Consequent coups of Burkina Faso: its roots and its international reflections
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
In this briefing, Savannah Culpepper delves deeper into the roots and international reflections of the consequent coups in Burkina Faso. This article was edited by Sumru Nur Elden, Bluebird Co-Editor.
On September 30th, Burkina Faso saw its second military coup of the year. Captain Ibrahim Traore has recently been sworn in as the new president of Burkina Faso following his overthrow of the leader of the last coup in January, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba.
The overthrow of Damiba has occurred due to the military’s frustration at his inability to counter the Islamic terrorism which pervades the region, a problem which has been growing since 2015. This was also the reason Damiba himself overthrew the previous leader in January 2022, the democratically elected Roch Marc Kabore. This demonstrates not only the severity of the problem of Islamic terrorism in the region, but also the profound instability of the country with its second coup in 8 months.
The Islamic terrorism which has become an increasingly grave threat to security in the Sahel originates from terrorist desires to assert greater control in the region, with the longterm goal of establishing Islamic law within the countries they are targeting. The most prominent Islamic terrorist groups in the region include Al Qaeda, namely a sub group called Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, and ISIL (ISIS). These groups also tend to target the interests of Western countries to attempt to drive them out, thus, Burkina Faso’s tie to France might have increased its vulnerability to the terrorist threat. Burkina Faso is also a part of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA), making it subject to attack by Al Qaeda. These groups carry out violent attacks on innocents across the Sahel, targeting large events and establishments especially. Foreigners are sometimes kidnapped and held for ransom in order to finance the activities of the organisations, and communities which organise defense groups are more likely to be targeted.
The new government in Burkina Faso has suspended the constitution and dissolved the transitional government, as well as installing a curfew. In a bid to up the measures to counter terrorism, they have recruited 50,000 Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland (VDP), a group which act as civilian auxiliaries to the army.
Burkina Faso is a stage on which the struggle for influence in the region between Russia and France is playing out, and the September coup suggests the former is winning this battle, in light of the enthusiasm conveyed by protesters towards Russia. For example, Russian flags were being waved alongside Burkina Faso flags, and crowds could be heard chanting, ‘Russia! Russia!’. The increasing warmth towards Russia is accompanied by increasing hostility towards France, the former coloniser of Burkina Faso, considering the cries of animosity among protesters towards France, such as, ‘Together we say no to France. Shit to France!’. The French embassy was even attacked due to the suspicion that they were harboring the ousted president, Damiba, who had friendly relations with France. Traore has also suggested they are collaborating with Damiba in his bid to reclaim power, an allegation which France ‘firmly denied’ in an embassy statement.
There is much speculation that Russia even had a hand in causing this most recent coup. There is suspicion of the involvement of the Wagner Group, a group of mercenaries present in West Africa, founded by an oligarch with close ties to Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin himself lauded coup leader Traore, calling him ‘a truly worthy and courageous son of his motherland,’ and stirred up the already seething anti-colonial sentiment directing aggression against France by saying, ‘The people of Burkina Faso were under the yoke of the colonialists, who robbed the people as well as played their vile games, trained, supported gangs of bandits and caused much grief to the local population.’
Russia have been increasing ties with countries in the Sahel in a bid to gain influence and access to the abundant natural resources that can be found there; the leaders of Burkina Faso, in exchange, hoping to gain help in fighting jihadist militants. The Prime Minister of Burkina Faso, Appolinaire Kyelem de Tembela, stated on public television on October 30th that Burkina Faso plans to ‘re-examine [its] relations with Russia to see if they should be strengthened’. A recent statement critiquing the Wagner Group by US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, explains how the Russian mercenary group takes part in this exchange: ‘Wagner exploits client states who pay for their heavy-handed security services in gold, diamonds, timber…this is part of Wagner Group’s business model.’ The Russian desire for increased influence in the region is partially due to the war in Ukraine, because the drain on resources occurring there is requiring them to restock to keep funding their war. Furthermore, facing increasing hostility from Western countries, Russia is keen to gain more influence in such a strategic region as the Sahel. Although overshadowed in the news by the war in Ukraine, this coup is thus very much relevant to it.
The recent increase in Islamic terrorism in Burkina Faso and the Sahel more broadly, by groups such as ISIL (ISIS) and Al Qaeda, has caused a humanitarian crisis to develop. This year is set to be the most deadly year for conflict-related deaths in Burkina Faso since the crisis began, with over 5,450 fatalities being reported between January and June alone. The volatile political state of Burkina Faso, considering the recent revolving door of coup leaders, does not bode well for the resolution of the crisis. The UN has expressed concern over the deaths and injuries related to the coup, as well as the poor living conditions the Burkinabe people are being subjected to, reporting that some women and children have been eating only leaves and salt for weeks on end.
Other international organisations have reacted against the coup, for example the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the coup for propagating instability at this ‘inopportune’ time, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres denounced it and called ‘on all actors to refrain from violence and seek dialogue’. The European Union and the African Union also voiced their criticisms of the seizure of power.
This coup is not an isolated incident, not only considering how recent the last coup in Burkina Faso was, but also in relation to neighboring countries in the Sahel witnessing similar issues of security and crisis in the face of Islamic terrorism – issues which are only exacerbated by the instability of the states. In the 18 months before the previous coup in Burkina Faso, which occurred in January, there were two coups in Mali, one in Chad, one in Guinea and an attempted coup in Niger.
Thus a general fear for a breakdown of democracy in West Africa has emerged. The dire need for the reform of security systems within the Burkina Faso government, and the governments in neighboring Sahel countries, has been revealed. However, as the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism suggested after the January coup, perhaps it is not enough to reform security measures; instead, more efforts should be focused on targeting the root of the problem, which is the ability of extremists to exploit local grievances and social divides in order to spread control in the region and carry out violent acts of terrorism. Part of why the problem is so widespread is due to terrorist groups exploiting mistrust in the government to increase their support base; therefore, a stable government would be an important place to start in order to tackle the problem. However, the instability of government in Burkina Faso, which has been demonstrated and exacerbated by the frequency of coups, lays bare how far from a solution the country is.
This coup, and the volatile political and social environment from which it emerges, raises the issue of developing countries having greater political instability. This instability causes them to be preyed upon by superpowers eager for resources and power, as Russia demonstrates in this case. It also allows single actors to exploit this instability in order to seize power, making dictatorships more likely. This links to a broader question of democracy in developing countries, and whether it is more unlikely or unstable therein. Two theories in political science address this question: the Survival Story, which suggests that democracy is less likely to last in poorer countries, and Modernization Theory, which proposes that democracy is less likely to emerge in poorer countries. The Survival Story theory seems more apt in the case of Burkina Faso, because the government prior to the January coup was democratically elected, headed by President Kabore, but this regime was toppled by the military, who were unsatisfied with their success in countering terrorism, so although democracy had emerged, it did not survive.
Another key question to consider in relation to this development in Burkina Faso is how Russia’s increasing influence there will affect international relations in the Sahel, and elsewhere. Their interest in the region due to its natural resources is tied to the question of democracy in developing countries; the ‘Resource Curse,’ also known as the ‘Paradox of Plenty,’ is a theory which suggests that the likelihood of democracy being implemented in a country is less likely if it has an abundance of natural resources, due to increased likelihood of exploitation. The Russian interest in Burkina Faso and the surrounding region is problematic partially for this reason, and the fact that many suspect Russian involvement in this latest coup gives credence to the notion that foreign intervention for the sake of natural resources can be detrimental to democracy and stability.
The frequency of events such as this in Africa has numbed more developed countries to these headlines, meaning they are buried in the news under other stories. A watchful eye should be kept on Russia’s strengthening grip on the Sahel, and more attention should be given to events like this, which many people remain ignorant to. It remains to be seen if this new government will effectively tackle the spread of terrorist influence and if it will maintain power. With a divided military and increasing political and social turmoil, stability seems a long way away.