On September 30, a military coup overthrew the transitional government in Burkina Faso. This coup was the second in eight months, and among 10 staged in the six decades since independence from France.
The first coup of 2022 occured on January 24, when Lieutenant-Colonel Henri Sandaogo Damiba overthrew President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, the first elected civilian president of the country. Kabore was elected in 2015 (and reelected in 2020) to replace President Michel Kafando, who led a transitional government following the 2014 popular revolution that ousted Blaise Compaore. The latter ruled the country for 27 years after taking power in the 1987 bloody coup that claimed the life of revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara.
Since the departure of Compaoré, the security situation in Burkina Faso has deteriorated dramatically. Thousands of people are internally displaced. In January this year, 13.9 % of the country schools were closed due to terrorism and, according to official reports, more than 40% of the national territory is controlled by non-state armed groups affiliated to ISIS and Al Qaeda. Observers agree that the human cost of the crisis is much higher than reported.
Soon after taking power, Damiba instituted the Patriotic Movement for the Safeguard and Restauration (MPSR) and vowed to reconquer the country by fighting the jihadist insurgents and helping the two million internally displaced people return to their homes. But eight months later, he found himself on the receiving end of a coup, overthrown by junior officers critical of his performance, lack of military successes, and his general deviation from stated goals and promises of the January coup.
Tensions were already high in the week and days before the coup. On September 29, civil society groups in Bobo Dioulasso staged a protest and demanded that Damiba to step down as a leader of the country. The protest, which was repressed by the police, denounced Damiba and the transitional government’s inability to stop the advance of jihadists.
The tipping point was when a convoy led by the army to supply the city of Djibo (under terrorist blockade since February) was targeted on September 26. More than 100 vehicles with food supplies were destroyed. Eyewitnesses spoke of civilian and military deaths numbering in the hundreds, while official government communication reported 11 slain soldiers, 28 wounded and 50 civilians missing. This macabre defeat of the army was pinned on Damiba. A week earlier he had mobilized a 70-strong delegation to attend the UN Summit in New York. There, he argued that his government was making some progress in the fight against terrorism and asked for support from the international community. The trip was perceived at home as wasteful and in total disregard of the dire insecurity situation of the country.
Until September 30, when he appeared on national television as the leader of the coup against Damiba, Captain Traore Ibrahim, was unknown to the general public in Burkina Faso. Prior to this the 34-year-old soldier and native of the rural commune of Bondokuy in the northwest region was leading The Cobras, an anti-terrorist fighting group that played an active role in the coup that brought Damiba to power. Traore Ibrahim graduated from Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo (formerly Université de Ouagadougou) before being recruited to the army in 2010, making him and his junta uncharacteristic of those leading previous coups. Most coups have been staged by officers trained from a secondary school age in the Prytanée Militaire de Kadiogo, a reputable military training institution under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence. That was certainly the case for Lieutenant-Colonel Damiba and even Captain Thomas Sankara.
Among the justifications advanced by Ibrahim for the September coup was that his predecessor had lost focus in the fight against jihadism, (the primary reason why he Damiba power in January), getting diverted by internal politics and drifting out of touch with the men on the battlefield, who lacked the basic resources required to re-capture the significant national territory controlled by the jihadist movements. Ibrahim’s junta also made clear its aims to diversify Burkina Faso’s international partnerships in the fight against jihadism. Some of his men were seen waving Russian flags in the streets of Ouagadougou.
Ibrahim also argued that Damiba had meddled with the justice system and set dangerous precedents, including welcoming self-exiled former president Blaise Compaore to Burkina Faso despite his being found guilty by a military court and condemned to a life sentence for the killing of former president Thomas Sankara. When Compaore, who ruled the country for 27 years following the assassination of Sankara, sought to modify the constitution in 2014 in order to run again, the Bburkinabe youth mobilized in a popular revolution and ousted him. He has since been living in exile in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire. Damiba’s reconciliation project was seen as a betrayal of the January coup that brought him to power.
The first three days of the September coup were characterized by confusion, uncertainty, and fear. First, coup leaders read a declaration on television announcing that Lieutenant-Colonel Damiba was overthrown, and a curfew was set in place (9pm-5am). But within hours Damiba issued a statement via the official government website asking the mutineers to come back to the table to negotiate. Ibrahim and his coup leaders went back on national television to announce the cancellation of the curfew and asked the population to come out in support accusing Damiba of hiding at the French military base and preparing to take back power. Rumors of French military intervention to support Damiba circulated widely on WhatsApp, prompting anger about France’s meddling in local politics.
In the capital, Ouagadougou, and in other major cities many people responded to the call of Ibrahim and his men. They gathered in large numbers in the public squares in Ouagadougou, Bobo, Kaya, Koudougou, and Ouahigouya. Despite a communiqué from France’s representative in Burkina Faso rejecting all allegations that France was taking sides or that Damiba was hiding at the French military base, most protesters in Bobo rushed to the French cultural center seeking to burn it down in protest. In Ouagadougou, a crowd of young people entered the French embassy and lit tires on fire whileFrench soldiers were posted on the rooftop of the embassy building and shooting teargas.
Burkinabe youth are intuitively revolutionary. They cry for a positive and radical change. Their first truly civilian elected president, President Kaboré, did not live up to that expectation. Damiba’s short-lived and unlawful government set about plundering the country (he appointed his close friends to key government positions and increased the salary of his government ministers while cutting funds from most social services). Traore Ibrahim is seen as the next “hope” and some pundits even see in him a modern reincarnation of Sankara.e. For example, his use of the army to organize farmers to fight hunger through agricultural projects resonates well with many people.
This umpteenth coup in Burkina Faso, added to all the others in the region (Mali in 2020 and 2021, and Guinea in 2021), are part of a significant political shift in response to and economic crises globally. Junta leaders have cited the deteriorating political situations as a major reason to overthrow hard-won electoral democracies. This has seen an active diversification of military partnerships, such as in Mali where the Russian private group Wagner is now operating.
It will take a lot of wisdom from all parties, including the civil society organizations together with the young military leaders to address the instability in the country, including recovering it from the grips of terrorist organizations, assuring the international community that human rights will not be violated in the process, and that a return to a civilian rule will be guaranteed within a reasonable timeline. Most importantly they have an obligation to respond to the pressing needs of the youth, or potentially face a spiral of coups and violence that we can ill afford.