Close Encounter: Attorney, wife witness chaos from aborted 'coup' attempt

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

As a former Peace Corps volunteer in the West African country of Burkina Faso, Butzel Long attorney Mike Lavoie scored a “coup” of sorts earlier this year when he was chosen to present an “Award of Peace” to the Mogho Naba, the country’s revered “mediator monarch.”

Ironically, and nearly tragically, Lavoie and his wife Kristin, a Pontiac Middle School teacher, were present in Burkina Faso September 16 when a military coup threatened to topple the transitional government, sparking more than a week of violence in the country’s capital of Ouagadougou before order was restored and the takeover attempt thwarted.

“Needless to say, it was a very dangerous time after the violence erupted,” said Lavoie, who serves as president of the Friends of Burkina Faso (FBF), an organization dedicated to fostering goodwill between the U.S. and African country that was a former French colony. “Lives were lost and hopes for democratic reforms were at great risk, but the people of Burkina Faso rose up and the transitional government was restored to power.”

For Lavoie and his wife, the uprising was an “eye-opening experience that at times was hard to comprehend,” especially in light of their mission to honor a peacemaker.

“There is an old and very well known proverb in Burkina that says, ‘When the creek zig zags, the crocodile zig zags,’” Lavoie said. “That adage proved to be so true in the days ahead.”

The Lavoies departed for the landlocked country that is sandwiched between Ghana and Mali on September 10 and were scheduled to present the coveted award to “his Majesty” on September 19. The ceremony was slated for that date to coincide with the FBF Annual Membership Meeting in Washington, D.C.

“Little did we know that the Mogho Naba’s prior work for peace would soon be tested to its limit and proven exceptional to the challenge,” said Lavoie, who speaks fluent French and More, a tribal language of Burkina Faso.
In preparation for the ceremony, Lavoie enlisted his longtime friend from Burkina, Christophe Sandouidi, as a special envoy to help with arrangements. Sandouidi’s wife, Noelie, was “one of the children of my host family when I
served as a volunteer” in 1975-77, Lavoie said.

“The first important piece of Christophe’s arrangements dealt with scheduling a personal meeting with the Mogho Naba at his palace on September 15,” Lavoie explained. “That meeting started out in a side room of the palace and, after the Mogho Naba and I began communicating in the tribal language of More, he was so pleased with our interaction that he moved it into the throne room where it was photographed and recorded. There, we discussed the award, its reasons, and its importance in the context of his exceptional leadership efforts to advance the cause of peace in Burkina.”

The meeting ended “with growing excitement for the Saturday ceremony,” Lavoie said.

“The next day, Wednesday, Sept. 16, everything went upside down,” he related. “We were at the Peace Corps offices in Ouagadougou, at about 3 p.m., when the word came through that there was a coup d’etat. The president, Michel Kafando, and the prime minister, Isaac Zida, were overthrown and being held by the elite presidential guard led by General Gilbert Diendere.

“The presidential guard, known as the ‘RSP (Regiment Presidence Securite), took over the television (network) and took command in the office of the president and declared itself in charge. The RSP was notorious and widely disliked by the people for years of terrible abuses . . . Their coup d’etat disheartened and gutted the hopes of the people for democracy and the upcoming elections on October 11. It stood as a challenge to the prospect of democracy moving forward in Burkina and elsewhere on the continent.”

In the ensuing days, thousands of people, “both in the capital and from around the country,” marched throughout the streets of Ouagadougou in opposition to the coup, Lavoie said.

“Indeed, the opposition to the coup was so universal that the only supporters ended up being limited to little more than the RSP itself,” he explained. “Even the other branches of the military . . . joined the people in challenging the action of the RSP.”

Yet, according to Lavoie, the prospect of all-out conflict grew by the hour, as the “RSP was heavily armed with the weaponry of anti-terrorism that it had acquired over many years,” while opposition groups also “had formidable artillery and other weapons” that could escalate the stakes.

It was at that critical juncture that “the Mogho Naba, with all his moral force, entered the fray,” Lavoie said.

“Presidents and other regional leaders in Africa came to Burkina in an attempt to resolve the crisis,” he related. “Those efforts, however, were not successful as they became bogged down in negotiations to obtain amnesty for the RSP. In the wake of some 10 deaths and many more injured, the notion of blind amnesty was wholly unacceptable to the people. The Mogho Naba was able to achieve an interim resolution that forestalled military attacks as each side agreed to back off to a specified distance as further negotiations continued. The interim resolution also called for the RSP to put down its arms with guarantees of security for its members and families.”

With an interim peace accord and cease fire in place, Lavoie and others resumed plans for the “Award of Peace” ceremony, now scheduled for September 26.

“There were gifts of soccer balls and a peace bowl from the Pontiac Middle School where my wife teaches . . .” Lavoie said. “Equally important, Christophe and the weaving women of Namtenga had been working on a woven table runner upon which the peace statue could be placed. Christophe tended to the addition of imprinted figures of the American and Burkina flags along with other references to make it a suitable resting spot for the peace statue.”

The ceremony “unfolded with majesty, humility, and joy,” Lavoie said, as a host of dignitaries from Burkina, the U.S., and the Peace Corps attended. The U.S. ambassador to Burkina, Tulinabo S. Mushingi, was among the featured speakers, paying tribute to the “history of partnership” between the two countries and expressing gratitude to the more than 2,100 Peace Corps volunteers who have served in Burkina since 1967.

Lavoie then took the podium, delivering his remarks in a blend of French and More, expressing the “great benefits that volunteers have received over the decades through their absorption of the wisdom of Burkina culture and
traditions . . .” He praised the honoree as a “model for peace, not just in Burkina Faso, but also in Michigan and elsewhere in the United States among all friends of Burkina Faso.”

The presentation of the statue of peace was preceded by the gift of $2,000 to the Home Kisito Orphanage, the designated charity of the Mogho Naba.

Following the ceremony, the Mogho Naba went back to work in an effort to broker a lasting peace, according to Lavoie, summoning representatives of the RSP and military leaders to a meeting in which he “stressed forgiveness, mutual understanding, and the absolute necessity for peace as the non-negotiable element essential for all development in the future.”

Several days later, as Lavoie and his wife headed to the airport to board a plane back to the U.S., the “airport was again closed in expectation of a potential attack by the military against the RSP,” delaying their departure until tensions eased the following day.

“The next day, Wednesday, was a day unlike any other in Burkina,” Lavoie said. “More than a few people commented to me about how you could see new life and zeal for freedom and peace . . . There was a newfound sense that I personally detected throughout the capital that, while the rigors and difficulties of daily life were no less than before, they were now free of the dangers of oppression and injustice. In short, people unmistakably and widely wore the visage of peace.”

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