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”)