Burkina Faso: Military coup prompts fears of further instability

President Roch Kabore was deposed amid anger over violence, but analysts say the military coup could unleash more insecurity.

Burkina Faso pro-coup rally
People gather in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou in support of a coup that deposed President Roch Kabore, dissolved government and suspended the constitution [Vincent Bado/Reuters]

The military coup deposing Burkina Faso’s President Roch Kabore is the fourth in a string of recent military takeovers in West and Central Africa, prompting fears of further regional instability.

Mutinous soldiers demanding more support for their fight against armed groups announced on Monday that they had toppled the democratically elected president.

While the takeover sparked widespread international condemnation, it was greeted with significant support in Burkina Faso.

“Kabore lost the confidence of Burkinabe citizens, there is no doubt in that,” Daniel Eizenga, an analyst at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, told Al Jazeera.

Yet, whether the takeover can deliver on the popular demand for better security or provide “an opportunity for armed insurgency groups to further build on their operations in the area” remains to be seen, Eizenga added.

Attacks ‘spelled Kabore’s demise’

Since 2015, Burkina Faso has been fighting armed campaigns by groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) that have spilled over from neighbouring Mali.

The number of attacks has risen from nearly 500 in 2020 to more than 1,150 in 2021, placing the country well ahead of Mali’s 684 and Niger’s 149 violent events.

Local security forces and civilians have been the primary victims of the violence by armed groups. More than 1.4 million people have been displaced by the conflict, according to estimates by the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR.

Alex Vines, who heads the Africa Programme at Chatham House in London, told Al Jazeera the increase in violence in Burkina Faso was preceded by a failed coup in September 2015 targeting the transitional government that followed the resignation of longtime leader Blaise Compaoré.

In its aftermath, “the intelligence and security networks were purged and greatly weakened in a response to that coup attempt”, Vines said.

“So you had a very weakened state in terms of its security apparatus, which provided an easier route for some of these groups to move in.”

Kabore’s People’s Movement for Progress (MPP) party inherited this frail security apparatus when it was elected with 53 percent of the vote in Burkina Faso’s first-ever electoral transfer of power in November 2015.

Since then, armed groups – including the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM, which is aligned with al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), an offshoot of ISIL – have asserted further control in rural areas and carried out attacks on the capital.

Last year, frustration over the rapidly deteriorating security situation reached a boiling point. In June, Burkina Faso witnessed the worst attack by armed groups in the history of the country when more than 130 civilians were killed in a three-hour onslaught on Solhan, a remote village in Yagha province on the eastern border with Niger, prompting calls to intensify counterterrorism efforts.

No one claimed responsibility for the killings, but government officials said it was the work of ISIL affiliates.

“I bow before the memory of the hundred civilians killed in this barbaric attack,” Kabore said in a televised address as he announced a three-day national mourning period.

A further blow to Kabore’s leadership came in November, when an attack on a gendarmerie post in the northern town of Inata killed 49 officers and four civilians.

The Inata attack “spelled Kabore’s demise”, according to Constantin Gouvy, an analyst at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit in The Hague.

Reports that officers had gone for weeks without food provisions and adequate equipment sparked protests and widespread popular indignation. Additionally, in an effort to quell the calls for his resignation and shore up support within the army, Kabore appointed Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba as commander of Burkina Faso’s third military region, tasked with protecting the capital Ouagadougou from attacks.

Ironically, Gouvy said, the man called upon by Kabore to rescue his democratically elected government turned out to be the leader of the military coup that deposed him on Monday.

Kabore’s whereabouts remain unknown, despite statements by the military government that detained officials were being held “in a secure place”.

Damiba was named the leader of the newly established Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR).

In contrast to the deposed president, Damiba has sought to present himself as an expert in countering terrorism. A graduate of the military academy in Paris, he is the author of a book titled West African Armies and Terrorism: Uncertain Responses? in which he analysed anti-terrorism strategies in the Sahel region and their limits.

However, his plan for battling the armed groups remains unclear.

“There is a lot that is still unknown, including how he justifies that he would be better at dealing with the situation than Kabore,” Gouvy said.

“He has military experience but it’s unlikely that just a change in leadership will solve the issue,” including the army’s funding problem, he added.

‘No guarantee’ for rights

Kabore’s removal was welcomed by hundreds of Burkinabe on the streets of Ouagadougou on Tuesday. Among the crowd, some also welcomed the coup as a liberation from the country’s former colonial power, France.

Paris had expanded its military cooperation with Burkina Faso at President Kabore’s request, including the country in its Operation Barkhane battling armed groups in Africa’s Sahel region. Its intervention sparked some criticism among citizens and state officials in Burkina Faso.

Pro-military demonstrators also held Russian flags, calling for an intervention similar to that that occurred in the Central African Republic, where Russian mercenaries fought off an armed uprising last year.

Russia has also admitted providing military assistance through state channels in Mali, despite Bamako denying the presence of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group following allegations by Western powers.

No indication has yet emerged as to whether Damiba may turn to Russia for security cooperation. However, Vines said Moscow has been looking to position itself as an alternative to Western intervention in a context where discontent is simmering.

“Burkina Faso could be a logical place for the Russians to also work with the junta,” Vines said, adding however that Moscow risks becoming enmeshed in the politics of authoritarian regimes and progressively isolated by democratic governments in the continent.

The 15-country West African bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will hold a special session on Friday to discuss how to respond to the fourth military coup in the past year, after Mali, Chad and Guinea.

“There is concern among ECOWAS members that this [trend] could spread even further,” Gouvy said, adding that the bloc is likely carefully considering its toolbox.

Harsh sanctions imposed on Mali after coup leader Assimi Goita announced a five-year delay to return to constitutional rule turned out to be “a double-edged sword” as they have lent the military government more support, Gouvy said.

Damiba has pledged to return to Burkina Faso constitutional rule “within a reasonable time”.

But according to Eizenga, the coup marks a dangerous departure from the democratic path the country had embarked on after 27 years of Compaoré’s rule.

“People [in Burkina Faso] felt like they had been demanding change and they hadn’t been receiving it and that’s a policy failure,” Eizenga said. “But coups d’etat fundamentally disrupt [the democratic process] by putting unelected officials in power by force.”

“There is then no guarantee for citizens’ rights and their civil liberties.”

Source: Al Jazeera