Burkina Faso Politics, Never a Dull Moment

A big controversy has erupted here over the last few days regarding recorded phone calls made by the leaders of September’s coup attempt. On Sunday, a local radio station put the recorded calls on their website, after reports about the existence of the recordings had circulated for several weeks. There were three calls on the website, the first between Djibril Bassolé, former Foreign Minister and (rejected) CDP presidential candidate and Guillaume Soro, president of the national assembly of Côte d’Ivoire, the next country down the road, and the other two of Soro with Gilbert Diendéré, leader of the now-disbanded RSP, the presidential security regiment at the heart of the coup attempt. In the conversation between Bassolé and Soro, recorded during the siege of the RSP camp by the regular military, Bassolé is heard calling for Ivoirian forces or disguised “green men” that Soro would hire to attack Burkinabè border posts in order to draw regular troops away from Ouagadougou. He complains about the amount of money he has on hand to motivate RSP troops to continue fighting, money that, it appears from the context of the conversation, was provided by Soro. In the conversation with Diendéré, the general says that some members of the unit have deserted despite the sums already paid to them. Soro tries to calm the general and, in a sly sort of way, may have suggested that he pursue the course of action he ultimately took, to seek refuge in the Papal embassy.

Soroguillaume

Guillaume Soro (image credit: Zenman via Wikimedia)

bassole

Djibril Bassolé (image credit: Lefaso.net)

Soro was leader of a militia during Côte d’Ivoire’s first civil war in 2003, and then was a supporter of President Laurent Gbagbo and served as Prime Minister. When Gbagbo refused to accept the results of the 2010 election, Soro switched his loyalty to the winner of that election, Alhassane Ouattara, and fought alongside Burkinabè “volunteers” from the national army, including RSP members, who succeeded in driving Gbagbo from power. In 2011 Soro was elected to parliament and he has remained a powerful figure in Ivorian politics and a close ally of president Ouattara. He is said to have close ties to former Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaoré, who is currently living in exile in Côte d’Ivoire. The implication is that the money that Soro appears from the intercepted conversations to have given to Bassolé and Diendéré came from Compaoré. Soro is also wanted in France for financial crimes.

During the Bassolé-Soro conversation, the two refer to political contributions made by a variety of outside groups including South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, to the MPP, the party of president-elect Roch Kaboré. There’s no suggestion as far as I can see that they are approving or facilitating or joining in these contributions. In fact, they sound upset, which makes sense since CDP loyalists think of Kaboré as a traitor who, more than anyone else, brought about the fall of Compaoré. However, the fact that the coup leaders mention these contributions, which have been an open secret here throughout the campaign, may taint Kaboré in the public’s mind as somehow associated with the CDP leaders.

And finally, last week, in an interview on a local radio station, the transitional government’s prime minister, General Yacouba Zida, off-handedly confirmed that the intercepted conversations were accurate and were recorded by the authorities, who were, of course, listening in on all communications from the besieged military camp thanks to their control of the national telephone exchange. In so doing, he kicked off a firestorm of controversy. The MPP is outraged that the rumor that they were receiving campaign contributions from foreign powers has now been officially confirmed. Zida pointed out that he wasn’t confirming what Bassolé had said, just that he had said it, but no help.  Lucky for Zida he’s leaving power on Friday and he has a guaranteed job as an army general.

I think it’s all a tempest in a teapot and nobody will say anything more about it by next week. This makes it especially important that Ouattara come to Ouagadougou for the swearing in of the new president. Obviously, the Ivorians were happier when Compaoré was in power. Burkina punched above its weight regionally with Compaoré at the helm. In addition to its role in Côte d’Ivoire’s civil wars, Burkina sent troops to Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, to Mali and Niger more recently, and as peace-keepers for African Union and UN missions around the world. The armored personnel carriers they had parked in front of the national radio station next to the university where I work for the last month or so were still painted UN white and blue. Ouattara has to realize that things have changed here and build a relationship with the new authorities, and he is nothing if not a realist so I assume he will be here with a big smile on his face.

When I was living in Togo, we didn’t have cell phones, and land lines worked only intermittently. When they did work, there were all sorts of clicks and whines, which we interpreted as signs that the government was listening to our conversations. With all the cell phones in this country – something like 12 million numbers for 17 million inhabitants, though most people with a phone have at least two numbers – the task of monitoring all communications would be harder. Still, a cell phone is a radio. You are broadcasting whenever you use one. You have to assume that anybody who really wants to listen in, can. It seems really foolish and out of character for these powerful men to have been using such an insecure means of communication for what was a really, really sensitive conversation. Sign of their desperation, I guess. They figured if they won it wasn’t going to make any difference, and if they lost they were already so deep in the soup that a little more would hardly hurt. And Soro knows that his position in Côte d’Ivoire is secure so long as he keeps his alliance with Ouattara and doesn’t take any vacations outside the country.

Incidentally, three days after the collapse of the coup attempt, there was an attack on a Burkina Faso border post near the Côte d’Ivoire frontier by masked gunmen. Three gendarmes and one attacker were killed. One assumes that Soro would have known that such attacks were pointless by that time but maybe he couldn’t recall the attackers or somebody just got trigger-happy. Nobody has ever claimed “credit” for the attack.

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