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Chaos in Burkina Faso: the French connection

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By Koffi M Kouakou

Burkina Faso is yet again rocked by a military coup. In less than a year after he ousted former elected president Roche Kabore, lieutenant colonel Paul-Henry Damiba was also deposed unceremoniously by his military underlings this past Friday.

Following gunfire, confusion, uncertainty, and chaos in the capital Ouagadougou and intense negotiations, the new military leader, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, and his commandos seized national key points, closed the country’s borders and announced on national television that a new regime was in charge.

This double coup d’état emulates what happened in neighbouring Mali a year ago, where the military now presides over a troubled country faced with political, economic strife, mounting terrorism and insecurity.

Picture: Olympia De Maisont/AFP – Burkina Faso and a Russian flag are seen as young men demonstrate while Burkina Faso soldiers deploy in Ouagadougou on September 30, 2022. Shots rang out before dawn on Friday around Burkina Faso’s presidential palace and headquarters of the military junta, which itself seized power in a coup last January.

The context that governs the situation in Burkina Faso is critical if we want to understand the deeper meaning and implications of what’s happening.

Burkina Faso, a landlocked West African country with an area of 274,200 km², bordering Mali to the northwest, Niger to the northeast, Benin to the southeast, Togo and Ghana to the south, and Côte d’Ivoire to the southwest with a population of a little over 20 million. By the United Nations standards, it is a “least developed country with a GDP of $16.226 billion with 63 percent of its population practising Islam, 22 percent Christianity” and the remainder, animism.

Colonised by France in 1896, and formerly known as Upper Volta, Burkina Faso has suffered from a long history of instability since its independence in the 1960s. From natural to man made calamities, the country has experienced numerous coups, almost a dozen, including the two most recent ones in January 2022 and last Friday.

It seems, coup d’états have become a commodity and a misguided military staple that hardly addresses the challenges it faces, as with many African nations.

Moreover, recent spates of bloody terrorist attacks by Islamist and militia groups, and growing insecurity have plagued the country since the mid-2010s. The UN estimates that because of this instability, more than one million inhabitants are internally displaced persons.

The French have never left.

They still control large parts of the economy and the politics of the country whose functioning administrative system and the official business language, French, is still colonial in style. Old and new defence treaties between Burkina Faso and France remain colonised like with many former French colonies in West and Central Africa today.

High stakes

What is happening in Burkina Faso this weekend, while portraying the characters of a classical African military coup, should not surprise anyone. The unfolding events exhibit the deep signs of internal military officers’ discontent and foreign meddling.

For many experts, it was predictable. The new putsch stems from a fundamental disagreement and an internal crisis among the first coup leaders about the military strategy to deal with the insecurity in the country.

The new and young coup leaders, led by Traoré, believe Damiba, their first coup leader, has been operationally indecisive and moving away from their original plans to securitise the country. They say he has lost focus on urgent security matters and politically is cosying up too much to France and its regional allies like Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and the untrustworthy leaders of the Economic Commission for the West African States Ecowas). So, they “asked him to resign” in a no-bloodshed coup.

Anti-French sentiments have been growing in West Africa, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso, and the deposed Damiba has been accused of being backed by France who have given him refuge this weekend. Disgruntled mobs attacked three French properties and set alight the French Embassy in Ouagadougou. Many street protesters have also been seen brandishing Russian flags, a sign that they favour a stronger partnership with Russia.

It is possible that external meddling may be at play in Burkina Faso. However, internal factors over the disagreement on military strategies seem to be dominant.

It is not very clear what to expect from the new transitional putschist authorities. But Traoré, the new leader, has promised to respect the old working calendar of the transition with urgency on internal security matters to stabilise the country towards the agreed general elections dates with Ecowas in 2023.

Who is the new leader? Can he hold on to power beyond a year or two?

But most importantly, can he restore confidence and take Burkina Faso to better hopes?

In his two first public addresses and meeting over the weekend with top civil servants and civil society, he was blunt about a new sense of urgency, a faster pace to deal with the nation’s priorities, especially the security and stability. He also warned about the cumbersome public bureaucracy riddled with corruption.

So far, very little is reassuring about the new leadership and its plans for Burkina Faso, where a historic catalogue of military coups are the symptoms of a much deeper malaise and the causes of an inherited dysfunctional colonial system of governance disconnected to the realities of the African state.

The systems of political governance and government in former French colonial countries are broken, inadequate and irrelevant to a rapidly changing Africa. Today, the waves of successive military coups in West Africa are screaming signs that something drastic must be done to radically transform the nature the governing systems that represent the people they pretend to serve.

Picture: Olympia De Maisont/AFP – In this file photo taken on March 2, 2022 Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, President of Burkina Faso, arrives to his inauguration ceremony as President of Transition, in Ouagadougou.

The systemic disorders – political, economic and social – must be dealt with by Africans themselves without little or no interference. That’s why the ramifications of the recent coups in Africa and particularly in Burkina Faso last weekend are essential to understand.

Geopolitical ramifications

The new coup in Burkina Faso has local, regional and international ramifications and consequences.

Military coups don’t happen by chance.

They have deeper and systemic causes, internally or externally. And they have profound and disrupting impacts on the affected nations and neighbouring countries.

Besides, they have geopolitical implications. The recent event in Burkina Faso does. Although branded as one of the poorest nations in the world by the UN, the country is known for its sought-after gold reserves and other prized mineral wealth. But there are suspicions that the natural resources of Burkina Faso are controlled by foreign interests, mainly France and other European countries, and little is trickling to the nation’s people.

Meanwhile, embattled France, playing the victim and disinformation card is accusing Russia instead of learning the tough lessons of her failures in the region.

On Sunday, anti-French resentment boiled over into the streets of Ouagadougou and other parts of the country. France and the French in Burkina Faso have become preferred targets and are scapegoated for its former colonies turned failed states.

There are many reasons why.

France’s military presence has failed to quell terrorist threats in the Sahel. She is suspected of abating them; her continued support for despicable African leaders and dictators, her arrogant posture and disastrous management of her colonial legacy in the region. The estimated 4,000 French in the country are also under suspicion and attack on social media.

Media report that the “French Institutes, French government-run cultural centres, in both the country’s second city and the capital were also vandalised by protesters.”

Many protesters, who were waving Russian flags, chanted “Russia! Russia!” and targeting the French embassy, believe France was meddling again in the politics of its former colony as she has done for decades.

Some protesters asserted that a new partnership with Russia might be a saving grace against the rampant terrorism in the Sahel and away from France’s lingering colonial grip. They think France is perhaps more responsible for the chaos they are facing.

A Voice of America interview, with a protester named Nanema, sums it well: “We have to leave the French partnership with which we have been involved since the 1960s with mixed results on the ground. We have been facing a crisis for seven years but the collaboration with France does not give us satisfactory results. That is why we need another collaboration.”

France is struggling to read the mood in its former African colonies and Africa in general.

And many Western governments and analysts accusing Russia of widespread disinformation, influence on social media and manipulation of pro-Russian civil society organisations in West Africa, also continue to miss the point about Russia’s growing influence in Africa.

The superficial and misguided analyses of experts, international and regional, that constantly blame Africans and global competitors, ignore and dismiss the profound Western foreign interferences that cause this long-lasting political, economic and social mess in West Africa.

While there are growing talks that France should leave the region if Africans don’t welcome her, the truth is that France cannot do without Africa, economically. France’s economy would collapse if she left Africa.

Do not buy the nagging propaganda that tells the contrary.

The recent statement by the new Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, against president Emmanuel Macron and France validates the collapse argument and supports the notion that France’s exploitative economic and political entanglements in its former African colonies fuel unwanted waves of migrants in Europe. She has asked Macron to stop interfering in African affairs and help to reduce France’s involvement as one of the deeper causes of migrations in her country and Europe.

France must own up to its disastrous colonial legacy in recent coups and the ensuing chaos they have engendered in Burkina Faso and West Africa. The constant denials of involvement and the threat to cut and run away won’t help. Only a more realistic involvement and genuine win-win partnership with Africans will help remake the reputation of France in Africa as a force for good.

Kouakou is Africa Analyst and Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.