OUAGADOUGOU (AFP) – Rival military factions laid claim to power in Burkina Faso on Saturday after the west African nation’s president fled following days of violent unrest over plans to extend his 27-year rule.
The leader of a group of young army officers, Isaac Zida, declared himself in charge, dismissing as “obsolete” an earlier such bid by the army chief and close ally of the ousted president.
The tussle for power comes after days of violent demonstrations against president Blaise Compaore’s longtime rule that saw parliament stormed and set ablaze, in protests closely watched across the continent where other veteran heads of state are also aiming to extend their rule.
After days of protests that brought tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital Ouagadougou, calm returned on Saturday, with shops reopening and calls by organisations behind the demonstrations for supporters to clean up the debris left behind.
In a televised appearance early Saturday, Zida, the second in command of the presidential guard, said he had assumed “the responsibilities of head of the transition and of head of state” to ensure a “smooth democratic transition”.
“The aspirations for democratic change” of the Burkina youth “will be neither betrayed, nor disappointed”, he said.
A rival claim made hours earlier by army chief Navere Honore Traore was “obsolete”, he said.
He said that former president Compaore, who was said to have fled the capital Ougadougou, was “in a safe place” and his “safety and well-being are assured”.
A French diplomatic source told AFP that Compaore was travelling south towards the town of Po near the border with Ghana and that he had not asked for refuge in France, the former colonial power.
The uprising in Burkina Faso, which has drawn parallels with the Arab Spring, was sparked by plans to change the constitution to allow Compaore to stand once again for elections next year.
Compaore is one of several sub-Saharan African leaders who have stayed in power for decades, and at least four heads of state are pressing for similar constitutional changes to cling to power.
Army chief Traore said on Friday that he was assuming power as head of state, a day after he ordered the dissolution of the government and a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
But many protesters are deeply opposed to him taking power, seeing him as a close ally of Compaore.
“We do not want General Traore in power. We need someone credible. Traore is Blaise Compaore’s henchman,” said Monou Tapsoaba, an activist with the opposition People’s Movement for Progress.
Zida appears to have more legitimacy with civil society. He appeared before large crowds alongside lawyer Guy Herve Kam, leader of the Citizen Broom group that helped lead the demonstrations, in Place de la Nation on Friday.
France’s President Francois Hollande vowed that Paris would “contribute to calming” the situation in its former colony, while Washington urged “a transfer of power in accordance with the constitution”.
The EU called for the people of Burkina Faso to have the final say in who rules their country.
The crisis is the worst in Burkina Faso since a wave of mutinies shook the country in 2011.
Compaore had initially rejected calls to resign. He withdrew plans for a vote on the constitutional changes but vowed to stay in power for another year.
He was only 36 when he seized power in a 1987 coup in which his former friend Thomas Sankara was ousted and assassinated.
His bid to cling to power angered many, particularly young people in a country where 60 per cent of the population of almost 17 million is under 25.
Many have spent their entire lives under the leadership of one man and are disillusioned by the establishment in the landlocked nation which is stagnating near the bottom of the UN human development index.
Known in colonial times as Upper Volta, the country became independent from France in 1960 and its name was changed to Burkina Faso (“the land of upright men”) in 1984.