Popular resistance stopped the coup, by Sten Hagberg

Last week, Burkina Faso was breaking international news. In the midst of a government meeting, soldiers of the president’s security forces – the notorious Régiment de Sécurité Présidentielle (RSP) – took President Michel Kafando, Prime Minister Isaac Yacouba Zida and other members of the government in hostage and seized power under the command of General Gilbert Diendéré. The Burkinabe public reacted with anger and resistance. The One-Year Transition in power since the Burkinabe revolution ousted the President Blaise Compaoré from power when he tried to change the constitution and pave the way for a new term now witnessed the return of the phantoms of the past.

The coup was unanimously condemned by the international community: UN, AU, ECOWAS, the United States, France and other European countries were categorical in their condemnation. After a week, it was clear that the coup had failed. On Wednesday 23/9 Kafando was re-installed as President. In the course of seven days, the country went from political crisis and coup d’état to popular resistance and the return to civil rule. In this post, I show that the popular resistance was key to stopping the coup.

Virtually all Burkinabe seemed to refuse the military takeover. Civil society, political parties, trade unions, students, almost all the citizens expressed their disgust. Parliament’s President Chérif Sy took the initiative and led the resistance in his capacity as interim Head of State, given that President Kafando was unable to perform his duties.

Those who publicly supported the coup were merely some leaders of ex-President Blaise Compaorés party CDP and other parties in the former government coalition. Some, like Djibrill Bassolé, ex-minister of foreign affairs and now leader of a new party, NAFA, made an ambiguous declaration in which he condemned the use of arms and violence, while inviting the political class to overcome frustrations, resentments and the antagonisms that have characterized politics in recent years.

Apart from some leaders of the former political class, however, few citizens seemed to support the coup. The regular army did not support the coup either, even though many felt that the army remained very passive. In many regional cities, like Bobo-Dioulasso and Dori, demonstrations took place outside the regiments as to urge the army to take its responsibility and stop the coup.

From Thursday 17/9 and the coming days, soldiers from the president’s security forces (RSP) patrolled streets and neighborhoods of Ouagadougou. The population responded by building barricades to prevent RSP-soldiers from circulating in the streets. Social media abounded with images and eyewitness accounts, rumors and public statements. Social media became even more important since RSP attacked journalists and radio stations. A Resistance Radio began broadcasting on Friday, 18/9, that is, less than two days after the soldiers interrupted the government meeting.

During these days of violence and military repression, hundreds of people were injured and, according to preliminary figures, some 20 were killed. Some were hit by stray bullets, such as the 14-year-old girl who died of a bullet in her home, or the family that got a bullet straight into their evening dinner.

Whereas the RSP tried to control the capital Ouagadougou by means of curfew and street patrols, no other Burkinabe towns and cities obeyed the coup-makers. In coup-leader Diendéré’s hometown Yako people took to the streets and protested against the coup d’état. Some protesters attacked and destroyed Diendéré’s house. In Bobo-Dioulasso, Gaoua, Banfora, Dedougou, Ouahigouya, just to mention a few places, people took to the streets and refused to respect the curfew. Resistance mobilized people across the country.

On Friday 19/9 the ECOWAS mediators – Senegal’s President Macky Sall and Benin’s President Yayi Boni – arrived in Ouagadougou. Yet while diplomacy seemed to take over; the number of deaths and wounded continued to grow. Horrible images of dead bodies were circulating on social media, and the protests grew in intensity throughout the country. On Sunday evening 20/9 negotiators presented a draft agreement to be adopted by the ECOWAS summit meeting of the West African Heads of State in Abuja, Nigeria, on Tuesday 22/9. This draft, which allegedly was to a large extent elaborated in talks with coup-maker Diendéré, included a proposal for amnesty for the coup-makers. But civil society organizations, like Balai citoyen (Citizen Broom), said they had not been consulted, and President Kafando later declared that he had been informed of the draft agreement on Monday morning, like any other Burkinabe citizens.

Hence, the Burkinabe people rejected the draft. Civil society organizations and political parties claimed that that an amnesty was unthinkable. And now Burkinabe’s anger was also turned against the mediators, arguing that they wanted to accept the coup retroactively. Monday 21/9 the Burkinabe army finally started to intervene. Troops began to move to Ouagadougou from various garrisons around the country. When they arrived in the capital people were enthusiastically welcoming them. Yet the army wanted to avoid confrontation with the RSP-soldiers and launched negotiations with the coup-makers. The population was asked to stay at home.

On Tuesday 22/9, the risk for a military confrontation was imminent. At the same time, the ECOWAS meeting took place in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, where the Heads of State rejected the mediators’ draft proposal, as it was not in line with the Burkinabe people’s will. Hence, the strong Burkinabe mobilization against the coup had influenced the ECOWAS.

Meanwhile things moved on in Ouagadougou. Late on Tuesday night, the RSP and the army signed an agreement, including the disarming and retreat of RSP, at the palace of the traditional king Mogho Naaba in Ouagadougou. The king has substantial moral influence, a fact that made the contract significantly more binding.

On Wednesday 23/9 President Kafando was reinstalled. The coup had failed and coup-general Diendéré made a statement where he “regretted the coup” and did not “talk about it” any longer.

The Burkinabe revolution that took place in October 2014 was a protest against President Compaoré’s attempt to change the Constitution and, in practice, open up for life presidency. The popular upheaval led to Compaoré fleeing the country and to the elaboration of a Transitional Charter by Burkina Faso’s social and political forces.

The Burkinabe revolution has now been followed up by popular resistance against a coup d’état. On Friday 25/9 the government dissolved the security forces and started to disarm the RSP, and decided that the coup-makers will be brought to justice. In the medial dramatization, wars and crises get headlines, and for a few days, Burkina Faso was breaking news. When the coup d’état now is over and things start to return to normal the country’s news value sinks again. And, yet, the Burkinabe people’s revolution and resistance is more and more becoming an African model in the resolute defense of freedom and democracy. What is happening in Burkina Faso is likely to affect the entire African continent. Young people in Congo, Burundi, Benin and Senegal, to name a few countries, get inspiration from the Burkinabe Revolution and the Burkinabe people’s successful resistance to the coup d’état

Sten Hagberg is Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Chair of the Forum for Africa Studies at Uppsala University. He has done research in Burkina Faso since 1988, and is currently conducting research on municipal politics in Burkina Faso and Mali.


  1. I think even many of the Burkinabé military enlisted men, both in the RSP and the regular army, did not want to kill anybody. I saw RSP men carefully firing in the air at confrontations at checkpoints, and young men of the community opposition forces equally carefully throwing rocks so they would land harmlessly in the street. Tires and junk set up as barricades did not really block the street so much as slow traffic. Each side wanted its message to get across but not to burn bridges. Maybe the coup leaders and some hard-core members of the RSP were more bloody-minded, accounting for the 11 deaths at the demonstration the first night, but I think it speaks well of the good sense of the Burkinabé that there was, as far as I know, only one death after that, an RSP soldier who was apparently shot during a confused situation Tuesday night.

  2. And you’re right, it was popular resistance in the cities that stopped this coup. The Chef d’Etat Major and the other top Army officers would probably have gone along, after an initial show of reluctance, but the popular rebellion forced their hand.

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