Hope for an end to military meddling in Burkina Faso?

As Burkina Faso's new government takes shape, defining the role of the armed forces will be one of the state's main challenges.

Following a troubled, 13-month transition period that culminated in a peaceful election on 29 November last year, Burkina Faso swore in Roch Marc Christian Kaboré as its new president on 29 December 2015. 

As the new cabinet takes shape, the role of the military in the country’s political and institutional landscape will be one of many challenges for the new authorities.

The military has been at the forefront of the Burkinabe political scene since 1966, when General Sangoulé Aboubacar Lamizana overthrew Maurice Yaméogo ­– the country’s first president after independence. The 1966 coup d’état marked the beginning of military interference in the country’s institutional sphere. Similar government takeovers took place in November 1980, November 1982, August 1983 and October 1987, when Captain Blaise Compaoré rose to power.

Compaoré put in place a military regime, which, after 27 years, transitioned to civilian rule. His government was ousted in October 2014 through a popular insurrection, in which the army also played an important role.

The role of the army in Burkinabe politics remains a major challenge for the new government

Compaoré’s regime depended heavily on the elite security service known as the Regiment of Presidential Security (Régiment de sécurité présidentielle, RSP). Despite the former president’s ousting, the RSP continued to interfere in the political transition process. Some of its members, under the leadership of General Gilbert Diendéré, were responsible for the 17 September 2015 coup attempt, which resulted in the disintegration of the corps.

The coup d’état pointed to a lack of concrete progress in neutralising the RSP. During the first post-putsch cabinet meeting, it had been decided that the RSP should be disarmed and reintegrated into other army postings. That some of these soldiers could continue to threaten the country’s security and stability remains a cause for concern. The dismantling of the RSP created an important security gap, which must be addressed with urgency given volatility in the region and the backdrop of instability in the country.

Other than its efforts to break up the RSP, the transition government had taken other measures aimed at reducing military interference in the country’s politics and institutions. A new law, adopted on 5 June 2015 by the Council for National Transition, deals directly with the status of personnel in the national armed forces. Article 12 of this law stipulates that the military is to be separated from political affairs; specifically stating that military personnel who wish to engage in politics must first resign from the army. In addition, military personnel are prohibited from joining political groupings.

In 55 years of independence, Burkina Faso experienced 49 years of military rule

According to the law of 5 June, military staff members who renounce a military post to pursue a political position are not allowed to re-join their original corps, regardless of the outcome of their political aspirations.

This is a notable change from the previous law, which gave military personnel the option to run for office after taking a leave of absence. This meant that previously, personnel could put their military career on hold and be reinstated into the armed forces if they lost an election or ceased their political activities.

The new law certainly put an end to debate regarding the candidacy of certain military personnel in the upcoming elections. The requirement to resign from the military could also discourage future opportunistic candidacies within the army.

Through the ban on joining politically affiliated groups or associations, the law aims to insulate the army from political influences. Implementing this law should ensure that the army and military personnel are devoted to their mission of defending and protecting the national territory, the population and the institutions of the Republic, thus reinforcing their neutrality. This is a step in the right direction, but it is important to be realistic about the effectiveness of the new law and the difficulties of its implementation.

In a country that experienced 49 years of military rule during 55 years of independence, some members of the military might be tempted to continue with their old behaviour and resist the new requirements. It is also important to note that military personnel could find other channels to influence politics.

Reforming the Burkinabe armed forces will be a long-term process

The links that exist between political and military actors remain a reality of Burkinabe politics – and these allow for the collusion of interests and the exploitation of certain elements within the army for political gain.

These links are based on the very nature of the old regime, with the RSP having existed as its ‘armed wing’. Nevertheless, changes in the political system over the past 13 months seem to have reduced this possibility.

Beyond a radical separation between politics and the army, which could be superficial, the armed forces should focus on professional improvement and a sense of national pride. The commission on army reform, put in place on 8 December, is currently working towards this objective.

The commission has six months to report on the role of the national armed forces in anchoring the country’s democracy. These proposals should allow for a definitive separation of the army from politics. Its conclusions should also facilitate the development of a 2017-2021 strategic plan on the reform of the national armed forces.

Reforming the armed forces will be a long-term process, and the new authorities should address this complex task in a comprehensive way. They must thus work to strengthen the political neutrality of the armed forces, enhance cohesion amongst its ranks, and improve discipline and operational capacities, such as training and equipment. Only in this way can Burkina Faso hope to break away from a past marked by successive coups d’état and to truly embody the slogan that ‘nothing will be like before’.

Pascaline Compaoré, Junior Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risks Analysis Division, ISS Dakar

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