Is Burkina Faso’s elite guard still a threat?

Burkina Faso’s interim government adopted a decree last week dissolving the Presidential Security Regiment, which mounted a short-lived coup two weeks ago. But despite promises to disarm and subsequent interventions by the army, some RSP members still refuse to give up their weapons, leaving many to wonder if the elite force will continue to pose a threat to the transition to democracy.

Ever since long-term president Blaise Compaoré was ousted after the popular uprising on 30 and 31 October 2014, democracy advocates have wrestled with the troublesome issue of demilitarising politics. The armed forces have maintained almost exclusive control over the political scene since 1966, which is to say 49 of the 55 years since Burkina Faso gained independence in 1960.

The RSP, which was created in 1995, officially became “a large unit attached to the national army and at the disposition of the president” in July 2000, but is still thought of by most as an “army within the army,” or a body of troops loyal to and recruited by Compaoré. 

It is therefore unsurprising that the RSP remains a major concern for the stakeholders of transition. Following repeated calls from the general public, the National Reconciliation and Reform Commission (CRNR) submitted its general report to the prime minister on 15 September, officially recommending the RSP’s dissolution. 

Unfortunately, the actions of members of the RSP – two disruptions of the transition, the constant noise of intervention threats and finally the 16 September coup – have not helped calm people’s fears about the regiment.

Following the intervention of the regular army to enforce the 25 September dissolution decree, however, one can confidently say that the RSP no longer constitutes a threat to the transition of Burkina Faso. 

Indeed, absent a dramatic turnaround, the same forces that foiled the coup – the general population, the national army and pressure from the regional and international community – will always be there. 

The RSP is regarded as a professional and well-trained outfit, but, once disarmament is complete, its members will no longer have the equipment necessary to threaten actions that could sabotage the transitional process once again underway in Burkina Faso.

Moving forward

Nonetheless, it remains important to pay attention to a number of factors if the transition and post-transition phases are to proceed without further disruption. 

Firstly, we must ensure that members of the RSP, except those who need to be held to account for past actions, are reintegrated as quickly as possible into the national army. This will ensure that rather than finding themselves with no prospects, former RSP soldiers will still have a purpose. This will also enable the army to take advantage of the capabilities and competence of this elite corps, which most agree contains some of the highest quality personnel within the security forces. 

Secondly, after helping to ensure that the RSP has been totally dismantled, we must ensure that the army returns to barracks so the transition to control by civilian government can be completed. This must be done while ensuring that the army has the necessary means to ensure safety throughout the country. It must then help promote the integration of former members of the RSP into the regular army without finger-pointing or score-settling.

Finally, the people of Burkina Faso need to be listened to. They have already shown their strength and their ability to resist all attempts to challenge the transition, so they will remain a key driver of future events. 

While this power has proved beneficial, it comes with great responsibility. Both the authorities, and those who wish to help them, must work together in search of solutions to future challenges while respecting the rules. This will include taking any disputes that arise in the lead-up to the upcoming elections before the Court (and not into the street), while remembering always that peace, national cohesion and the consolidation of democracy in Burkina Faso are the only goals worth pursuing. 

*Mathias Hounkpe is the political governance program manager for the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).

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