Burkina Faso: The secrets behind the coup against Kaboré

By Benjamin Roger, Nadoun Coulibaly

Posted on Monday, 31 January 2022 16:28
President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, on the day of the first Council of Ministers of the new government led by Lassina Zerbo, in Ouagadougou, 15 December 2021. © Sophie Garcia / Hans Lucas / via AFP

He knew that part of the army did not trust him. He was also aware of the increasingly persistent rumours of a coup d’état in the making. Therefore, when Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré was informed at dawn on 23 January that gunfire was resounding at Camp Sangoulé Lamizana, he may have thought that – given what had happened to Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Guinea's Alpha Condé – his turn had finally come.

However, his entourage quickly relayed that it may just be a case of ‘simple mutiny’.

Officially, it was said that soldiers had fired the shots and that they had multiple demands: more resources and manpower, more consideration from the political authorities … everything except their president’s resignation. In reality, the much-feared putsch had begun.

Damiba and his men under pressure

Carefully thought-out and planned, this was the work of several young officers – including Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandoaga Damiba, commander of the 3rd military region, the largest in Burkina Faso – who were quite upset about how the security crisis that is undermining the country was being managed. On 10 January, the arrest of Lieutenant Colonel Emmanuel Zoungrana, who was in the class following Damiba’s at Kadiogo’s Prytanée Militaire and was accused of wanting to carry out a coup d’état, only made matters worse.

More than ever, Damiba and his fellow officers felt they were under pressure. They were already angry about the fact that some of their colleagues – such as Lieutenant-Colonel William Combary, the commander of the Ouagadougou mobile unit – had been dismissed after the rebel attack on Inata. The rumour that the government had a list of soldiers – nicknamed the ‘boys’ – that they wanted to let go set off the fire. “Ironically, the next one in line was Lieutenant-Colonel Damiba,” says a military source.

It is a miracle that no one was killed. This raises questions about the assailants’ intentions with regard to the President and members of his security team. Did they want survivors?

In the utmost secrecy, a decision was made to take action. During the night of 22 to 23 January, members of the Cobra units – the army’s special forces – based in Kamboinsé, in the northern suburbs of Ouagadougou, took over the Sangoulé Lamizana camp, where they disarmed the guards and quickly took control. At the same time, air force officers stationed at the airbase next to the capital’s airport joined in on the action. Accomplices at the artillery regiment in Kaya also rebelled.

Final attempts at negotiations

For the regime, the alert was very serious. Instead of going to mass with his wife and then staying with his family at home in the Patte d’Oie district, as he usually does, Kaboré spent his Sunday holed up in the ministerial villa, which serves as his second office, near Kosyam Palace. From there, he called up several ministers, politicians, officers and some of his foreign counterparts, including Alassane Ouattara, Macky Sall, Mohamed Bazoum and Emmanuel Macron.

He told them: “We are trying to manage the situation. We have started discussions with the mutineers and are hoping for a favourable outcome.” Attempts to negotiate with the coup plotters – who were demanding that the resignation of the government as well as several army chiefs – took place, but they were unsuccessful.

In the city, the situation vaguely seemed to be returning to normal. Shooting was becoming more and more sporadic. There were no reports of crowds in the streets. In the middle of the afternoon, at around 4pm, the round of 16 of the African Cup of Nations in Cameroon acted as a sort of truce, giving the illusion of a temporary return to calm. Despite the growing pressure, the head of state made efforts to appear serene and tried to reassure as best he could. While the military was threatening him, he wrote two tweets: one to encourage the Stallions before kick-off, the other to congratulate them once they had qualified.

Violent attack

After the match, Kaboré abandoned some of his protocol. Night fell, and at 8pm, the government introduced a curfew. The following morning, those who were still being referred to as ‘mutineers’ went on the offensive.

“The negotiations were a way to stall. We wanted to wait until the evening to take action,” says one of them. The coup plotters began by surrounding Kosyam Palace. They passed through the various checkpoints without much difficulty – although it has not yet been formally established whether the Groupement de Sécurité et de Protection Républicaine (GSPR, composed of soldiers, gendarmes and police officers), which is responsible for ensuring the presidency’s safety, was complicit. The coup plotters searched for the head of state throughout the area, making the rounds at the neighbouring ministerial villas.

Kaboré was nowhere to be found. At the same time, other soldiers who had rallied around Damiba surrounded the President’s private residence. His bodyguards decided to create a diversion by trying to force their way through with a convoy of vehicles. Two armoured 4×4 vehicles were riddled with bullets. The attack was violent. Two gendarmes from the presidential security force were seriously injured. One of them lost a finger.

“It is a miracle that no one was killed. This raises questions about the assailants’ intentions with regard to the President and members of his security team. Did they want survivors?” says a security source.

The head of state managed to get out, thanks to his security personnel. Where did he take refuge? The mutineers lost track of him. Some said he was being sheltered in Camp Paspanga, the gendarmerie camp in the city centre, but as a matter of fact, Kaboré was hiding in the base of the Escadron de Sécurité et d’Intervention a special unit dedicated to protecting public figures, located in the Karpala district.

Military versus gendarmes

Since they took action, the coup plotters had been wary of the reaction of the gendarmerie, which is reputedly loyal to Kaboré and which some soldiers have accused of being too pampered. Within the GSPR, the gendarmes make up his close security team. The Agence Nationale du Renseignement, on the other hand, is headed by Colonel François Ouédraogo, who is close to the head of state and was his aide de camp for a long time.

In recent weeks, this discreet character had been the focus of tensions within the army, particularly because he wanted his original corps to leave the  general staff and be placed directly under the minister of defence’s supervision. In the evening, the putschists machine-gunned his villa in Ouaga 2000.

As a sign of the putschists’ fears of the gendarmes, helicopters flew over the Paspanga camp for most of the night to monitor their possible movements. Behind the scenes, negotiations between soldiers had begun. Damiba’s objective was to ensure that the gendarmerie would not prevent the putsch from being carried out successfully.

14 men on television

On the morning of 24 January, the balance of power shifted in favour of the putschists. Almost the entire army was supporting them. They controlled the palace, Ouaga’s strategic points and had positioned tanks around the national television station in preparation for the announcement of their takeover. Still in a ‘safe place’ and under his close security team’s protection, according to those close to him, Kaboré had tried until the end to change the situation, but it was a lost cause.

He was still discussing with his counterparts, including Bazoum, the possibility of going abroad. According to a highly placed French source, Paris had no plans to invite him. “Kaboré did not ask us for help, so the question did not arise,” the source says. Cardinal Philippe Ouédraogo, who has mediated in various crises that have shaken Burkina Faso in recent years, had been called upon.

In view of the deteriorating security situation and Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s obvious inability to unite the Burkinabe […] the Mouvement Patriotique pour la Sauvegarde et la Restauration has decided to assume its responsibilities and face history.

The clock was ticking. Confusion reigned. No one knew exactly what was happening or where Kaboré was. The last gendarmes surrounding him were becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the coup plotters. Some feared a bloody outcome.

Kaboré wanted to do everything in his power to avoid this. After securing guarantees from Damiba for himself and his family, in Cardinal Ouédraogo’s presence, he signed his letter of resignation. The deposed head of state was discreetly handed over to the putschists. This time, the coup was well and truly over.

At around 5:30 pm, Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina broadcast a special bulletin that had been announced for hours. On their screens, Burkinabè saw 14 men in uniform on the set, recreating a scene that has become commonplace in West Africa in recent years.

Although Lieutenant Colonel Damiba was present, it was Captain Sidaoré Kader Ouédraogo who spoke. “In view of the deteriorating security situation and Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s obvious inability to unite the Burkinabe in order to effectively deal with the situation and following the exasperation expressed by the nation’s various groups, the Mouvement Patriotique pour la Sauvegarde et la Restauration has decided to assume its responsibilities and face history. The movement, which brings together all the defence and security forces’ components, thus decided to strip Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of his power on 24 January 2022.”

For his part, the now-former president has been transferred to one of the ministerial villas in Ouaga 2000. He is in the company of his personal doctor, Dr. Evariste Dabiré. According to one of his close friends, he says he is being treated well, is in good health and has been able to talk to some of his friends and family on the phone. His wife, Sika Kaboré, who had been kept safe since Sunday, was able to join him. This past weekend, the couple were due to celebrate their daughter’s wedding in Ouagadougou. However, the party will not take place at the Kaboré’s house after all.

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