Burkina Faso Joins Africa’s “Epidemic of Coup d’États”
On January 24, Burkina Faso’s military announced that it had deposed President Roch Kaboré, dissolved the government, and seized control of the country.
The military broadcast followed a slew of army camp uprisings. The gunfire commenced at the Sangoule Lamizana camp, and was shortly followed by gunfire at military camps in Kaya and Baby Sy, until centralizing in the capital, Ouagadougou. Protesters in the Ouagadougou chose to side with the militant resistance, and set fire to the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP) party’s headquarters, the site of the ruling political party under Kaboré. The coup’s triumph was confirmed on state television by Captain Sidsore Kader Ouedraogo, the commander of Burkina Faso’s third military region under former President Kaboré, and now interim President Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba of the “The Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration” (MPSR).
The unrest follows an anti-government protest, titled Mouvement Sauvons le Burkina Faso (Save Burkina Faso), demanding the President’s resignation the day prior, as well as the January 12 mass arrest over a suspected plot to “destabilize institutions.”
However, the origins of Burkina Faso’s recent coup stem further back than a few days. There are debates surrounding the country’s on-going security crisis and its western influence—but the coup may signify a more ingrained “epidemic” of political instability on the African continent.
In his announcement, Captain Sidsore Kader Oeudraogo claimed that the military had seized power in response to the “ongoing degradation of the security situation,” and the “incapacity of the government” to unite the population.
Defense figures and civilians alike have long voiced their discontent with the security crisis, as well as with Kaboré’s political stewardship. Since 2015, Burkina Faso has been engulfed in violence linked to the Islamic State and al Qaeda. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), both groups have killed an estimated 7,000 people, with another 1.6 million displaced from their homes. The military in particular has been hit hard; Jihadist insurgents have especially targeted the armed forces, with at least 50 security forces killed in the Sahel last December, and 500 since 2015.
The Solhan and Intata attacks in 2021 were key events that lead to the downfall of the Kaboré regime. In June 2021, an attack on the village of Solhan killed 132 civilians, and in November 2021, 53 police officers died in an attack on the Inata military post. The two tragedies furthered the tension between on-the-ground troops and military and political elitists that dates back to the fall of Blaise Compaoré in 2014, as well as the attempted counter-coup in 2015. Though the counter-coup was thwarted, it damaged political leaders’ faith in the Burkina military.
Burkinabè are also in protest of the Kaboré regime’s politics. The regime was often accused of corruption, laxity, and nepotism. In the past five years, polls have shown a decline in “trust and satisfaction” in the Burkinabè people’s “expectations for good governance.”
The security and governance deficits have taken their toll on the Kaboré regime, but some argue that the coup is yet another symptom of Burkina Faso’s perpetuated subjugation to the western hegemon.
After President George W. Bush launched the “global war on terror” in 2001, the U.S. Defense and State departments began to extend this war to Africa, focusing primarily on “undergoverned” areas in “weak” or “fragile” states. There was no threat of terrorism identified in Sahelian West Africa, but the U.S. formed the Pan Sahel Initiative in 2003, on the preemptive logic that the “global war on terror” was founded on. Burkina Faso was added to the partnership in 2009, and provided robust military training, funding, and weapons. Further, France, the region’s former colonial power, has been the “primary Western nation involved through its Operation Barkhane,” targeting Islamist militants and backing regional governments.
According to Stephanie Savell from the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, with this counterterrorism effort, the U.S. and France established the ideological, binary framework that categorized neat “good” and “evil,” with the Fulani as the west-mandated “evil.” In July 2020, the Human Rights Watch reported on the remains of at least 180 people in the town of Djibo, most of them Fulani, and killed by state security forces. Diallo Souaibou found that 80 percent of those who join terrorist groups in Burkina Faso do not supporrt jihadism, but have had their “father or mother or brother killed by the security forces.” According to Foriegn Policy, the same forces overthrowing the Kaboré regime in the name of the name of counterrorism, might have been the same forces inspiring the terrorism in the state.
Burkina Faso military troops in Guillaume Ouedraogo military camp in Ouagadougou. Photo credits: Sia Kambousia, taken September 22, 2015.
At the same time, Burkina Faso’s war on the jihadis and the security crisis obscures the political instability of the greater West Africa, the deepest drivers of the militant movement.
The United Nations Secretary Gender Antonio Guterres has called the region’s recent political pattern an “epidemic of coup d’etats.” Burkina Faso has joined the ranks of Mali, Chad, Guinea, and Sudan, who have all toppled under military rule in the past 18 months.
First came Mali, in August 2020. Public anger over a stolen parliamentary election allowed the military access to arrest and depose President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
In April 2021, a coup unfolded in Chad after President Idriss Déby was killed on the battlefield, and his son was installed—a violation of the Constitution.
Then, in March 2021, it was Guinea. A high ranking officer, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, trained by the United States, overthrew President Alpha Condé.
And in October 2021, Sudan’s generals seized power, eliminating the deal that was supposed to lead to the country’s “first free election in decades.”
Adama Gaye, a Sengalese political commentator, claims that the “failure to govern” is at the heart of these recent events. He cited the “deterioration of the security situation” and Kaboré’s inability to “unite the nation and effectively respond to the challenges it faces.” And, President Nana Akufo-Addo, the Ghanian President, stated that the Burkina coup “represents a threat to peace, security, and stability in West Africa.”
Since the January takeover, the military has restored the previously suspended constitution. Under the “fundamental act,”
the MPSR “ensures the continuity of the state pending the establishment of transitional bodies.”
The move follows swift reactions from the international community. The African Union (AU) suspended Burkina Faso, diplomats pressing demands for a “return to civilian rule.” The European Union (EU) condemned the coup and threatened “immediate consequences” in their partnership with the country should constitutional order not be restored. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also suspended the country from its ranks. The organizations warned the new government of potential sanctions, and in a statement wrote that, “while some elements of the constitution may have been restored, extraconstitutional seizures of power erode the legitimacy of governance,” and characterized the coup as a “major democratic setback.”
There has also been a quick reaction from non-governmental international organizations. Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at the Human Rights Watch, has stated that “the Burkina Faso military coup occurred in a country with weak democratic institutions amid a brutal armed conflict and a growing humanitarian crisis,” and that “the military authorities now in control need to act urgently to protect people’s rights and ensure they don’t make a bad human rights situation even worse.”
Questions remain regarding the future of Burkina Faso, and Western Africa’s “epidemic of coup d’états.” However, going forward, Ornella Moderan of ISS Africa notes that dialogue should aim to “establish a roadmap based on concrete objectives jointly agreed with the whole of Burkina Faso’s political class and civil society.” Increasing coups reflect a crisis in West Africa’s political systems, and may indicate a need to rethink the models and effectiveness of institutions that are supposed to protect and serve citizens.