Magazine article New African

Days of Thunder in Burkina

Magazine article New African

Days of Thunder in Burkina

Article excerpt

In power for 23 years now, President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso never dreamt of being put to flight by his own praetorian guard. But revolts by school children, followed by the army and traders in March and April, saw the strong man of Po fleeing his presidential palace and taking refuge in his home town. As S. Y. Cheriff reports from Ouagadougou, unless the president makes the right choices, there may be even worse to come

0N 22 February this year, schoolchildren took to the streets of Koudougou, a village about 100 km from the capital, Ouagadougou, to demand that light be thrown on the death of one of their fellow pupils who had been beaten up by policemen. When he died, the authorities claimed that his death was from meningitis. This angered the children so much that they pillaged public buildings and set them on fire. Many places were affected, and the riots worsened on the day of the funeral.

Four weeks later, on the night of 22-23 March, gunshots were heard in Ouagadougou. The army took the city hostage. Shops and businesses were looted and burned, and women were raped. The soldiers demanded the release of five of their number who had been tried and convicted of abuse and theft. Other military regions and towns followed suit.

The riots spread, and on 29-30 March, the capital witnessed a repeat performance. Cannons roared, and machine-guns rattled. The soldiers again filled the streets. The same scenes of pillage and rape were repeated, but this time there was also an attack on the residence of the minister of defence, the army headquarters, and the home of the mayor of Ouagadougou.

By 14-15 April, the Presidential Security Regiment (or the Regiment de la Securite Presidentielle, RSP) had entered the fray. They placed the city under military rule, pillaging, stealing and raping women. Ihey said that they were taking revenge on alleged cheating cooperatives of farmers, traders, and sundry businesses. The riots were so bad that President Blaise Compaore, whom they were supposed to be guarding, was forced to leave his palace and take refuge in his hometown about 30 km from the capital.

Both the chiefs of staff of the president and the RSP commander witnessed their homes being bombed and set on fire. It was a deep-seated, structural, and multidimensional crisis that put Burkina Faso in the eye of the storm.

The president had always been portrayed as a strong man in commando uniform, giving him the image of a man at the heart of his men, on whom his power rests; a man who inspires fear. He is a man from Po, a bastion of commandos based in the south of the country; and his Regiment de la Securite Presidentielle (RSP) has inspired admiration and envy in the military. For the ordinary citizen, the RSP is synonymous with fear, informed by memories of the purges after Thomas Sankara's Revolution in the mid-1980s.

When Compaore fled from the Palace of Kossyam to take refuge in Ziniare, many people were surprised at his exposed frailties. The young men of the RSP were responsible for his safety, and they were the ones who forced him to leave his palace, only to resubmit to him two days later.

Seeing General Gilbert Djiendere, the president's chief of staff and the man in whom he had put his trust since 1983, doing the bidding of the mutineers to the point where he burned down his own house shows the extent to which President Compaore had become indebted those who had secured his power-base. …

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