard near Nation Square in Ouagadougou on September 17, 2015.

Photo credit: AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images

Jonathan Pinckney is a Ph.D. Student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and Research Fellow at the Sie Cheou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy.