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Burkina Faso: The 8th Coup Fails

The dust has settled in Ouagadougou, Africa’s capital of military coups (seven in 65 years), and the elections in Burkina Faso have been rescheduled for the end of next month. Don’t be cynical about it; that is real progress.

Burkina Faso, a land-locked country in West Africa, competes with Somalia for the honour of being Africa’s poorest country. You might wonder why anybody would want the thankless job of running such a place, but political power means access to scarce resources (like money) even in the poorest countries. Especially if you are in the army.

What would have been the country’s eighth coup (if it had succeeded) began in mid-September when General Gilbert Diendere, the head of the Presidential Guard, seized and imprisoned the interim president and prime minister. He was doing it, he said, because the party of the last president, Blaise Compaore, had been banned from running in the election.

Compaore, a former soldier who first came to power in a coup himself, was ousted by popular demonstrations last year when he tried to run for the presidency yet again after 27 years in power. Diendere had been his closest associate for all of that time, and everybody assumed that his coup was really a bid by Compaore to return to power.

Everybody was right, although if the coup succeeded Diedere might have decided to stay in power himself. When the demonstrators who had forced Compaore out of power last year came out on the streets again, Diendere’s troops hosed them down with automatic weapons fire, killing fourteen and wounding hundreds. It was not the mob but the institutions that thwarted his ambitions.

The coup was instantly condemned by the African Union. “The AU considers the announcement by the military of the ‘dismissal’ of (interim) President Michel Kafando and the attempt of substituting him with ‘new authorities’ as null and void,” said the AU chairperson, South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

The regional organisation, the Economic Community for West African States (Ecowas), took a softer line, putting together a mediation team and offering the coup leaders amnesty despite the killings. But when civil society groups in Burkina Faso protested at the amnesty offer, the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, took the lead for West Africa.

Buhari, who was a military dictator 30 years ago, coming to power in one coup and losing it in aother, now describes himself as a “converted democrat”. He called Diendere’s coup a “brazen contravention” of Burkina Faso’s constitution and demanded that he withdraw. And Burkina Faso’s army, which had always resented the special privileges of the Presidential Guard, moved into the capital and told Diendere to surrender.

So he did, although there was a bit of shooting first. Now Diendere is under arrest facing eleven charges including “crimes against humanity,” the Presidential Guard has been disarmed and formally disbanded, and the election is back on again for 29 November.

The election will not solve all of Burkina Faso’s problems, but democracy might do it eventually. The country still has the lowest literacy rate in the world, it is still dirt poor, and the population (now 17 million) is still doubling every 25 years. But one thing is definitely changed for the better.

Most Burkinabes may be illiterate, but they have become aware of their rights and no longer accept the dictates of armed thugs in uniform without question. African institutions have changed too, and no longer turn a blind eye when a member country faces a military coup. They intervene promptly and decisively, and they generally succeed.

They are less good at dealing with countries where dictators hold regular elections whose outcomes they control through bribery, a monopoly of the mass media, or just plain police-state terror, like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. But more than half of the continent’s fifty countries are now more or less functional (though still quite corrupt) democracies.

The real value of democracy is that it requires the rule of law, which is the most important thing you need in order for economic growth to benefit people outside the political and business elite. People just won’t bother to invest and work hard if they know the proceeds are likely to be stolen.

The rule of law is never complete – even in the most developed countries, there is often one law for the rich and another for the poor – but the closer you get to the ideal the better your growth will be. People often miss this, thinking only in terms of human rights, and arguing that the economy, not democracy, must be the first priority for poor countries.

They are wrong. It is the rule of law that gradually shrinks corruption and gives people a reason to invest in their future, and you can’t have the rule of law without democracy. Burkina Faso in heading in the right direction, and so is Africa.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 12. (“Everybody…ambitions”; and “They are…democracies”)

African Union: The Limits of the Possible

1 January 2011

 African Union: The Limits of the Possible

 By Gwynne Dyer

  “It’s not a bluff,” said an adviser to Alassane Ouattara, the real winner in November’s presidential election in Ivory Coast, who is now besieged in a hotel in Abidjan, the capital, under United Nations protection. “The (African Union) soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks.” But it IS a bluff, and the AU is just undermining its own credibility by threatening to use force.

  The incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, who stole the Ivory Coast election by getting the Constitutional Council (headed by a crony) to invalidate many of Ouattara’s votes, still controls the capital and the army. His actions have been condemned by the United Nations, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United States and the European Union, but getting him out will not be easy.

  Gbagbo, once a history professor and a pro-democracy campaigner, has latterly turned himself into the self-appointed defender of the Christian peoples in the southern half of Ivory Coast. Now he says: “I do not believe at all in a civil war. But obviously, if the pressures continue as they have, they will push towards war, confrontation.”

  He knows about civil war, because one broke out two years after he was elected president in 2000. Military mutineers, mostly Muslim troops from the north who didn’t want to be demobilised and lose their jobs, attempted to seize power in Abidjan.

  They were quickly defeated in the capital, but other Muslim troops took control all across the north. French troops blocked them from moving south, and after a couple of months the divided country settled into the sullen cease-fire that has lasted for the past eight years. The civil war that Gbagbo is warning about would be the second round, not the first.

  Then why doesn’t he just accept his electoral defeat and quit? Partly because he just wants to stay in power, of course, but it’s not as simple as that. He has real support among the Christians of the south, because many of them see Alassane Ouattara as the democratic facade of a Muslim takeover bid that began with the military mutiny in 2002.

  The north-south division in Ivory Coast is real. The country has shifted from a narrow Christian majority twenty-five years ago to a Muslim majority today – and it has done so largely through illegal immigration from the much poorer, entirely Muslim countries to the north: Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea.

  About four million of the 21 million people now living in Ivory Coast are illegal immigrants, and almost all of those immigrants are Muslims. It has changed the electoral balance, because many of them register to vote, especially in the north of the country where they speak the same languages as the local citizens. Southerners are afraid that they will lose control, and so they back Gbagbo.

  It’s really a rich-poor problem, not a Christian-Muslim problem. The country’s agricultural resources, particularly the cocoa plantations that make Ivory Coast the wealthiest country in West Africa, are mainly in the south. Southerners think that a northern-led government would divert a lot of that income to the north, and they are probably right.

  That would only be fair, but southerners also believe that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants were allowed to register in the north, and that they all voted for Ouattara. They may be right, they may be wrong, but they believe it. So the November election didn’t solve the Ivorian problem; it exacerbated it.

  The African Union is determined to force Gbagbo to accept the election outcome because it wants to break with the past and make democratic elections the norm in Africa. It has had some recent successes in thwarting military coups, but the situation in Ivory Coast is a lot murkier, and direct intervention by the AU would be a lot harder.

  Armchair generals in the AU and ECOWAS talk boldly of military intervention to drive Gbagbo from power, referencing the successful operations to end civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in recent years. But Ivory Coast is five times bigger and richer than either of those countries, and its army can actually fight.

  Besides, where would the AU and ECOWAS find enough African troops to intervene effectively? Only Nigeria is big enough, but it is most unlikely to commit a lot of troops this year to what might be a real war in Ivory Coast. This is an election year in Nigeria, and body bags coming home as the voters go to the polls are rarely a vote-winner.

  The United States and the European Union have already imposed sanctions on Gbagbo’s government, and the Central Bank of West African States has blocked his access to Ivory Coast’s account. These are measures that will work slowly, if at all, but there is no alternative. Starting a war is rarely a good idea. Starting an unwinnable one never is.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Then…Guinea”)