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In Burkina Faso, the arrest of a civil society figure raises fears of a hardening of the junta

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Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba, leader of Burkina Faso's ruling junta, during a press conference with Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan on September 5, 2022.

In Burkina Faso, his face has become the symbol of discontent against the military junta in power since January. After the arrest in early September of activist Ollo Mathias Kambou, the hashtag #FreeKamao (“Free Kamao”, his nickname) flourishes on social networks. Friday, September 23, the prosecutor requested against him six months in prison, including three months firm, for “insult” to the leader of the junta, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, following several critical publications on Facebook. This is only the second time that the offense of insulting the president has been the subject of a trial in the country’s history – the first case concerned the Franco-Beninese polemicist Kémi Séba, found guilty of insulting President Roch Marc Christian Kabore in 2019.

On September 5, Ollo Mathias Kambou, a member of Balai Citoyen – a movement that spearheaded the 2014 insurrection – was arrested by plainclothes gendarmes outside the premises of the Omega TV channel, where he had just appeared on a talk show. The 35-year-old activist described it as“complete failure” Mr. Damiba’s record in power. The day before, on social networks, he had already pinned the speech just delivered by the Head of State, who welcomed a “relative calm” in some localities. “He missed a golden opportunity to shut his mouth as an unworthy, unpatriotic, traitor »he had lost his temper.

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This doctoral student in population science had been in the sights of power for some time, according to our information. “His publications were disturbing, he had been warned by an intermediary, telling him to calm down”, assures a source close to the activist. Guy-Hervé Kam, his lawyer, today denounces a trial “against freedom of expression”.

At the Ouagadougou High Court, the sometimes heated debates questioned the army’s coup against democracy, eight years after the fall of the regime of Blaise Compaoré, driven from power by the street. “We fought for our freedoms and today we want to condemn someone who gives his opinion? »castigated Prosper Farama, in defense, who also denounces “irregularities” during the arrest and custody by Mr. Kambou. “We can criticize, but with form! »annoyed the prosecution, citing “contemptuous remarks”. Judgment is expected on September 30.

” It’s the price to pay “

Several civil society organizations are alarmed in a press release“a desire to muzzle discordant voices to those of the MPSR”, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration, the name of the junta. While she was committed to “reclaim” the territory, it fails to stem the spread of jihadism, arousing many criticisms within the population. Several demonstrations have taken place in recent weeks in the north in the face of worsening insecurity. A rumble which some fear will in turn provoke a hardening of the putschists.

Junta leader goes so far as to accuse some media outlets of being ‘dangerous tools of subversion’

In June, the adoption of an enabling law in the Transitional Legislative Assembly, allowing the government to take measures by ordinance within the framework of the ” National Defense “had aroused the concern of jurists. “A catch-all text that could lead to liberticidal drifts”, points out Asseghna Somda, program officer at the Center for Democratic Governance (CGD). To fight against terrorist groups, Mr. Damiba ordered the creation of “areas of military interest” in the north and east, forcing the inhabitants to leave the area, otherwise they will be considered “hostile”.

The authorities also warn against the dissemination of false information or publications that could harm the “troop morale”. “This is the price to pay to get our country out of the rut”assured Mr. Damiba, who, in his speech of September 4, went so far as to accuse certain press organs of being “dangerous tools of subversion”. The putschist had set the tone in April by summoning media officials to the presidential palace. “Go tell those who criticize me without knowing me that the train has started, that it will arrive at its destination and that it is time to get on so as not to have any regrets! », he had cropped.

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Since then, the work of journalists has become more complicated. Pressure, attacks, censored broadcasts, private guests from televised debates… More than a dozen cases of press freedom violations have been documented by the Association of Journalists of Burkina (AJB) over the past eight months. “Journalists have become scapegoats. More and more are self-censoring for fear of reprisals”observes Guézouma Sanogo, the president of the AJB.

Acts of intimidation

As tensions rise between pro and anti-junta, acts of intimidation are also increasing against certain opponents. On August 4, a deputy and his supporters disrupted the launching ceremony of the Patriotic Front, a group of some thirty civil society organizations and political parties that calls for the ousting of the military junta in favor of a transition “legitimate and sovereign”. And on August 22, Serge Bayala, a former leader of the insurrection known for his strong positions, saw his car burned in front of his home. The government condemned “firmly” a “manifestation of violence from another age” and promised an investigation to find the perpetrators of the fire.

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“Private groups make the law and have replaced the state by seeking to repress those who criticize the power”, accuses Germain Bitiou Nama, the coordinator of the Patriotic Front. The day after Mr. Kambou’s arrest, a mobilization organized in front of the Central Brigade for the Fight against Cybercrime turned into a confrontation between activists from the Balai Citoyen and those from the Sauvons le Burkina movement, allied with the junta, making a wounded, under the helpless gaze of the security forces. The scene is a good illustration of the climate of resentment and discord that reigns within a deeply divided civil society.

“The authorities should play their role of regulator and ensure the neutrality of the transition process to try to unite and avoid the risk of confrontations”insists Asseghna Somda. “The putsch has everything of a restoration of the Compaoré regime and revenge on the former insurgents”, critic for his part Serge Bayala, who reports being the object of multiple hate messages and threats on social networks.

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