Coup contagion spreads to Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso is the latest West African country to succumb to a military coup. The military has capitalised on people’s anger at insecurity in the face of ongoing jihadist insurgency and the failure of the government to protect them. People won democracy through a hard-fought revolution in 2014, but have quickly become disenchanted. The government was seen as having failed to deliver progress on security and on challenging poverty and corruption. The regional challenge is to nurture deeper and more effective democratic governance as a plausible alternative to military rule, and to act faster on the warning signs of democratic decline before coups happen.
Another domino falls. On 31 January, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba was named Burkina Faso’s new president. Just over a week before, he’d led the military coup that announced its seizure of power live on TV, detaining the president, dissolving the government and parliament and suspending the constitution.
Of the 15 member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), three –Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso – are now under military rule. On 1 February, a fourth, Guinea-Bissau, saw its latest coup attempt, which was resisted but caused the loss of several lives. Fears can only grow that military rule is becoming normalised and democracy is in decline in West Africa.
Military capitalises on anger at insecurity
Burkina Faso and Mali share a bitter experience of jihadist insurgency. Jihadis have become established in Mali and have increasingly spilled over the border into Burkina Faso’s north. They are wreaking havoc: in the last three years, around 7,000 Burkinabe people have been killed and 1.5 million forced to leave their homes. Displacement has surged in the past year.
Anger has grown at the government’s evident inability to stop the slaughter. This intensified following the Solhan Massacre in June 2021, when at least 160 people were killed. The army was late to arrive in the northern village and was largely ineffective, allowing the killers to get away. In response, then-president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré fired his defence and security ministers and the defence ministry said it would change its counterterrorism strategy.
But public anger was sharpened by further attacks, including last November, when over 50 security force personnel were killed in an assault on an ill-equipped army base in Inata, also in the country’s north. After that Kaboré dismissed the government and appointed a new prime minister.
Each terrorist outrage was greeted with public protests demanding the government guarantee people’s security. People accused the government of abandoning them. But increasingly the government seemed to see protests as the threat. When people protested and demanded Kaboré’s resignation in the capital, Ouagadougou, last November, police blocked the central square, seeking to stop people gathering. After protesters set up barricades and some reportedly committed acts of vandalism, police used teargas; at least 20 people were injured.
Public anger inevitably meant that, as in Guinea and Mali, the coup was popular with at least some people. When the military took over, people celebrated on the streets. Many had lost faith in Kaboré and hoped that military rule would at least mean better security. The junta justified the coup on the grounds of insecurity and the president’s failure to prevent violence.
The problem is that military rule doesn’t necessarily mean greater security. The main change is that the military becomes free of political oversight. This doesn’t necessarily make it more effective but does makes it harder for people to hold it accountable for violations and assert their rights.
Since the Mali coup, the main change in strategy seems to be to replace French troops with Russian mercenaries; it would be little surprise if Burkina Faso follows suit. As in Mali, French forces have become increasingly unpopular. Last November, a French convoy heading to Mali was met with multiple protests as it crossed Burkina Faso.
Imported security forces, from whichever country, rarely make communities feel safer. Rather, they add another potential source of violence for people to fear. Meanwhile, the ineffectiveness of domestic security forces remains an unaddressed issue: it seems there are always adequate troops to kick out a president but never sufficient to ensure people’s safety in the face of terrorists.
Ineffective government, weak democracy
The Burkina Faso coup is particularly chastening because in the last decade the country offered a powerful regional symbol of active public faith in democracy. In 2014, mass protests forced the removal of a despised president of 27 years’ standing. When the military tried to claim the revolution as its own, people stood firm and insisted on a transition to civilian power. The following year, when an elite army unit attempted a coup, further mass protests signalled public desire for democracy, and in November 2015 the country held its first free and fair election in decades.
From high hopes to widespread disenchantment in a handful of years is a crushing failure. The wearying experience of living with insecurity is part of the reason. But the low quality of democratic governance is a problem too. A second election was held in 2020, although many were disenfranchised, unable to access the fundamental right of casting a vote due to displacement and the closure of some polling stations on security grounds. But in between elections, many didn’t feel listened to. Under democratic rule state institutions remained as ineffective and remote as ever.
Kaboré was hardly a figurehead of the revolution. While he was the first Burkinabe president free of military ties, he’d been a prime minister and president of the ruling party under the old government. This wasn’t the break from the past many protesters wanted. Space wasn’t made for a new generation of young leaders to take the initiative.
Under Kaboré people experienced enduring poverty and ongoing corruption. In communities under attack, the state was absent. For some communities, jihadi forces effectively replaced the government, extracting taxes in return for a promise not to attack. Little wonder if people fell out of love with the thin experience of democracy on offer.
Concerted action needed – and sooner
Each of the region’s coups has been met with a rapid response by ECOWAS and the African Union (AU). As in previous cases, Burkina Faso’s membership of each has been suspended and an ECOWAS delegation despatched.
This is the right thing to do – but it clearly isn’t having much impact. Tough sanctions on Mali don’t seem to have given Burkina Faso’s colonels much pause for thought before they launched their coup. As with Guinea and Mali, it begs the question of whether bodies like ECOWAS and the AU, and the broader international community, are doing too little, too late.
Across the ECOWAS region it is not just in countries that have experienced coups that democratic freedoms are under attack. Even before the latest coup, 13 of 15 ECOWAS members were assessed as having serious civic space restrictions. Across the region, in the last couple of years a ruling dynasty stretched unopposed into its sixth decade in power in Togo, the incumbent president erased term limits in Côte d’Ivoire and the president of Benin prevented all credible opponents from standing against him to secure his re-election. The Guinea and Mali coups were preceded by flawed and unfair elections met with widespread public rejection.
Action needs to come sooner, not only to defend democracy against authoritarian regression, but also to deepen it by showing that elections should be just the beginning: that there is a lot more to democracy than selecting governments.
Western states involved in the region need to take concerns about declining civic space, low-quality institutions and corruption seriously, rather than overlook these for fear of undermining governments they hope will deal with terrorist threats. Otherwise, they risk contributing to discrediting democracy and making military rule look an acceptable alternative.
Acting only after a coup has happened entails further risks, as ECOWAS should be aware: as it responds in the wake of coups, when public support for the military tends to be highest, it encounters hostility from people who fear sanctions will make them poorer. In Mali, sanctions have been met with resentment and, if anything, made the military more popular. This should offer another incentive for earlier engagement.
Action needs to come sooner, not only to defend democracy against authoritarian regression, but also to deepen it.
Time for a timetable
Right now in Burkina Faso, ECOWAS and others need to push for the same thing they’ve been urging in the other military-controlled countries: a plan for a return to civilian rule. While newly designated President Damiba has announced that the suspension of the constitution has been lifted and promised to meet with people from different groups to discuss a plan, he has given no details and certainly no timetable. This detail is needed.
Pressure needs to come for a realistic plan and shortest feasible timetable for a transition back to civilian rule, transparent and open consultations – including with a wide array of civil society – and guarantees that fundamental freedoms, including the civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, will be fully respected in the interim.
Such commitments would at least offer a little hope, for Burkina Faso and beyond. Without discernible and rapid progress, there seems little likelihood of deterring further coups.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The military government must commit to a clear timetable and a consultative process leading to a rapid return to civilian rule.
The military government and its civilian successor must work with the international community to develop a more sustainable and effective approach to counterterrorism and security.
ECOWAS, the AU and the broader international community must act sooner on warning signs of democratic backsliding.
Cover photo by Vincent Bado/Reuters