Burkina Faso's president detained by mutinous soldiers

Gunshots were heard near the president’s residence

Bullet holes are seen in a presidency car following heavy gunfire near the presidential residence  in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso on January 24. Reuters

Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kabore is being held by mutinous soldiers, two of the rebellious soldiers told the Associated Press by phone early on Monday.

They did not say where Kabore is being held, but said he is in a safe place.

Gunshots were heard late on Sunday night near the president’s residence and in the early hours of Monday a battle took place at the presidential palace while a helicopter flew overhead. The roads of the capital were empty on Sunday night except for checkpoints heavily guarded by mutinous soldiers.

State news station RTB was heavily guarded on Monday morning.

Fighting began on Sunday when soldiers took control of the Lamizana Sangoule military barracks in the capital, Ouagadougou. Civilians drove into town in a show of support for the rebellion but were broken up by security forces firing tear gas.

The mutiny came a day after a public demonstration calling for Mr Kabore’s resignation, the latest in a series of anti-Kabore protests as anger has mounted over his government’s handling of the Islamic insurgency.

The government has not made any statements since Sunday when Minister of Defence Aime Barthelemy Simpore told state broadcaster RTB that a few barracks had been affected by unrest not only in Ouagadougou but in other cities, too.

He denied, however, that the president had been detained by the mutineers, even though Mr Kabore’s whereabouts were unknown.

“Well, it’s a few barracks. There are not too many,” Simpore said.

Mr Kabore had been leading Burkina Faso since being elected in 2015 after a popular uprising ousted long-time strongman Blaise Compaore who held power for nearly three decades. Mr Kabore was re-elected in November 2020 for another five-year term, however, frustration has been growing at his inability to stem the spread of extremist violence across the country.

Attacks linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS are escalating, killing thousands and displacing more than an estimated 1.5 million people.

The military has suffered losses since the extremist violence began in 2016. In December more than 50 security forces were killed in the sub-Sahara region and nine security forces were killed in the Centre-North region in November.

Angry mutinous soldiers told AP that the government was disconnected from its forces in the field and that their colleagues were dying and they wanted military rule.

The soldiers put a man on the phone who said that they were seeking better working conditions for Burkina Faso’s military amid the escalating fight against Islamic militants. Among their demands are increased manpower in the battle against extremists and better care for those wounded and the families of the dead.

About 100 military members have planned the takeover since August, according to one of the mutinous soldiers. The organisers never met in the same location more than twice and always outside of the capital, he said. They used messaging apps such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegraph to plan, he said.

Regional experts say the government was overstretched but that it is unlikely the mutiny will change anything.

Burkina Faso soldiers outside the National TV centre in Ouagadougou. Mutinous troops in Burkina Faso arrested and detained President Roch Marc Christian Kabore and his ministers on Monday, demanding more resources for the battle against extremists. AFP
The detention and arrests came a day after soldiers at several barracks across the volatile West African country staged an uprising over the government's handling of the extremist threat. AFP

“Burkina Faso’s army is profoundly ill-equipped and unprepared for the war it’s asked to fight. It’s out of its depth. Its frustration with an equally out of its depth government is understandable. Regrettably, this (rebellion) is unlikely to improve anything,” said Michael Shurkin, a former political analyst at the CIA and director of global programmes at 14 North Strategies, a business intelligence consultancy based in Dakar, Senegal, who has concentrated on analysing West Africa’s sub-Sahara region for 15 years.

With the weekend protests, Burkina Faso’s population is already showing signs of supporting a takeover.

“People are tired with this situation of insecurity. Every day people are killed. In Burkina, there are areas that can’t be accessed. We have lost a big part of our territory,” said Jean-Baptiste Ilboudou a civilian near the military base where gunshots were heard.

The West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS, which already has suspended Mali and Guinea in the past 18 months over military coups, issued a statement of support for Burkina Faso’s embattled president and urged dialogue with the mutineers.

Earlier this month, authorities had arrested a group of soldiers accused of participating in a foiled coup plot. It was not immediately known whether there was any connection between those soldiers and the ones who led this coup. Military prosecutors said nine soldiers and two civilians were being held in connection with the plot.

West Africa has seen a spate of military coups in West Africa over the past 18 months, causing ECOWAS to suspend two member states simultaneously for the first time since 2012.

In August 2020, a mutiny at a Malian military barracks led to the democratically elected president being detained. He later announced his resignation on national television, and the junta leader there doesn’t want to hold new elections for four more years.

In September 2021, Guinea’s president also was overthrown by a military junta that remains in power.

Burkina Faso, too has seen its share of coup attempts and military takeovers. In 1987, Compaore came to power by force. And in 2015, soldiers loyal to him attempted to overthrow the transitional government put into place after his removal.

The army was ultimately able to put the transitional authorities back in power, who led again until Kabore won an election and took office.

Updated: January 24, 2022, 12:47 PM
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