Thoughts on the latest coup in Burkina Faso

The Daily Nation reports:

Burkina Faso’s presidential guard declared a coup Thursday a day after seizing the interim president and senior government members, as the country geared up for its first elections since the overthrow of longtime leader Blaise Compaore.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mamadou Bamba appeared on national television to declare that a new “National Democratic Council” had put an end “to the deviant regime of transition” in the west African state.

Announcing the coup, Bamba said that “wide-ranging talks” were being held to form a government leading to “inclusive and peaceful elections.” Presidential guard members linked to ex-leader Compaore had burst into a cabinet meeting Wednesday and seized acting president Michel Kafando, prime Minister Isaac Zida and two ministers. Zida was himself once an officer in Compaore’s powerful Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), before he toppled his old boss after days of street protests in October 2014.

This is the second coup in Burkina Faso in a year, sinking the country deeper into the coup trap (see here and here for brief takes on last year’s coup). Blaise Compaore’s former Chief of Staff, Gen Gilbert Diendere, has declared himself the new head of a military government in Ougadougou.

The coup raises two important questions about the transition process following last year’s coup:

  • Were elections planned too soon?
  • Was it wise for the constitutional court to completely sideline allies of Compaore from government despite the fact that they still wielded considerable de facto power (especially within the armed forces?)

Obviously the international community wanted to exit the scene as soon as possible. And elections provide a nice and easy way to do so. The practice stems from a perverse fetishization of elections as a generator of legitimacy, accountability, and stability. As a student of legislatures in Africa, one of the main takeaways from my work is that we (the international community, development professionals, academics) continue to ignore the role of intra-elite politics (and accountability chains) at enormous cost. We know that the biggest threat to rulers comes from regime insiders and fellow elites. We also know that revolutions and mass protests that topple bad leaders are rare events. So why do we continue to bury our heads in the sand and imagine that voters are the magical answer to problems of weak governance and elite political instability.

This is not to say that elections (i.e. mechanisms that reinforce vertical accountability) are completely useless. Rather, it is a reminder that elections should be designed to serve the dual purpose of keeping elites accountable and strengthening, rather than weakening, systems of intra-elite accountability. The historical experience in Africa and elsewhere and the logics of collective action demand this.

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