After a night of explosions and heavy firing in the southern Ouagadougou neighborhood where many of my friends in Burkina live, the government is announcing this morning that they have retaken the positions held by the coup plotters. Most important is the Camp Naaba Koom, the headquarters of the RSP and location of the stockpile of what became, apparently, the entire stockpile of the Burkina Faso military’s heavy weapons in 2011.
Here’s a Gendarmerie armored car rolling through the streets of the city this morning (thanks to Burkina24.com for the photo).
And here is another view of an armored car and some soldiers from, I think, the Para-Commandos, on one of the roads outside the Naaba Koom facility yesterday afternoon (again, photo credit to Burkina24.com). Notice that they guy facing away from us on the left is wearing, apparently, tennis shoes. Something white, anyway.
The back story, apparently, is that in 2011 the military went on strike, because they had not been paid for a while. Apparently Blaise Compaoré violated the first rule in the Idiot’s Guide to Being an Evil Overlord, which is “always pay the guys with guns first.” It seems that Burkinabé soldiers were being sent on unacknowledged missions to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and, in large numbers, to Cote d’Ivoire in 2010, with promises of extra pay and special payments to the families of any guys who got killed. These promises were not being fulfilled and so the army mutinied. Anyway, in that conflict, the RSP won out (they had been getting paid), and Blaise, after firing, imprisoning, and/or shooting the ringleaders of the mutiny, transferred all the heavy weapons from all the army to Naaba Koom where his loyal regiment could keep them under lock and key. The rest of the army was left with rifles, machineguns, and RPGs. The US and France saw this as a bad move given regional instability – neighboring countries Mali and Niger are having big trouble with jihadist insurrections, and over in Nigeria/Chad/Cameroon there is Boko Haram – so we started giving new weapons to the regular army, along with training, but Compaore’s government would only accept light arms such as the armored cars pictured above.
For readers who don’t pay much attention to military affairs, these are pretty vulnerable vehicles. They have armor sufficient to keep out a rifle or machinegun bullet, but an RPG round would go right through and kill everybody inside, and even the 20mm autocannon they are armed with (sort of like really really big machineguns) could probably penetrate. Look at the thickness of the armor on the back door of the vehicle open in the second photo and compare to the thickness of the armor on the American army’s Bradley IFV in this photo:
(An older photo, probably from Iraq, and non-sourced)
And the Bradley has been criticized for being insufficiently well-protected. The Burkina Army vehicles are mine-resistant, probably, but that just means they might protect the people inside them from an explosion from below, not that they would still be operable afterwards. The tires are a weak spot, too – they are no doubt solid rubber so a few bullets won’t stop them, but any sort of explosion would tear them up and leave the vehicle greatly hampered in moving around. And that was the heaviest equipment the regular military had until last weekend.
So the position of the RSP was vulnerable, as I said, to a siege, and they were few in number, but they held the city hostage with their multiple rocket launchers (like the WW2 Katyushas or Nebelwerfers), field artillery, armored vehicles with real cannons, and the like. Some of that heavy equipment was taken over by the regular military on Sunday when, for a brief period, the RSP was cooperating with disarmament, but ultimately most remained in the hands of the hard-liners.
But the army moved in anyway last night. There doesn’t appear to have been heavy damage to facilities, either the city neighborhood or the presidential palace and RSP barracks. This leads me to wonder if there was either some sort of accommodation or if the rebels fled to avoid a fight – and might still regroup outside the city.
The government’s triumphant announcement (here’s a link, to the French text) stresses the threat of foreign fighters as potential reinforcements for the hard-line RSP people as a reason that they had to move quickly. They certainly had a lot of contacts with foreign militaries and Blaise Compaoré, as a long-time friend of Muhammar Quaddafi’s, presumably is in contact with people in Libya who might well be willing to fight for a sufficient payment. And Compaoré, at least, still has plenty of money, having been busy padding his retirement savings accounts for his 27 years in power. However, it is still unclear if he had anything to do with the coup. General Diendéré was a long-time henchman of Compaoré, but that doesn’t mean he was acting on his behalf in this case. The motives of and future potential for harm posed by the coup plotters remains unclear at this moment and we can only wait for the next step.
For me, the next step is a Friday return to Burkina. The airport is open once again (now the government has the RSPs stockpile of anti-aircraft missiles). Brenda said that she would un-suspend the Fulbright program as of today though we’ll see if these recent developments have encouraged her caution. The opening of schools is now set for October 8th, and I hope to be there to see it.