THE landlocked West African country of Burkina Faso was gripped by a power struggle yesterday after two rival military leaders claimed to have seized control.
Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida, operational commander of the presidential guard, took to live television dressed in fatigues to declare he was in charge after president Blaise Compaoré stepped down last week amid protests and riots in the capital, Ouagadougou.
But opposition parties have rejected the claim and plan to hold large scale protests today.
Zida told a TV and radio audience: “I assume from today the responsibilities of head of this transition and head of state. I salute the memory of the martyrs of this uprising and bow to the sacrifices made by our people.”
His declaration, following reports of heavy gunfire near the presidential palace, came less than 24 hours after General Honoré Traoré, head of the armed forces, had said he had taken charge.
The confusion came amid reports Compaoré had fled to Ivory Coast after stepping down when violent public protests last week forced him to abandon plans to try to extend his 27-year rule.
Zida, an ally of the former leader, said the street protests that accompanied Compaoré’s departure amounted to an “insurrection” and not a coup, and that Compaoré was safe.
Zida was the second in command of the president’s security regiment. Having been in Burkina Faso’s ranks for more than two decades, he is liked by the lower ranks.
He called on the international community, including the African Union, to “support our people during this difficult ordeal”.
Zida also announced that borders had been closed, a transitional committee had been set up and the constitution had been suspended.
He said the “length and make-up of the transitional body will be decided later”.
The swift departure of Compaoré, who had first seized power after a 1987 coup and who later refashioned himself as a regional peace broker, leaves the impoverished country in a state of uncertainty.
Traoré, the joint chief of staff, told reporters on Friday that he would assume the presidency until elections were called. It was not immediately clear if Traoré accepted Zida’s announcement yesterday. Compaoré resigned on Friday, the day after protesters stormed the parliament and set it ablaze. He said a presidential election would be held in 90 days.
Burkina Faso hosts French special forces and serves as an important ally of both France and the US in the fight against al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in West Africa.
The US called on Burkina Faso’s military to follow “the constitutionally mandated process for the transfer of power and holding of democratic elections”.
“We condemn any attempts by the military or other parties to take advantage of the situation for unconstitutional gain and call on all parties to respect the people’s support for the democratic process,” said US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Zida said the army had stepped in to avoid anarchy and ensure a swift democratic transition.
Events will be carefully followed by other governments in West and Central Africa, where long-serving leaders are reaching the end of their constitutional terms in Benin, Congo Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo.