Burkina Faso: second coup further dents hope of democracy
Burkina Faso has seen its second coup this year, with one army leader replacing another. The context – and pretext for the coup – is a continuing jihadist insurgency that successive governments have proved unable to control. Behind the new junta’s promise to deal with the crisis may lie an invitation to Russian mercenaries, already heavily engaged in military-run Mali. Russia is developing African influence to offset criticism over its war on Ukraine. Burkina Faso isn’t the first country where people weary of insecurity have welcomed a coup and the prospect of Russian intervention. But a democratic transition is the only way to ensure proper oversight over military forces.
Hopes of a transition to democracy in Burkina Faso have suffered another setback.
On 30 September, public TV broadcasts were interrupted by the announcement that a group of soldiers had seized power from President Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, a lieutenant-colonel who led the January coup that deposed a democratically elected government. A few days later, Damiba announced his resignation and fled into exile in Togo, averting the possibility of clashes between rival army factions. Shortly after, coup leader Ibrahim Traoré, a 34-year old little-known army captain, was declared president and head of the armed forces, becoming the world’s youngest head of state.
A context of insecurity
Traoré’s justification for the coup was Damiba’s inability to get a grip on the jihadist insurgency that plagues large parts of the country. Jihadis who spilled over the border with Mali have firmly established themselves in Burkina Faso. It’s estimated the government controls only 60 per cent of the country’s territory. For many people, the consequence is danger and misery. In the last three years, around 7,000 Burkinabe people have been killed and 1.5 million forced from their homes.
Damiba had also justified his coup on security grounds, lambasting the elected government and promising to deal with the insurgency. But the security situation was unchanged, and power has now been taken away from him on the same grounds.
Just as happened after the first coup, some people took to the streets to celebrate the second one, hoping improved security would follow. As last time, pro-coup protesters shouted slogans against France, the former colonial power. France still has a considerable military presence in Burkina Faso but is widely seen as having failed to deal with the problem.
Protesters attacked the French Embassy in the capital, Ouagadougou, and a French cultural centre in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso, after false rumours were spread by a junta member that Damiba had relocated to a French base to launch a counteroffensive.
Protesters also shouted slogans against the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional intergovernmental body currently facing the challenge of military rule in two other member countries – Guinea and Mali – alongside Burkina Faso. ECOWAS has been trying to insist that juntas commit to plans and timelines for democratic transition. When an ECOWAS delegation visited Burkina Faso shortly after the latest coup, people came out to protest. Disturbingly, they also waved Russian flags.
Russia’s African strategy
Burkina Faso seems set to become the next African country to ally with Russia. In several countries Russian mercenaries from the shady Wagner Group have been imported as a supposed solution to insurgency and as an alternative to the French forces that have increasingly been called into question.
The danger is that, if the country falls under Russia’s influence, cooperation with democratic states may become impossible.
Mali’s military junta has led the way here. In February it expelled the French ambassador, and in August the last French troops left Mali, bringing a nine-year mission to an end. The gap has been filled by Wagner mercenaries. This September’s opening session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly offered the grotesque spectacle of Mali’s prime minister, Abdoulaye Maiga, praising his country’s ‘exemplary and fruitful’ cooperation with Russia while condemning remnants of colonialism, even as Russia continues to wage a colonial war with brutal civilian impacts in Ukraine. Criticising France is undoubtedly a popular strategy that has helped Mali’s military junta divert public anger about insecurity and delay any transition to civilian rule.
Russia might have been expected to pull back from Africa to concentrate its resources on its war with Ukraine, particularly given recent Ukrainian gains. But if anything, it appears to have doubled down on its campaign to win friends in Africa, evidently with the intention of offsetting diplomatic pressure from elsewhere.
There’s a strong financial incentive too: Wagner Group forces exploit Africa’s mineral and natural wealth, channelling resources back to Russia’s ruling elite and helping finance its war. Mali remains Russia’s shop window and Wagner has kept its boots on the ground there.
Mali is just one of at least six African countries where Wagner forces are reportedly involved. They now include Sudan, where the military has been in power since a September 2021 coup and is violently repressing democracy protests. Pro-Russian social media content is also increasingly being shared in African countries.
It seems the campaign for influence is paying off. At the recent UN Human Rights Council meeting that passed a resolution to monitor Russia’s human rights violations, not a single African state voted against Russia: Eritrea voted against the resolution and the other 12 African members of the Council abstained, enabling Russia to claim the vote lacked broad support.
There’s every indication Burkina Faso could soon join the ranks of Russia’s supporters. One of the frustrations the coup leaders had with Damiba was that he apparently backtracked on a promise to involve Russia and was seen as still too close to France. Traoré’s followers have called for Russian involvement. Among those who praised Traoré and welcomed the coup were Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, close friend of Vladimir Putin and currently subject to European Union and US sanctions. There’s even speculation Russia was involved in the coup.
Traoré has said he wants to move faster and get rid of all the ‘unnecessary red tape’ – which may signal an intention to use Russian forces as a perceived shortcut. He may well feel he has no choice if he is to keep onside those who supported his coup on the basis of his promise to improve security. As an inexperienced leader of relatively junior military rank, Traoré is himself vulnerable to a further coup unless he is quickly seen to be different from the man he ousted. The danger is that, if the country falls under Russia’s influence, cooperation with democratic states may become impossible.
Transition plan needed
There’s clearly a need to address the security situation, not least because of a hunger crisis it has contributed to. The UN has reported an ‘alarming level’ of hunger, with over 630,000 people close to starvation. Jihadist blockades stop aid getting where it’s most needed. Attacks have continued throughout the year: in the week ahead of the coup, 11 soldiers were killed and 50 civilians went missing after a jihadist assault on a humanitarian aid convoy. In June, 79 people were killed in the village of Seytenga, in one of the most violent attacks of the insurgency.
But there’s no evidence Russian mercenaries are any more effective at fighting insurgency than French or domestic forces. On top of this, Wagner forces have been accused of major human rights violations, including in the Central African Republic. The use of foreign forces doesn’t help develop domestic capacity, and in the absence of democracy there are no functioning oversight mechanisms.
To prevent human rights abuses and ensure there is redress when they occur, any military action against insurgency must be accompanied by democratic accountability – and that makes a transition to democracy an urgent matter.
Just before he was ousted, Damiba promised a two-year plan leading to an election in 2024 – a commitment that may have forced the coup plotters’ hands. One of Damiba’s conditions for agreeing to go quietly was that the new junta will stick by this timetable. Traoré has told ECOWAS mediators he will, and has promised to convene a national forum before the end of the year to appoint a new president.
But right now, these are mere words. There’s a long history of coup leaders promising swift transitions that never came. Traoré now needs to face internal and external pressure to stick to the timetable – and be open and accountable about any planned use of mercenaries.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new junta should issue a detailed plan and timeline for transition to civilian rule.
The government should commit to not using foreign mercenaries, and instead work with the international community to develop a sustainable approach to security.
ECOWAS should keep up its engagement with the government to pressure for a rapid democratic transition.
Cover photo by Reuters/Francis Kokoroko via Gallo Images