The dust appears to have settled following the recent coup in the west African state of Burkina Faso. A televised statement on January 31 named Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba as interim leader and said that the independence of the judiciary as well as freedom of speech and movement had been restored. The Patriotic Movement for Preservation and Restoration – the name chosen by the interim military government – would, a spokesperson said, ensure “the continuity of the state pending the establishment of transitional bodies”.
The coup played out while the authors were in Ouagadougou, Burkina’s capital, researching local radio’s vital role in the country and organising a new training course on journalism, communication and conflict. We observed at close quarters how the media – both mainstream and social – influenced the way events unfolded.
Across much of Francophone western Africa, the control of the media – once an exclusive tool for governments – now appears increasingly disputed thanks to the internet. It has become an increasingly important factor at the core of power and politics.
On Sunday, January 23, Ouagadougou woke to the sound of gunfire. Rumours circulated, ranging from localised mutiny in military camps to a complete military takeover. Later that morning, a government communique issued via Twitter denied the coup. Sunday evening saw a short distraction when the national football team defeated Gabon in the African Cup of Nations, but a government-imposed curfew curtailed public celebrations.
On Monday morning, the People’s Movement for Progress – the political party of then-president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré – issued a desperate, yet largely ignored, call to arms, widely circulated via social media to the population and the international community to counter the ongoing attempt to destabilise the republican institutions. But by now, the military had seized the national TV broadcaster, Radio Télévision du Burkina (RTB) and later used it to announce the change of regime.
‘Soft’ power grabs
Burkina Faso’s political situation has been turbulent since 2014 when a popular uprising brought an end to the 27-year authoritarian regime of former president Blaise Compaoré. In September 2015, elements of an already divided military – the elite guard that had supported Compaoré – tried to unseat the transitional government and reinstate the former president. The regular army regained control and Kaboré, a former banker who had been prime minister from 1994 to 1996 and president of the National Assembly from 2002 to 2012, was democratically elected president in November 2015, pledging to unite the country and the military.
But his administration saw the growing presence of jihadist and other armed groups in the border regions with Mali and Niger, resulting in widespread instability in those areas. The most recent coup was led by officers who demanded the sacking of some army chiefs and better resources to fight extremists.
Hard and soft power
Military takeovers tend not to rely solely on “hard” weapons to take power, but must also use “soft” weapons, such as the media. Taking control of a national broadcaster, for example, is often as important as taking control of the parliament buildings and is usually one of coup plotters’ top priorities. In this way, new regimes can silence their opponent’s voice and ensure control of the main communication tool, enabling them to establish their control in the eyes of the population at large.
This can happen with or without the support of the public. In 2014, for example, during the uprising against Compaoré who was planning to change the constitution to run for a fifth consecutive term of office, the public not only supported the insurrection but actively participated in ransacking the National Assembly building and RTB, the national media, both symbols of state power.
In contrast, in 2015, when the aborted coup by Compaoré’s presidential guard did not have popular support, media outlets were used as channels to mobilise against the coup. In response, the military rebels ransacked their offices and physically abused journalists in a failed attempt to prevent their newly acquired power being undermined.
Rise of social media
In the run-up to, and during, the recent coup, both sides have tried to use social media to shore up their position. Following rapid broadband internet take-up in recent years, penetration now reaches more than 50% of the population. Facebook, which is accessed by more than 75% of internet users, is particularly popular.
Between November 2021 and the January 23 coup, the mobile internet was shut down by the authorities several times to combat what it referred to as misinformation and quell increasing unrest. It was a highly unpopular attempt to block this increasingly popular tool for public mobilisation.
Internet access was restored by the coup leaders on the second day of the coup, January 24. They recognised the power of the internet and used the switch-on first to garner favour with the public by giving it back the social media access it had been deprived of, and second, to inform the population of its takeover and establish legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
The seizing of the RTB offices, surrounding the building with tanks and troops at 9am the same day meant that the military was able to broadcast the success of its takeover via both mainstream and social media outlets. Kaboré, meanwhile, was under military guard, preventing him from accessing the airwaves.
A tweet, allegedly originating with Kaboré appeared at 2pm, calling on the military plotters to relinquish power. Whether or not it came from the beleaguered former president, it failed to mobilise any support for him.
From start to finish, the media – both mainstream and social – played a key role in the seizing of political power by the military. And, as more and more people in this Francophone nation gain access to social media, the more powerful it will become as a tool to mobilise support, something that is becoming an increasingly familiar story around the world.