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'People Don't Trust Him': Uncertainty Surrounds Colonel in Control of Burkina Faso

Military officer Isaac Zida has emerged from the shadows to declare himself interim head of state amid ongoing protests in Burkina Faso.
Photo by Joe Penney/Reuters

Little is known about Lieutenant Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida, a Burkinabé military officer who emerged from the shadows at 2am last Friday to declare himself interim head of state in Burkina Faso. Zida will lead the country's transitional government, following former president Blaise Compaoré's forced resignation last week after 27 years in office.

The 49-year-old Zida is powerfully built and he wears a thin, neatly trimmed mustache and frameless glasses. According to AFP, he studied in Lyon, France, and is married with three children. A career military officer, he was trained in the US, Morocco, and Cameroon, and previously served as a UN peacekeeper in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Popular with his men, he is one of the few members of the presidential guard spared by mutineers during a 2011 uprising.


Gilbert Diendéré, Compaoré's former chief of staff, told VICE News that Zida "does not have any political inclination. He is a career army officer."

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"Blaise Compaoré has nothing to do with choosing Isaac Zida as the interim president," Diendéré said. "It is the people's choice that was honored by the army. I know [Isaac Zida] well, we come from the same region and we have worked together. I think he will restore the constitution. He is here only to ensure the best possible transition, and I believe he will organize elections."

According to Diendéré, Zida has brokered talks between members of the opposition and the outgoing government at the headquarters of the economic and social council in central Ouagadougou.

"Everyone is waiting for consensus," Diendéré said. "Right now there is no government, no parliament. That's what we're hard at work on. I think it will be discussed with the opposition, but it is reasonable to expect that elections will take place 12 months from now."

'People don't trust him, they see him as a continuation of the current regime.'

Zida wasn't the first military leader in Burkina Faso to lay claim to the presidency. On Friday, General Nabéré Honoré Traoré announced that he was taking over, only to release a statement Saturday declaring that Zida had been chosen "unanimously [by the army] to lead the transition."


Cyriaque Paré, a journalist and founder of Burkina Faso's news website, told VICE News that Traoré's removal was self-explanatory.

"It is the argument of force that put Zida in power instead of Traoré," Paré said. "Zida controls most of the weapons, the presidential guard is superior [to the rest of the army] in the balance of power. It's a question of realism for other army officers. The presidential guard is particularly powerful. It numbers around 1,000 heavily armed men."

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Paré said that, while there is no doubt that Zida is the consensual figure of authority among army men, the general population still views him with suspicion due to his affiliation with the outgoing president's guard.

"Many people are asking for a civilian to head up the transition," Paré said. "People don't trust him, they see him as a continuation of the current regime."

Thousands of protesters took the streets of Ouagadougou over the weekend to protest against Zida and the military, with some holdings signs that's compared the colonel to Judas Iscariot. Paré, however, thinks Zida and the military are "sincere when they say they are not interested in power."

"They are striving for a short transition," he said. "In fact, Colonel Denise Auguste Barry declared that the military were not interested in the power. At any rate, we have no choice but to trust them in this situation."


Radio Omega, a local station in Ouagadougou, has been reporting closely on the ongoing protests. Speaking to VICE News, station director Jean-Paul Badoum explained that military hierarchy did not make Zida the obvious choice for the interim presidency.

"Until now, the colonel was not very well-known because he was working in the shadow of his boss, Bouréima Kéré," Badoum said, referring to the top ranking member of Compaoré's personal guard. "Everyone is extremely puzzled over why the person in charge of security didn't land the presidency, instead of his deputy."

Badoum offered his explanation for the sudden role reversal: An alliance between Zida and the president's former chief of staff.

"It just so happens that Gilbert Diendéré is from the same village as Lieutenant Zida," Badoum said. "Diendéré is too close to Compaoré; if he had replaced him directly, the situation would have been worse."

Zida's ascendance and suspension of the constitution has raised a chorus of international concern, including from the United States, which denounced "an attempt by Burkina Faso's army to impose its will on the people." Mediators from the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States have threatened economic sanctions unless civilian rule is returned.

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