East Bay’s Burkina Faso expats watch coup from afar

It’s hard for immigrants to be away from their home countries. It’s even harder when they learn that there’s been a coup back home where their friends and families still live. On September 16, military guards in Burkina Faso took over the airwaves, announcing that they were now in charge.

It’s hard for immigrants to be away from their home countries. It’s even harder when they learn that there’s been a coup back home where their friends and families still live.

On September 16, military guards in Burkina Faso took over the airwaves, announcing that they were now in charge. Soldiers led by General Gilbert Diendere abducted interim President Michel Kafando and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, holding them hostage in the capital of Ouagadougou, according to news reports. This marked the beginning of a week of unrest and violent protests in Ouagadougou that left at least 10 people dead and more than 100 others injured, according to a report by Amnesty International. President Kafando was reinstated on September 23 after several West African leaders mediated to help resolve the crisis, although his term as interim president is drawing to an end, and an election to replace him is expected later this fall.

Burkinabes living in the Bay Area say they are concerned about the safety of their friends and relatives back home. “My family lives in the capital, so immediately I was prompted to know their situation,” said Joshua Nikiema, a Burkinabe living San Francisco. “They said they could hear gunshots around the city.”

Burkina Faso is a nation of about 18 million people located in West Africa; it is a former colony of France. For the last 27 years, it has had a multi-party political system and a long history of high-ranking military officials winning office. With the exception of interim President Kafando, Burkina Faso has only had one other civilian president, Maurice Yamego.

The military guards responsible for the coup were part of the Régiment de Sécurité Présidentielle (RSP), a wing of the army put in place by former President Blaise Compaoré, who was ousted last October following mass protests. The RSP was responsible for meeting the security needs of the president and other top government officials during Compaoré’s rule.

This is not the first time a coup has occurred in Burkina Faso. The country has had four coups since it gained its independence 1960. Compaoré himself came to power through a 1987 coup that led to the ousting and assassination of then-president Thomas Sankara.

The unrest during the 10 days following the coup had a devastating effect on the lives on regular people and the country’s economy, say members of the Burkinabe community living in the Bay Area. Many shops and markets in the capital remained closed, making it hard for people to buy basic necessities. Rassidatou Konate, a Burkinabe living in Berkeley, said her family stayed home the entire week following the coup. “Everything was closed and it was really a hard time for a lot of people who didn’t have provisions,” she said.

Reporting a GDP of $12.54 billion in 2014, Burkina Faso ranks among the 20 poorest countries in the world, according to a report by Global Finance, a financial magazine based in New York City. The country’s Finance Minister Jean Gustave Sanon told Reuters that the coup cost Burkina Faso more than $50 million in lost revenue. But Michael Kevane, an associate professor of African development economics at Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business in California, said the coup “will not have long-lasting effects on the economy, because Burkina Faso is still largely an agrarian country and the coup was concentrated in Ouagadougou.”

The September coup happened just a month before the country was initially scheduled to have national elections on October 11. The elections are intended to select a new president following mass protests that led to the ousting of Compaore last year. Many local Burkinabes view the upcoming elections as “really good for democracy and a first step towards a more just and free society in Burkina Faso,” as Elisee Sare, a Burkinabe living in Oakland, put it.

“These elections are crucial to Burkina Faso because it’s the first time for us that we hope to get someone that is not from the military to be democratically elected,” said Nikiema.

Konate says she hopes people use this election “to really think about whether candidates are putting the interests of the country forward before their own. [Burkinabes] should use the events of the coup d’état to know who cares about the country and who doesn’t.”

The October elections have been postponed to later this year, a move that is being received with skepticism among Burkinabes living in the East Bay. The big question among them is whether it is realistic to plan to have an election so soon after the coup. “The coup is a setback,” Nikiema said. “You can’t organize an election when you still have investigations to do. We had killings and tensions that have to be taken care so we can have free and fair elections.”

According to a report by the Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante (CENI), the body that monitors elections in Burkina Faso, Burkinabes living abroad will not be able to vote unless they travel back home 15 days before the election.

Diendere, the general who led the coup, fled to the Vatican following the coup but later turned himself in to the authorities. Burkinabes in the East Bay say they hope that his will trial will be fair and just. “What gives me confidence is that now we are heading back to the right direction. We have opened investigations about what happened and they will find justice,” Nikiema said. “When we have justice, we will see people being ready to engage not only politically, but economically, for the better of the country.”

The Burkinabes interviewed for this story spoke more about how they were affected by the coup. Play the video at the top of the page to hear their stories.

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