Burkina Faso gov’t denies army takeover after barracks gunfire
The government denies the army seized control of the country after exchanges of gunfire at multiple army barracks.
Residents in Burkina Faso’s capital say gunfire erupted late on Sunday in the same area as embattled President Roch Marc Christian Kabore’s home, hours after mutinous soldiers seized control of a military base in Ouagadougou.
Government officials had sought to reassure people that the situation was under control even after exchanges of gunfire at multiple army barracks, including two in Ouagadougou, amid growing frustration with the government’s failure to prevent attacks by armed groups.
Several people in the area around Kabore’s home told The Associated Press and AFP news agencies that they had heard gunfire and there were helicopters hovering overhead. A mutinous soldier also told AP by phone that heavy fighting was under way near the presidential palace, a claim that could not immediately be independently corroborated.
The unrest at Sangoule Lamizana camp, which houses the army’s general staff and a prison whose inmates include soldiers involved in a failed 2015 coup attempt, began as early as 5am (05:00 GMT) on Sunday, according to a Reuters news agency reporter.
The reporter later saw soldiers firing into the air in the camp. A witness also reported gunfire at a military camp in Kaya, about 100km (62 miles) north of Ouagadougou. Shots were heard at another military camp, Baby Sy, in the south of the capital, and at an airbase near the airport, military sources said.
Speaking on national television on Sunday, Defence Minister General Bathelemy Simpore denied rumours that Kabore had been detained, and said the motive behind the gunfire was still unclear.
“The head of state has not been detained; no institution of the country has been threatened,” Simpore said. “For now, we don’t know their motives or what they are demanding. We are trying to get in contact with them,” he said, adding that calm had returned to some of the barracks.
The authorities later declared an overnight curfew from 8pm (20:00 GMT) “until further notice” and the education ministry said schools would be closed on Monday and Tuesday across the country.
Protesters siding with the mutinous soldiers had set fire to the headquarters of the ruling party in the capital earlier on Sunday, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.
The blaze destroyed the ground floor of the building of the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP) party, where protesters also vandalised the facade before being dispersed by police firing tear gas, the reporter said.
The unrest came a day after clashes between police and demonstrators during protests against the authorities’ failure to stem violence ravaging thecountry.
It also follows the arrest earlier this month of numerous soldiers over a suspected plot to “destabilise institutions” in the country, which has a long history of coups.
A soldier leading the mutiny in one barracks told Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, who is based in Senegal, that they had six demands for the government.
“One is hiring more troops to fight on the front lines against groups linked to ISIL [and] al-Qaeda,” Haque said.
“They also demand better care for the wounded and the families of those who lost their loved ones as well as better wages, training and forming of permanent battalions to deal with threats. [The mutineers’ demands] fall short of asking President Kabore to resign, but in their latest statement they say that if their demands are not met, then they will ask for Kabore to step down,” Haque added.
A voice recording obtained by AFP included similar demands.
“We want adequate resources for the battle” against hardline groups, a soldier from the Sangoule Lamizana base in Ouagadougou, was heard saying on the recording, the news agency said.
The disaffected soldiers also wanted top generals to be “replaced”, better care for wounded troops and more support for the families of soldiers killed in battle, the spokesman for the mutinous troops added in the anonymous recording.
Journalist Henry Wilkins, reporting from Ouagadougou, told Al Jazeera on Sunday evening that he did not think the government’s claims that the mutiny was under control were accurate.
“It doesn’t appear to be turning into a full-scale coup – I think mutiny is the certainly the best word to use to describe what’s happening at the moment. The mutiny is still ongoing however,” he said.
“And we are now hearing there could be plans to continue the mutiny into a second day, and possibly even merging the mutiny with protesters who tried to assemble in the centre of Ouagadougou [on Sunday] but were dispersed by police using tear gas.”
Alex Vines, director of the Africa programme at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera that a “mutiny that has ingredients of a coup is exactly the way to look at this”.
“We are now talking about a region which is seeing a swing back in favour of coups,” he said, after an attempted coup in Niger and successful coups in Mali and Guinea in recent years.
“We have had five successful or attempted coups [in the region] if you count them all together this decade, so Burkina Faso is fitting into that pattern.”
On Saturday, police had used tear gas to disperse protesters in rallies across the country, arresting dozens. The authorities earlier in the week said they were banning the protests for security reasons.
Groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) have plagued the landlocked Sahel nation since 2015, killing hundreds.
Attacks on civilians and soldiers have become increasingly frequent – and are largely concentrated in the country’s north and east. Security sources reported that two soldiers were killed after their vehicle drove over a crude bomb in the north on Saturday.
The violence has forced about 1.5 million people to flee their homes, the national emergency agency has said, and many have settled in the region around Kaya.
Al Jazeera’s Haque said the anger towards the president among the sections of the military has reportedly been building for months.
“In November, there was an attack in the north of the country in Inata, where 20 soldiers were killed. There was a national outcry when it turned out that those soldiers had gone two weeks without food rations and had to hunt for food,” he said. “That’s when they were attacked by groups linked to al-Qaeda.”
On November 27, hundreds demonstrated against Kabore’s failure to quell the violence, sparking clashes with security forces that wounded dozens.
Vines said it was significant that while the head of the military had appeared on television on Sunday, the president had not.
“It is very telling that President Kabore hasn’t been visible at the moment. It’s also very telling that this mutiny seems to have started in a military base where there is also a prison where some of the key military [figures] that were involved in the 2015 coup attempt are incarcerated.”
“This is a real reminder of the fragility of events in Burkina Faso at the moment, and also comes at a time when western support for the region is being reduced.”