The story of the elite presidential guard that overthrew Burkina Faso’s government

Protesting a coup.
Protesting a coup.
Image: Reuters/Joe Penney
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Burkina Faso is in the throes of a military coup led by a shadowy presidential guard that operates above the law and threatens to derail the fledgling democracy’s progress. Members of the Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP), allied with former president Blaise Compaoré, stormed a cabinet meeting yesterday (Sept. 16) arresting the interim president and prime minister, along with two other cabinet members. Military leaders have dissolved parliament and appointed Compaoré’s ex-chief of staff as president.

Burkina Faso is no stranger to military coups. Since the country’s independence in 1960, it has had four of them, including one that led to the ascendance of Compaoré, who ruled for 27 years before being ousted last year by popular protest. The latest coup in Ouagadougou, just three weeks before elections were to be held, is a culmination of months of tension between the transitional government and the RSP.

For much of the country’s tumultuous history, the RSP has occupied a unique place in political life. The 1,300-strong military unit began as a presidential bodyguard unit. After taking power, Compaoré expanded the unit’s role, turning it into a personal militia that answers directly to the president and operates outside the normal military chain of command.

Analysts say that Compaoré, wary of the military’s history of overthrowing governments, purposely positioned the RSP as a counterweight to the army. The unit is believed to be paid, trained, and treated better than the regular military and has been described as a “parallel army” that operates above the law. The RSP has been accused of firing on unarmed protesters and killing investigative journalists.

Even after Compaoré’s ouster from the presidency, the unit continued to be a force in Burkina Faso’s politics.

Compaoré fled amid mass protest in the capital last October over his attempt to change the constitution to extend his time in office. Initially, army chief of staff general Honoré Nabéré Traoré declared himself the transitional head of state. But a few hours later, Yacouba Isaac Zida, then deputy commander of the RSP, took over, anointing himself leader despite his lower rank. It was only after intense pressure from the African Union (AU), that Zida ceded power to Michel Kafando, the country’s UN ambassador, and took on the role of prime minister. Both Zida and Kafando were taken into custody, but will be released soon, the leader of the latest coup, general Gilbert Diendéré, is reported to have pledged.

Zida is ostensibly an ally of the RSP but he angered the unit after proposing last year that it be integrated into the military. The RSP had called for his resignation but a truce was eventually reached that allowed the RSP to remain independent while a commission was set up to determine the unit’s future. On Sept. 15, that commission recommended that the unit be dismantled. Diendéré, a longtime advisor to Compaoré, seized power soon after.

“The worrisome thing is that it’s not just the presidential guard unit based in the presidency that is involved in this attempted coup,” Stephanie Wolters, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg, told Quartz. “It also seems like the rest of the presidential guard—which is based all over the capital Ouagadougou—is also focusing its efforts on clamping down citizen protests.”

Analysts differ on the role RSP should play in Burkina Faso’s political transition. For the public, it represents unfinished business of the change that began last year with Compaoré’s ouster. Others say that no transition can happen without careful negotiations with the RSP. The leaders of the coup have promised “inclusive and peaceful” elections. But the latest assertion of power by this relatively small unit calls into question whether a democratic future is possible for Burkina Faso.