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Military disputes post-coup leadership in Burkina Faso


Two military leaders have claimed the presidency of Burkina Faso in the hours since President Blaise Compaoré resigned on Friday after protesters stormed parliament and set the building ablaze, ending his 27-year reign.

Protesters had been angered by Compaoré’s attempts to alter the constitution to allow him to seek another term in elections next year.

But it now seems that a struggle is going on within the military for control of the West African country.

Lieutenant Colonel Yacouba Zida quickly announced he was filling the vacuum left by Compaoré, but hours later a general made a similar declaration.

Zida said that he would lead the transition back to democracy in a recorded address posted early Saturday on the website of a national television station.

“While we wait to define in a consensual manner, with all of the political parties and civil society organisations, the contours and composition of this peaceful democratic transition, I will henceforth assume, from today, the responsibilities of the head of this transition and the head of state,” he said.

But earlier in the day, General Honore Traore, the joint chief of staff, had told a packed room of reporters that he would assume the presidency until elections were called.

When he resigned Compaoré said a vote would be held in 90 days, but Zida said the “length and makeup of the transitional body will be decided later”.

Fast-moving events

Compaoré went from looking likely to rush a bill through parliament that would let him seek a fifth term, to agreeing to step down next year, to abandoning office immediately over the course of several dramatic hours.

The quick succession of events took many by surprise, since Compaoré had long out-maneuvered his adversaries and has in recent years become an important regional mediator.

Burkina Faso hosts French special forces and serves as an important ally of both France and the United States in the fight against Islamic militants in West Africa.

Nevertheless, French President François Hollande was quick to “salute” Compaoré’s decision to resign.

Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the US State Department, called for democratic elections.

“We condemn any attempts by the military or other parties to take advantage of the situation for unconstitutional gain and call on all parties to respect the people’s support for the democratic process,” she said in a statement released late Friday.

While he was respected on the international stage, critics also noted that, under Compaoré’s semi-authoritarian rule, the country of 18 million people remained mired in poverty. The landlocked country’s fortunes rise and fall with gold and cotton prices – and adequate rain in a region plagued by drought.

In the end, Compaoré was pushed from power by violent protests and an emboldened opposition that would accept nothing short of his resignation. It is an outcome that is sure to resonate in other African nations where leaders have pushed through constitutional changes to prolong their mandates.

“I declare that I’m leaving power,” Compaoré said in a statement. “For my part, I think I have fulfilled my duty.”

Cheering crowds

Thousands of opposition protesters gathered Friday in a square in the capital and burst into cheers when they heard the announcement of his resignation on hand-held radios.

Compaoré, 63, was headed south to the city of Po, near the border with Ghana, a French diplomatic official said on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the situation.

For months, an opposition coalition had been urging Compaoré not to seek
re-election. But Compaoré and his ruling party appeared ready on Thursday to
push through a bill that would have allowed him to run again next year.

Determined to block the vote, protesters stormed the parliament building, setting part of it on fire. At least three people were killed in the protests, according to Amnesty International, and dozens of demonstrators were shot.

Images of flames enveloping the legislature, cars burning in the streets and protesters massing in the capital raised the spectre of a long stand-off. But events moved swiftly, with Zida announcing that the country’s borders had been closed, a transitional committee had been established and the constitution had been suspended.

After that, Compaoré said he would lead until the new elections. Protesters rejected that plan and gathered again Friday, demanding that Compaoré step down immediately.

A divisive ruler

Compaoré first came to power following the October 1987 coup against then-President Thomas Sankara, Compaoré’s longtime friend and political ally who was killed in the power grab.

For many, his legacy begins and ends with the death of Sankara, a well-regarded statesman whose death was widely viewed as a setback for the entire continent.

Compaoré has reinvented himself many times over the years. As a young man, he was in the military. He became justice minister when troops marched on Ouagadougou, the capital, in 1983 and installed Sankara as president.

After he took power in his own coup, he developed a reputation as a meddler and a supporter of regional conflicts. He openly supported Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord turned president, though he denied active involvement in the Liberian conflict. Compaoré also was accused of supporting rebel groups in Ivory Coast and Angola.

More recently, he had refashioned himself as an elder statesman who brokered electoral disputes and hostage releases throughout West Africa. Domestically, he kept a tight leash on any opposition, never groomed a viable political heir and fought off threats to his power.

In 2011 waves of protests washed over Burkina Faso, challenging Compaoré’s rule, and mutinous soldiers occupied the palace at one point, forcing the president to flee.

But what would have spelled the end for many presidents was a temporary setback for Compaoré. He maneuvered to stay in power by removing his security chiefs and appointing himself defense minister before returning to Ouagadougou.