September 17, 2015 / 5:42 PM / 3 years ago

Burkina Faso's Diendere, the spy-master running a coup

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Gilbert Diendere, the shadowy general behind this week’s coup in Burkina Faso, is West Africa’s pre-eminent spy-master, hostage negotiator and the former right-hand man of Blaise Compaore, ousted as president a year ago in a popular uprising.

Members of the presidential guard look for protesters in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Joe Penney

Diendere was a soldier in his 20s when he played a central role in a 1983 coup that set a group of young officers including Compaore and Thomas Sankara, now an African folk hero, on a path to reinvent the poor, landlocked former French colony.

Four years later, after Sankara was killed during a Compaore-led putsch, Diendere emerged as the quiet power behind the new leader. He would remain so until Compaore’s 27-year rule ended amid mass street protests last year.

“He became Compaore’s shadow,” said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. “He’s kind of a Burkinabe J. Edgar Hoover. Diendere is a master of intelligence, information, organisation and control.”

As Compaore’s personal military chief of staff, Diendere, a towering figure with a bone-crushing grip, was arguably the second most powerful man in Burkina Faso for nearly three decades.

“He’s got that persona where you are like ‘Hey, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of this guy if he’s angry or out to get me’,” said one Western military officer who met him.

Diendere’s position also placed him at the centre of an intricate web of cross-border intrigues in one of the world’s most unstable regions.

FROM PARIAH TO VALUED ALLY

A protege of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Compaore was accused of backing Liberian warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor and hand-chopping Revolutionary United Front fighters in Sierra Leone in the 1990s and of later hosting rebels from Ivory Coast.

He has denied meddling in the affairs of his neighbours.

Over the past decade, however, Diendere’s extensive regional connections helped Compaore transform himself from international pariah into regional peacemaker and a key ally in the West’s battle against Islamist militants.

“Army officers, both French and American, liked him (Diendere),” said Depagne. “He was someone very easy to work with and very well informed, not only in Burkina but all over West Africa and especially in the Sahel region.”

French troops trained with Compaore’s Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), the 1,200-troop strong elite unit that was a key pillar of his rule and over which Diendere exerts de facto command.

The general was involved in delicate negotiations with al Qaeda-linked groups, appearing in front of television cameras with freed European hostages.

Despite Compaore’s overthrow last October and the RSP’s fraught relationship with the transitional authorities that replaced him, Diendere took part in the U.S. military’s annual ‘Flintlock’ counter-terrorism exercises in Chad in February.

Observers are now trying to understand why the consummate behind-the-scenes player has thrust himself into the spotlight at the helm of a military junta.

While the immediate spark for the putsch appears to be a call this week for the RSP presidential guard to be dismantled, there may be more to it.

“This is going to ensure they have a seat at the table, because right now they don’t,” said the Western officer. “It could be the RSP in survival mode. It could be Compaore behind the scenes trying to manoeuvre.”

Editing by Catherine Evans

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