When Colonel Isaac Zida swapped his military fatigues for a blue suit to chair his first cabinet meeting as prime minister of Burkina Faso, his intended audience may have been the West and its African allies.
While some diplomats have voiced unease about the military’s role in politics since protests toppled long-time ruler Blaise Compaore in October, few Burkinabe are concerned as long as the soldiers protect their ‘revolution’ and push through demanded reforms.
Although a handful of people were shot in the uprising, Zida won the hearts of protesters when the presidential guard troops he commanded refused to open fire on crowds as they stormed parliament.
He was then cheered as a hero when he addressed protesters in Independence Square – inviting comparisons with left-wing hero Captain Thomas Sankara who ruled Burkina Faso from 1983-1987.
“If you see us getting on with the soldiers today, it is because these soldiers stuck to their mission, which was to protect, rather than shoot, the people,” said Michel Kafando, the new interim president, whose cabinet includes six military officers.
“They will stay with us as they have shown proof of their loyalty to the people … Otherwise we might have slipped into civil war,” he added in an interview with France 24.
Underscoring their role at the heart of the revolution, the military organised a state funeral this week attended by thousands for six civilians killed in the uprising.
Mourners at the ceremony carried posters of Zida’s face next to that of Sankara, showing how successfully the colonel has tapped into memories of the beloved president killed in the 1987 coup that brought Compaore to power.
Zida is portraying the army as defender of the revolution. His pledges of reforms, including investigations into corruption and unexplained deaths during the Compaore era, are popular.
“The justice department will have lots of work. It will play a central role in this transition,” Zida told the nation.
The military’s rise, though, is largely by default. Opposition politicians had stopped short of calling for Compaore to be ousted even as protests gathered pace against his efforts to rejig the constitution to seek re-election next year.
Events moved faster than Compaore’s enemies imagined. Having halted the parliamentary vote on constitutional change, crowds marched on his palace, forcing him to quit. At his party’s headquarters in town, beers and food laid out in anticipation of a successful vote were consumed by ecstatic protesters.
“The political class wasn’t ready. Youth maintained the pressure so the army did what the people wanted,” said Luc Marius Ibriga, a law professor and civil society leader.
Sidelining a senior Compaore-era general who staked a claim for power, Zida and a collection of young officers cemented support from other leaders, especially a movement called Balai Citoyen, led by a rapper and a reggae singer who captured the spirit of Burkina Faso’s disgruntled, unemployed youth.
Facing threats of sanctions by the African Union, Zida handed power over to Kafando before being named as prime minister of an interim government tasked with leading the country to elections within a year.
He retained the defence portfolio and fellow soldiers head five other ministries, including those in charge of lucrative gold mines, security, communication and organising elections.
“We would liked to have had an all-civilian government but this is realpolitik,” said Ibriga.
Burkina Faso’s army is no stranger to politics. Soldiers were in and out of power through a series of military takeovers before Compaore, then an army captain, seized control in 1987.
Despite opening up politics in the early 1990s, Compaore maintained a tight grip and military officers were never far from the heart of decision making.
Augustin Loada, a civil society leader now in government, said this left a legacy that needed careful management. “The demilitarisation of power can only happen once we have an elected president,” he said.
Compaore’s bid to cling to power united against him a diverse range of players, including former political allies who defected this year.
Pascal Marie Ilboudo, a member of the MPP party they set up, said he backed Zida’s calls for justice for crimes committed under Compaore but said the colonel should not be allowed to get “too used to the taste of power”.
Ibriga said Burkinabe leaders had not appreciated lecturing by foreign envoys who had said little as Compaore rolled out his plan to extend his 27-year rule but then jetted in to tell them how to manage a transition back to civilian rule.
“They told us it was a transition to hold elections. We told them that wasn’t what we want as it wouldn’t be addressing the causes of the uprising,” he said. “We need truth and justice. We have to lay the foundations of the new Burkina.”
Rinaldo Depagne, head of the International Crisis Group in West Africa, said there were likely to be tensions between parties keen for an election as soon as possible and other players prioritising reforms.
The new government also faces cash shortages as the impact of the uprising hits investments and government revenues ranging from taxes to bond sales. “They need to clearly decide what they want to achieve,” Depagne said.