“Nothing will be like before.” These were the words I kept hearing in Burkina Faso in the months after President Blaise Compaoré was forced to resign last year.
They came from the mouths of all kinds of people: from rural and urban areas; young and old; male and female; rich and poor. These words were more than a slogan. They were a belief which reflected a new mood of optimism in a country whose population had helped end the autocratic 27-year rule of President Compaoré in a heady week-long nationwide protest.
The protests, which had begun in October 2014 and culminated in the resignation of President Compaoré, were seen as a new chapter for a country whose history had been troubled by recurrent coups and impunity for serious human rights violations. With women’s rights newly on the agenda and parliament due to vote on abolition of the death penalty, Burkina Faso looked set to be making significant progress on human right. The country’s history of impunity even looked as if it would be challenged as the government promised to investigate the killing of civilians by the military a year ago.
And then came last week’s coup.
On 16 September members of Burkina Faso's presidential security regiment (RSP) raided a cabinet meeting, detained the interim President and the Prime Minister and declared they were taking over the country. Government was dissolved, crowds took to the streets, at least 10 people were killed and more than 100 injured following clashes between RSP and protesters.
The coup was widely condemned with the African Union suspending Burkina Faso’s membership. However initial efforts at mediation by the West Africa's regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), worryingly included a possible amnesty for General Diendéré and the RSP for crimes committed during the coup. This was vocally rejected by civil society groups. The idea of offering immunity for those who have committed serious human rights violations would not have been a good precedent for ECOWAS who should push for all those responsible for human rights violations to be investigated and brought to justice through fair trials without the option of the death penalty.
Then this week as the army marched on Ouagadougou and ECOWAS mediator met in Abuja, General Diendéré apologized for the leading the coup and promised to restore civilian government. Then on Wednesday 23 September, interim leader Michel Kafando was returned to the Presidential Palace and some normality returned to a country which has seen more than its fair share of upheaval.
President Compaoré was tough on dissent and for years presided over the unlawful and arbitrary arrest and detention of protesters. Investigations into torture and extrajudicial killings of former President Thomas Sankara and journalist Norbert Zongo have never led to justice being served. Ultimately it was President Compaoré’s attempt to alter the constitution to extend term limits and further prolong his own rule which led to his overthrow in 2014. During the uprising which finally toppled Compaoré at least 10 protesters were killed and hundreds were injured by the military and presidential guard. The National Reconciliation and Reforms Commission’s report into these shootings and their recommendation that the RSP be disbanded may have been one of the key triggers for last week’s coup.
During the week of the coup, soldiers silenced most of the country’s privately owned radio and TV stations and took control of the state-owned broadcaster. Security forces used excessive force against peaceful protests, with hospitals in Ouagadougou reporting seeing civilians with gunshot wounds.
I was last in Burkina Faso in July alongside the Association for the Advancement of Women and Children to launch a campaign calling on all electoral candidates to sign the Manifesto for Human Rights. There was genuine excitement around this new manifesto co-authored by 30 national and international organizations and local civil society organizations and designed to help defend the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls,. A phrase I kept hearing in homes and offices - “Let’s keep on moving” – demonstrated the thirst among everyday people to overcome the daily barriers to greater respect for human rights.
The response to the manifesto among the country’s leaders was fantastic. Four presidential candidates signed a commitment to prioritize action on women and girls’ rights if elected and the president of the National Transition Council and the Minister of Justice and Human Rights and the traditional king, Moro Naaba, also signed the manifesto. Other candidates who received the manifesto promised to sign it. In a country with the seventh highest rate for child marriage in the world where only 17% of women use contraception and more than 2,000 women die in childbirth every year, these were very welcome commitments.
Although the elections, originally scheduled for 11 October, may have been postponed, the desire for greater freedoms is unlikely to have been quelled. If anything, this week’s extraordinary events will only have served to re-emphasize the value and importance of people’s essential rights. Moreover, it has reignited their hope that Burkina Faso - a nation whose name translates as “land of honest people” - will get the leaders of integrity they so richly deserve.