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In Burkina Faso, all eyes on how post-coup leaders handle the old guard

For those who want to bolster democracy, the arrest of Gen. Gilbert Diendere and disarmament of the presidential guard are key to untangling 27 years of former President Compaore's regime.

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    Burkinabe President Michel Kafando speaks at a news conference after soldiers took control of the Naaba Koom military camp in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, September 30, 2015. Michel Kafando, the president of Burkina Faso, was back in charge on Wednesday and said he would resume overseeing a transition to democracy, ending a coup by presidential guard soldiers who took him hostage last week.
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Rene Kabore was serving food at a street-side cafe nearly two weeks ago when four members of Burkina Faso's presidential guard burst in.

A coup attempt was getting under way in the capital, and the elite force, known as the RSP, was accusing him of building a barricade that blocked the street.

“They said to him, ‘Boy, we won’t kill you but we will make you suffer',” says Jean Baptiste Djiguemde, the cafe owner, as Mr. Kabore protested his innocence.

Now nursing three bullet wounds in his left leg, Kabore demands that the unit, which operated unchecked under the regime of former President Blaise Compaore for decades and also forced the coup, be brought to justice.  

“I want them to go to prison,” he says. “Even after everything, we must not kill them.”

On Thursday, coup leader Gen. Gilbert Diendere was taken into custody by the Burkinabe security forces after trying to seek refuge at the Vatican embassy. Earlier in the week, the Army forced the disarmament of RSP guardsmen who had refused to surrender.

The coup was short-lived, with the civilian government regaining control in a week's time. The transitional government acted quickly to dissolve the elite squad in the days after the deal, a decision supported by the population but criticized by regional players as one that could further provoke the highly trained killing force.

But the coup also put a spotlight on the institutions that remain in place after Mr. Compaore was overthrown last year and replaced by an interim government, and stands as a stark reminder that dismantling the former president's repressive power structure could be a long-term fight.

For Kabore, and many here in Burkina Faso who protested to ensure that the coup leaders and the RSP would not receive amnesty under a regionally brokered deal, what happens next to the RSP – and other members of the old guard – will gauge how well Burkina Faso is taking steps toward true democracy after nearly three decades under Mr. Campaore's strongman rule. 

“The RSP is the elite army of Blaise Compaore… It’s the same family,” says Smockey, a musician and leader of the Balai Citoyen movement that helped topple Compaore. “If they’re still here, democracy is not here in Burkina Faso.”

Eliminating the old guard

A key issue in prompting the coup was the upcoming elections. Despite the recommendations of the international community to hold inclusive elections in October, the transitional government installed after Compaore’s removal supported a decision to ban former ruling party candidates from running in the October elections.

“This was one of the sparks that primed Diendere and the presidential guard to stage the recent coup,” says Brian Klaas, a comparative politics fellow at the London School of Economics. “It was becoming increasingly clear that there would be no room for the old guard in the elections.”

Elections will likely be rescheduled for November, but regional analysts agree that Burkina Faso must undergo at least two to three election cycles before it can be declared a country unlikely to slide back under the thumb of a strongman leader.

“Globally, more than half the attempts at democracy fail,” says Jay Ulfelder, former research director for the Political Instability Task Force. “The data alone suggests that [the first attempt at democracy] would fail and that you’d get a return to authoritarian rule.”

When you eliminate the old guard from the voting process, the likelihood of turmoil increases, he adds, pointing out that political transitions in Libya and Iraq failed after the old regimes were completely barred from the political process.

“A transition to democracy can only be successful if you do not take a wrecking ball to everything that came before,” says Mr. Klass.

Compaore economy

But it is does not appear that the reinstated transition government will take the recommendation. In response to popular pressure and in an effort to reassert control, they have so far ignored mediators' suggestions to offer amnesty to Mr. Diendere and the guard, and to open the election to candidates from Compaore's party.

But even with exclusion of former party candidates and the apparent dissolution of the RSP, many who took part in the institutions of the former regime – in varying degrees– will still play a role in the political process.

“The big challenge will be whether this newly elected regime can separate itself from the authoritarian practices of their former regime,” says Daniel Eizenga, a research associate at the University of Florida’s Sahel Research Group.

This includes the heavy cronyism under Compaore that contributed to a sputtering economy and a 46 percent poverty rate in the world’s third-poorest nation. According to Mr. Eizenga, it will be difficult to do away with that tradition since most candidates were heavily integrated and benefited from the Compaore economy.

“Under Compaore, if you wanted to open a business, to succeed in life, to do anything – you had to be part of the regime,” says Cynthia Ohayon of the International Crisis Group. “It was not just political but total economic domination.”

If a successful transition to democracy does occur under these terms over the next decade, the Burkinabe must still heal a national psyche collectively traumatized by the reign of the presidential guard and compounded by 27 years of impunity.

A brief drive through downtown Ouagadougou is a lesson in this history of impunity: “Justice for Zongo,” “Justice for Sankara,” “Justice for Diallo” – names of murdered political leaders, journalists, and students remains spray-painted across the city.

Trials and prosecutions will be on the agenda of the newly-elected president, but already the transitional government has made strides to prove to the population that justice will be a priority in the post-Compaore era. They have frozen the bank accounts of 14 individuals suspected to have orchestrated the coup and arrested some in connection with the plot, including Djibril Bassole, the former foreign affairs minister under Compaore

For Kabore, moving forward with members of the old regime is not an option.

“I need justice in my country," he says. "If we don’t have justice, we have nothing."

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