November 5, 2014 / 11:44 PM / 3 years ago

West African bloc presses Burkina for civilian leader

Lieutenant Colonel Yacouba Isaac Zida meets with opposition leaders in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, November 2, 2014.Joe Penney

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Three West African presidents urged Burkina Faso on Wednesday to appoint a civilian transitional leader within days to guide the country to elections next year following the people's overthrow of longtime ruler Blaise Compaore last week.

Ghana's President John Dramani Mahama led the delegation from the West African bloc ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) to help Burkina Faso plot a path to a civilian-led transition after the military named a senior army officer as head of state on Saturday.

Mahama, the current ECOWAS chairman, oversaw sometimes tumultuous talks with Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida, opposition politicians, Compaore's supporters, religious leaders and civil society groups. There was a general consensus in favor of a civilian-led interim government, he said.

"I have confidence and I believe that in days, rather than weeks, the people will come out with an interim leader," Mahama said while warning that delays in appointing a civilian administration could see the country punished with sanctions.

The African Union announced on Monday that although popular pressure led to the ousting of Compaore, the change had been undemocratic and stated that the body would apply sanctions if civilian rule was not reestablished within two weeks.

The United States said earlier this week that it had not yet decided if the military takeover constituted a coup, a distinction that would lead to an automatic suspension of military aid to one of the West's key allies in the region.

The ECOWAS troika, which also included Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan and Macky Sall of Senegal, had earlier said it expected the transition period to last up to one year, maintaining a November 2015 date for presidential elections.

They recommended that members of the interim authority should not be permitted to stand in elections next year.

A statement read at the end of the mission said that all of the consulted parties had agreed to reinstate the 1991 constitution, which Zida suspended upon assuming power.

But opposition, civil society and religious delegates rejected a request to name three candidates for the interim presidency, saying they needed more time.

Speaking to journalists on the sidelines of the meetings, President Sall said the troika had expected to have a decision on a transitional leader on Wednesday.

"But we realized there was no use in rushing and running the risk of compromising what we are seeking, which is why we are leaving a team of negotiators to continue the discussions," he said.

The troika will now travel to Accra, Ghana, for a special ECOWAS summit on Thursday that is expected to discuss the situation in Burkina Faso and the West African Ebola epidemic.

WARNED AGAINST CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE

"They understood that what happened here was a popular insurrection that cannot be treated as a vulgar coup d'etat," Zephirin Diabre, leader of the opposition, said after the meetings.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets last Thursday when Compaore tried to force through parliament a constitutional reform to allow him to seek reelection next year.

He resigned the next day as sometimes violent protests continued and was forced to flee to neighboring Ivory Coast with the help of France.

Mahama said regional leaders had attempted to talk Compaore out of the plan to change the national charter to extend his 27-year rule.

The military stepped in after Compaore's departure, dissolving the National Assembly and imposing a curfew. On Saturday, it appointed Zida, deputy commander of the presidential guard, as provisional head of state.

As international pressure mounted for a civilian to take the reins of the transition, Zida promised on Monday to quickly cede power to a transitional government.

Despite a checkered past including accusations that he backed rebels during the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Compaore had reinvented himself as a regional power broker and Western ally against Islamist militants.

France has a special forces unit and surveillance drones based there as part of its regional counter-terrorism operation, and senior advisors to Compaore have negotiated the release of numerous Western hostages seized in the region.

The country, which is emerging as one of Africa's top gold producers, also played a mediation role in the crises in neighboring Mali and Ivory Coast.

Zida, previously considered a close ally of the president, received counter-terrorism training in the United States in 2012 on recommendation from the U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou. He attended a second U.S. military course in Botswana.

His was the second recent takeover by a U.S.-trained military officer in the region after Amadou Sanogo, a captain in the army of neighboring Mali, overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure in 2012.

The coup allowed al Qaeda-linked Islamists to seize Mali's desert north and raised questions about whether the U.S. military was doing enough to instill respect for democratic governance in the foreign officers it trained.

Additional reporting by Mathieu Bonkougou and Nadoun Coulibaly in Ouagadougou and Daniel Flynn in Dakar; Writing by Bate Felix and Joe Bavier; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Toni Reinhold

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