If the junta does not stabilize the security situation soon, Burkina Faso could become a gateway to West Africa for jihadist groups.
In a nutshell
- Burkina Faso’s coup comes shortly after other putsches in the region
- Junta leader Lieutenant Colonel Damiba enjoys broad popular support
- If the security situation does not stabilize, unrest will return
On January 24, Burkina Faso’s President Roch Kabore was ousted by a military junta led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Henri Damiba. He dissolved the government, suspended the country’s constitution and created the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration, which now rules the country. Mr. Damiba has promised a road map for a return to constitutional order. But Burkina Faso’s political future remains hazy despite an agreed 36-month limit period for the transition.
The new authorities have already stated that their goal is “to do things right, to plan … actions in accordance with the realities on the ground, in all objectivity and … realism.” The timetable for a return to a democratic, elected civilian government will thus hinge largely on the military’s assessment of changing circumstances.
The coup met very little counterprotest as hundreds of civilians took to the streets in support of the new regime.
Additionally, developments in neighboring countries could favor the entrenchment of military rule. The putsch follows a worrying trend that has hit the African continent over the last two years, with several states witnessing coups. With two in Mali, one in Guinea, Chad, Sudan and now Burkina Faso, the situation risks creating a domino effect in a highly vulnerable region plagued by the threat of jihadist expansion. Stretching from the Horn of Africa to the Sahel and now threatening West Africa, jihadist armed militants could use Burkina Faso as a gateway for operations further south.
Behind the coup
The coup stemmed primarily from security concerns. Burkina Faso faces a rapid expansion of Islamic militancy, which former President Kabore never managed to tackle. Violent clashes between jihadist fighters and the army alongside state-backed armed community militias have led to thousands of deaths and 1.5 million people displaced over the past few years.
Following the Solhan and Tadaryat attacks in June 2021, when more than 170 villagers were assassinated by jihadist militants, the Inata massacre on November 24, where 53 starved and weakened soldiers were brutally killed, was the tipping point. The events fueled nationwide civil and military outrage, sealing President Kabore’s fate.
After months of unrest in the capital, on January 22, violent demonstrations started in the streets of Ouagadougou, the country’s capital, and Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second-largest city. The following day, shots were fired in several barracks of the capital and military mutinies erupted. On January 24, following failed negotiations with the government, the military forced President Kabore to resign. The coup met very little counterprotest as hundreds of civilians took to the streets in support of the new regime.
Fighting jihadists: between pitfall and failures
On February 16, Mr. Damiba was sworn in as president and in early March a new transitional government was announced. The new leader has promised to battle Islamic terrorist groups and tackle the rampant violence across the countryside. However, this will prove a stiff challenge, since the military is fragmented and many armed militias are operating on their own, unchecked and unsupervised.
When President Kabore took office in 2015, he inherited an already divided military apparatus. Throughout Blaise Compaore’s 27-year rule, the gap between the president’s security regiment and the rest of the army widened significantly – in terms of salaries, promotions and access to resources. A similar discrepancy also divided the lower and higher ranks of the military, with the latter often accused of widespread corruption.
Once in power, President Kabore deepened these tensions by sidelining many of the most competent and best-trained officers from the former regime, and generally distrusting the military, which he perceived as a menace to his rule, while pointedly favoring the gendarmerie.
Facts & figures
The armed forces are believed to be ill-prepared. Apart from a few specifically targeted operations in the Mano River wars and peacekeeping missions in Darfur and Mali, they have virtually no combat experience. When confronted with jihadist groups, these vulnerabilities surfaced.
To make matters worse, little progress was made during the Kabore era to curb corruption among senior officers, depriving those in combat of the necessary means and resources to adequately battle the jihadist threat.
The lack of a coherent strategy has also undermined anti-jihadist efforts. When jihadist groups started gaining momentum around 2015, President Kabore opted for combined action with both the gendarmerie and the army. But resorting to a hardline military response led to extreme violence against civilians that backfired since many started joining the Islamist militants, strengthening the groups instead of rooting them out.
Confronted with a weary military and growing cases of dissent in tandem with rising popular demands for greater security, in 2019 the government started mobilizing civilians. Several self-defense village militias emerged, backed, trained and armed by the state. Among them were the Volunteers for the Defense of the Motherland (Volontaires pour la defense de la patrie), the bulk of it coming from the former Koglweogo (Guardians of the bush).
Created in 2015 amid a security collapse – with the Islamist movement threatening the country’s north – the Koglweogo rapidly grew in numbers and scope. Initially tasked with fighting serious crime, they soon began engaging in extreme violence and inflicting brutal punishments on civilians suspected of crimes. By drawing recruits from the former Koglweogo, President Kabore opened a Pandora’s box that further undermined social cohesion and worsened the security situation.
The possible consequences of the military putsch in Burkina Faso clearly extend beyond the country’s borders.
Another strategy focused on negotiating with the jihadists. From September 2020 to March 2021 a cease-fire was agreed upon with one of the main groups operating in the country: the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM). Clashes with JNIM halted, but the results were short-lived. Not only JNIM reengaged in ruthless violence once the hostilities resumed, but other groups that were never part of the agreement took advantage of the cease-fire to strengthen their positions in many territories and even expand further south.
A gateway to jihadist expansion
The expansion of jihadist militancy in the Sahel has been a concern for some time. But now that the crisis is spreading to Burkina Faso, the spectrum of a possible contagion to West Africa is becoming increasingly real. The January coup could further destabilize the volatile region, allowing jihadists to use the country as a launching pad for attacks further south, all the way to the Gulf of Guinea states, some of them with porous land borders with Mali and Niger.
Alongside its central geographic position, Burkina Faso has historical, political, economic, demographic and religious links to its southern neighbors, making it a gateway to the Gulf of Guinea.
Militants feed on poor governance, corruption, economic crises, poverty, neglected and underdeveloped peripheries, social injustice and ethnic tensions. Although wealthier and politically far more stable than Sahel countries, many of the Gulf of Guinea states feature some of these internal vulnerabilities.
Other regional trends and threats
Fears of more coups are running high in West and Central Africa, and the volatile political situation in Niger and chronic political instability in Guinea-Bissau also do not augur well.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has not been able to curb this rising trend. The regional organization has imposed harsh sanctions on Mali, aimed at pressuring Bamako to return to democratic rule and dissuade other such cases in the region. The rising number of putsches is sheer evidence of ECOWAS’s failure to impose its authority.
Mr. Damiba’s main focus will be to unite the army. Not only will this reduce the risk of disaffected and splinter groups undermining his rule, it will also be the first major step to improve security at large. To this effect, he will also need to strike the right balance between the army and other forces necessary to fight terrorism: the gendarmerie, the police, customs officers, waterways and forest rangers. Regardless of other urgent tasks, security will remain the cornerstone of the new leader’s initial actions. Without security improvements, he risks losing popular support.
International partners generally condemned the coup and urged a speedy return to democracy. But Mr. Damiba seems hellbent on doing things his own way for as long as he deems necessary and has the support of the population. Faced with mounting insecurity, many concluded that a military officer would be better positioned to tackle the problem than a civilian ruler. Security, rather than democracy, will remain the top priority. Mr. Damiba is therefore likely to remain in power as long as he delivers results. However, according to the International Crisis Group (March), the security situation is still deteriorating, which does not bode well for the junta’s prospects. Lieutenant Colonel Damiba has a window of opportunity that will not last for long. If he does not present results in eight to 12 months, he is likely to face a new wave of protests that could endanger his rule.
In this eventuality, three other scenarios could follow:
· A less likely one, in which the Damiba regime would be replaced by a civilian government
· Another where other senior military officials would take over, possibly the group of well-trained and highly competent military officials of the Compaore regime that were sidelined by President Kabore in 2015
· And a third, more likely scenario, in which Mr. Damiba would radicalize his stance and further entrench military rule
This latter hypothesis could be supported by similar regional developments. In Mali, the transitional government has also pledged to return to constitutional order. But the country’s ruling authorities have taken a hard line, postponing the legislative and presidential elections due to February 2022, and recently announcing their intent to extend the political transition period for up to five years. The same could happen in Burkina Faso, even more so, given the country’s long history of military involvement in politics and the wider regional trend toward militarized and “strongman” regimes.
An alliance of military regimes could even be forged between Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Chad, supporting each other against possible sanctions imposed by regional and international partners, rendering a scenario of entrenched strongman governments more likely.
Jihadist groups have repeatedly announced their intention to expand into coastal West Africa, specifically citing Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal. At this point it is not likely for coastal states to be struck as the jihadist groups’ real capabilities to do so are unclear, and except for Ivory Coast in 2016, coastal states have not yet been hit by Islamic terrorism.
However, since early 2019 the number of registered incidents on the border territories of West Africa’s coastal states involving (directly or indirectly) jihadist armed groups has increased, and the bulk of them have been linked to groups operating in Burkina Faso.
The months ahead will be crucial for the country and for the region. If faced with combined pressure from jihadist groups, crippling divisions within the military and a protracted institutional crisis, Burkina Faso risks collapsing and slowly descending into civil war.
If such a scenario comes about, it will allow jihadists to gather strength, feeding on the country’s instability and inability to control its territory. The more Burkina Faso turns into a terrorist gateway to West Africa, the higher the risk of regionalization of violence coming from the Central Sahel and the most likely it will become, in the long run, for jihadist terrorism to hit the Gulf of Guinea states.
The possible consequences of the military putsch in Burkina Faso clearly extend beyond the country’s borders. Their scale and scope are a red flag for regional and international partners whose immediate concern is likely to be to contain the problem and confine the threats to this region.
Because of its long engagement in the Sahel and West Africa, where it is a key player, France has been pointed out as one of the actors that should step in. However, the country is not likely to intervene. Its presence in West Africa has been unpopular, causing tensions and loud protests in Burkina Faso and elsewhere. At this point, direct military engagement would be very risky. Jihadist militants could even capitalize on the hostile sentiment among the population against the foreign military.
The best chance would be the European Union. Generally perceived as a more neutral partner, the EU could be in a better position to intervene, especially if represented by northern countries such as the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, which have earned a good reputation for their work in the field of development assistance. But the EU is currently focused on other issues and is not likely to change its agenda in the near future.
ECOWAS is weakened, and regional security arrangements are often hampered by national agendas.
Regardless of who steps in – if anyone does – caution and pragmatism should guide international and regional responses. A hardline could further alienate a military leader that for now has major popular support. As with other military regimes in the region, if severely punished and isolated by Western partners, these countries could find themselves with no other choice but to strengthen ties with alternative partners like Russia. If so, it is likely that Moscow will step in, if not officially, through its “private” companies with links to the Kremlin, such as the Wagner Group.