There can be no amnesty for any members of Burkina Faso’s elite presidential guard found to be responsible for the deaths of 14 unarmed civilians and the wounding of hundreds more in the days following the 16 September coup. This is the message human rights groups and the Burkinabe people want heard loud and clear now that the country is back on the path of democratic transition.
For ordinary civilians, the presidential guard, known as the RSP, has long been seen as its own private army, the enemy of the people, stalling progress, committing abuses and protecting the elite.
Roger Kabore, a mason in Ouagadougou, told IRIN he was so angry he was ready to go into the barracks and “flush the guards out with his own hands.”
“We’ve had enough with these guys,” he said. “They have harmed this country too many times and now we must try them for all that they did.”
Kabore also called for former president Blaise Compaore – who set up the RSP but was overthrown in a popular uprising last October after seeking to extend his 27-year term – to face trial as well, so the country could move forward peacefully.
Shot in the back
According to recent investigations by Amnesty International, at least six of the 14 latest victims were shot in the back while trying to flee after members of the RSP opened fire on peaceful demonstrations in the capital. Among the dead were two children.
Many of those wounded, including a pregnant woman who gave birth to a baby boy with a bullet wound on his buttocks, were hit by stray bullets while hiding out in their homes.
“What we saw time and time again was that demonstrators would protest with their arms in the air to show their lack of intent,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty’s deputy regional director for West and Central Africa, explaining that the RSP is then alleged to have chased them down and fired into crowds, pursuing people into populated areas, where bystanders were injured and killed.
Other victims were simply beaten or whipped.
“The patterns of abuse that we saw this time around show clearly they were not doing a legitimate policing function,” Cockburn told IRIN. “They were not trying to use non-lethal means to control the crowd.”
A history of violence and impunity
Earlier this year, an Amnesty report detailed how the RSP committed similar atrocities during the demonstrations that led to the ousting of Compaore in 2014.
“So this is a clear pattern of violation that is extremely important but also not new, and shows us that to prevent abuse to the people themselves, we need to get to the bottom of what happened and hold those responsible accountable,” Cockburn said.
The transitional government announced in early September that it planned to investigate the alleged shootings of civilians by the RSP last October and November, as well as the 1987 assassination of revolutionary icon and former president Thomas Sankara, whose murder, along with 12 other officials, was part of a coup organised by Compaore.
But two weeks after the announcement that the RSP would be investigated, the latest coup attempt happened. On 28 September, the transitional authorities created another Commission of Inquiry to bring the leaders of the coup to justice, but they made no mention of the earlier investigations into the RSP members.
In an initial effort to restore peace and order, and dissolve the RSP once and for all, many of its 1,300 members have since been reintegrated into the national army.
A necessary compromise? Perhaps. However, if the RSP guards who committed crimes are not held accountable, they could continue to pose a threat to civilians.
“Burkina Faso has a very significant history for many years of brushing over security forces and allowing impunity to continue to fester,” Cockburn said. “And it’s that lack of impunity and accountability that led security forces to go out into the streets and shoot civilians, because they thought there would not be consequences.”
Simon Regtoumda, a security guard for a local NGO in Ouagadougou, agreed. He told IRIN he was happy the RSP had been disbanded but said its former members couldn’t just be let off the hook.
“They were a threat to the citizens and to our quest for democracy because it seemed they still wanted to bring back the old and corrupt system,” he said. “Now that they have gone, we hope that there will be justice for those killed during the past 30 years.”
The RSP is also accused of assassinating investigative journalist Norbert Zongo and three colleagues in 1998, and is alleged to have been involved in the disappearances and deaths of more than 100 others, including civilians and soldiers, according to the Burkina Faso Human Rights and People’s Movement.
“The time has come to bring forward all unsolved crimes,” said Halidou Ouedraogo, president of the civilian election monitoring body CODEL. “The RSP may have been dissolved, but their crime cases have not been resolved.”