Burkina army strongman hands power to civilian leader

Lt-Col Isaac Zida (right) presenting the Burkinabe flag to interim civilian President Michel Kafando on Nov 21, 2014, at a stadium in Ouagadougou for a ceremony attended by six African heads of state. -- PHOTO: AFP
Lt-Col Isaac Zida (right) presenting the Burkinabe flag to interim civilian President Michel Kafando on Nov 21, 2014, at a stadium in Ouagadougou for a ceremony attended by six African heads of state. -- PHOTO: AFP

OUAGADOUGOU (AFP) - The army strongman in charge of Burkina Faso since the ouster of veteran leader Blaise Compaore three weeks ago, formally handed power to interim civilian President Michel Kafando on Friday.

Lieutenant-Colonel Zida presented a Burkinabe flag to Kafando, who waved it before the crowd gathered in a stadium in Ouagadougou for a ceremony attended by six African heads of state.

Zida has been named prime minister in Burkina's interim government despite international pressure for the army to stand back as the country makes a phased return to democratic rule.

His appointment will ensure the military retains a large say in running the country under Kafando, a 72-year-old former foreign minister and career diplomat.

Kafando vowed to punish those responsible for excesses during the 27-year-long rule of Compaore, who was very close to the likes of deposed Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi and Liberian warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, currently jailed for war crimes.

"We will settle accounts with all those who have abused justice and who think they can siphon off public funds," Kafando said.

"The message of the people is clear and we have heard it," he said. "No more injustice, no more chaos, no more corruption."

Six African heads of state - including that of Mauritania the current chair of the ECOWAS west African regional bloc - were present for the handover.

A seventh, Togo's President Faure Gnassingbe, was replaced at the last moment by his prime minister, as thousands of protesters - apparently inspired by the Burkina uprising - tried to march on his country's parliament.

Zida, 49, was appointed prime premier by Kafando on Wednesday, a day after the former UN ambassador was sworn in as interim leader.

Chosen following negotiations between political parties, the army and civil society, Kafando has emphasised his "humility" as a figure entrusted with "power that belongs to the people".

His ousted predecessor, meanwhile, flew into Morocco Friday on a visit from Ivory Coast where he fled after his long rule was ended on October 31 by a popular uprising against a constitutional change that could have enabled him to stay in power.

NO 'BANANA REPUBLIC'

Kafando has pledged he will not let his landlocked nation of 17 million people become a "banana republic", but observers have pointed to the powerful role the military is set to retain.

"Make no mistake, it's (Zida) who will lead the country," said a diplomat, on condition of anonymity.

Then second-in-command of the presidential guard, Zida was installed by the military in the immediate aftermath of the uprising against Compaore.

Under intense international pressure and the threat of sanctions if the military retained the post of head of state, an agreement was thrashed out to work towards elections in November 2015.

Zida is expected to name army officials to the key positions of defence, finance and social affairs in his new 25-member government on Saturday, said another diplomat.

They will lead a 90-seat parliament, known as the National Transitional Council, during the year-long administration.

Both Kafando and Zida are barred from standing in elections scheduled to be held in November next year under the transition deal.

On Wednesday, Zida urged the Burkinabe people and the international community "to accompany us without prejudice" towards a peaceful transition, insisting the government would make no "selfish calculations".

He has already dismissed the heads of two public companies close to Compaore's family, accusing them of "sabotage", and suspended municipal and regional councils widely held to be corrupt.

'ERROR OF JUDGEMENT'

Some civil society representtives said they were concerned over Zida's appointment, while some residents of the capital Ouagadougou called it a betrayal of their "revolution".

On Wednesday Compaore's party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress, said in a statement it had made a "an error of judgement" in trying to extend Compaore's rule.

Burkina Faso is known as the "land of upright men" since army captain Thomas Sankara came to power in a 1983 coup in the former Upper Volta.

Sankara, a widely loved Marxist and pan-Africanist young leader, was killed four years later when his former comrade in arms Compaore seized power.

Burkina Faso notably exports cotton and gold, but almost half the population lives on less than US$1 dollar a day and many are subsistence farmers.

Every change of regime in the country has been triggered by a coup since independence from France in 1960.