By Staff Reporter
Burkina Faso descended into political chaos on Thursday as the military seized power, dissolving the government and parliament after a day of violent protests in the capital.
The landlocked west African country is an important ally of the US and France, the former colonial power, in the war against Islamist extremists in the Sahel, the semi-desert region south of the Sahara, analysts and diplomats say.
The protests erupted after President Blaise Compaoré proposed a vote at the national assembly in Ouagadougou to allow him to run for a fifth five-year term in elections set for 2015. The vote was cancelled after demonstrators stormed parliament, set fire to the main chamber, and ransacked the national television station.
As night fell, Mr Compaoré declared a state of emergency and asked the opposition to call off protests. But barely an hour later the military staged what appeared a coup d’état, announcing the dissolution of the government and parliament.
General Honoré Traoré, chief of the army staff, said in a press conference surrounded by other senior military officials in fatigues, that a “transitional body” would be set up before a return to the constitutional order in a year. He did not say whether Mr Compaoré would be part of the transitional body.
France, which has a military base in Burkina Faso, said it deplored the violence, and called for “restraint” and “a return to calm”. The US also expressed concern. “We call on all parties, including the security forces, to end the violence and return to a peaceful process [built on] . . . hard-won democratic gains,” the White House said.
The crisis in Burkina Faso could complicate France’s plans to deploy thousands of soldiers in the Sahel to fight jihadis in countries such as neighbouring Mali, to the northwest, where Paris launched military operations two years ago. Burkina Faso has been seen traditionally as a country of relative stability in an otherwise volatile region.
Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, at frontier markets consultancy DaMina Advisors, said in a note to clients that Mr Compaoré has for nearly three decades been France’s ‘point man’ in west Africa, much like Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak was America’s in the Middle East until his fall from power in 2011.
“Compaoré‘s quiet, behind-the-scenes political, intelligence, financial and military support remains critical to maintaining the regimes of several domestically challenged west African governments,” he said.
Burkina Faso has shut down its borders and airlines have stopped flights. Privately owned media in the country reported that Ouagadougou was in turmoil, with black smoke seen billowing over official buildings and the residences of several government ministers.
Zephirin Diabre, a leading opposition politician, said on his Twitter account that he was opposed to anyone taking power by force. “We just want respect for democracy,” he wrote, adding in another post: “We totally oppose a coup d’état”.
Earlier in the day, demonstrators have claimed victory as the president cancelled the vote to extend his mandate. Cries of “It is over for the regime” and “We do not want him again” were heard when the protesters learned the vote had been cancelled, the Associated Press reported. Protesters were still in the streets as night fell, but the military declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
The protest against Mr Compaoré’s attempts to cling to power bode ill for other long-serving African leaders, from Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo to Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza. Both have hinted they may try to do the same.
Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan president, declared almost 20 years ago that “the problem of Africa . . . is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power”. Less than a decade later, he managed to rewrite Uganda’s constitution to serve a third term, and then a fourth.