Raimundo Gregoire Delaunoy | February 2, 2023
To see militaries taking the power from a democratic or authoritarian leader is not big news, neither to witness a military coup in West Africa or, especifically, in Burkina Faso. In this latter one, its history is full of authoritarian regimes or dictatorships. Since independence, democracy has not been a trend in the burkinabe politics. Between 1960 and 1966 there was a single party system, followed by a military coup led by Aboubakar Sangoulé Lamizana, who clinched power by the force in 1966 and established a military regime until 1980. In this latter year, Burkina Faso started a crisis process which consolidated the 80s as a decade of military coups and political instability. On November 25, 1980, Colonel Saye Zerbo seized power but nearly two years after he was ousted by another military coup. Then, on August 4, 1983, Captain Tomas Sankara led another military coup. Among other issues, Sankara changed the name of the country from Alto Volta to Burkina Faso but his path was abruptly cut-off on October 15, 1987, day in which Captain Blaise Compaoré led a military coup that ended with Tomas Sankara’s death.
Compaoré was the first leader to stay in power for a long time but the problem was that he did not set up a democracy. Even if he gave signs of openness, his period (1987-2015) was categorised as a dictatorship or, at least, an authoritarian regime. This situation ended in 2015, when, in an unprecedented milestone, the power control changed due to massive protests instead of a military coup. After demonstrations of the citizens, Compaoré agreed to leave the office and once again the militaries came to power. Nevertheless, this time they organized elections and they were won by Roch Kaboré. So, this latter one became the first non-military president of Burkina Faso and he symbolized the first transfer of power to a civilian. Unluckily, he confronted a very difficult situation, as terrorism was emerging in the country and gaining strength in the region, especially in bordering or near countries like Mali, Niger and Nigeria.
Furthermore, corruption and poverty grimped, making clear that Kaboré would have to face big challenges. At the same time, he had the big task of establishing a democratic institutionality in a country with no democratic experiences and with a historical dependence on militaries. Even if he was not able to make big changes, in 2020 he was releected for a second and final term.
A good cocktail for a military coup
During 2020’s presidential election, some sectors criticized the process, pointing out that the insecurity and the covid-19 pandemia limited the right to vote. In fact, the day of the election nearly 600,000 voters could not express their will as 926 polling stations were not able to open or operate during the electoral day.
Then, the corruption scandals of members of the government or close people of Roch Kaboré weakened his presidential figure. In the midst of this, the inter-ethnical confrontations and especially the terrorist attacks had a notable increase. As a matter of fact, according to Acled’s database, violent events in Burkina Faso jumped from 254 in 2018 to 1,337 in 2021. The same happened with the fatalites, which changed from 303 in 2018 to 2,294 in 2021. Suming up, during the period 2018-2021, the country registered 2,910 violent events and 7,111 dead people.
Even worse, the covid-19 pandemia plunged the country’s economy into a crisis, with a negative progression of the annual GDP growth, a rise of poverty (36,2% in 2018, with peaks of 61% or 71% in the northern regions) and a public debt of 47% (about this latter figure, it must be said that the African average is way bigger). Still more, according to Relief Web, there are almost 3.5 million people in need, 2,076,319 people in food crisis or emergency (IPC Phase 3 or more) and 631,787 children acutely malnourished. Furthermore, the UNHCR estimates that the country has almost 1.4 million internally displaced people (IDP). These figures must be taken into account, as they demonstrate the dramatic situation of the country.
The corollary (and sentence) was the horrible attack perpetrated on November 14, 2021, by nearly 300 terrorists in the village of Inata, which is located in the Soum province. The death of 53 police officers and 4 civilians was too much for an already tired population, who went to the streets to ask for Kaboré’s resignation. The scarcity of the weak Armed Forces of the country -same situation experienced by Mali- was tragically and dramatically exposed.
The failure of the government in its fight against terrorism was unsustainable, especially in a moment in which the external military missions or forces (as Takuba) were being seen, by the local population, as powerless and useless.
Even though Roch Kaboré had announced a plan of economic transformation and a campaign against corruption in 2021, his fate was already written. The security issue, as seen in other countries of West Africa and/or the Sahel, is perceived as essential and, therefore, the success of them is deeply tied to the progress made in this issue and, particulary, in the fight against terrorist groups which seem to be strong as never before.
Burkina Faso’s recent military coup demonstrates that West Africa and the Sahel are facing a political and social crisis that hits different countries and in varied ways. Therefore, the regional integration blocks and the African Union must react in order to avoid a surge of more violence, especially the one coming from terrorist groups, as this situation deteriorate the already weak democratic institutionality of the States. Concerning this issue, the foreign powers have to understand that the dynamics have changed and, in fact, a sentiment against external influence has been increasing in some countries, especially in Mali. So, the solutions have to come from the African multilateral and bilateral mechanisms. In this process, the external powers -such as France, Russia, Turkey and United States- should act as positive partners who complement the African initiatives. Nevertheless, reality shows that some foreign players will continue with their interventionism, something that could lead to a diplomatic clash among external powers.
Concerning this latter issue, Russia’s presence in the region -particularly with the Wagner mercenaires- may open a new era of influences and poses a big challenge to France and other external players that want to mantain their influence in the Sahel. The same should be said about Turkey, whose military presence in Africa is growing. The big loser is France, who has been permanently losing power and influence in the region. The peak of this trend is the recent expulsion of the French ambassador in Mali.
In relation to the African integration blocks, as expected, the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West Africa States (Ecowas) announced Burkina Faso’s suspension, which are formal and obvious sanctions. So, the Ecowas and the AU will have the challenge of really changing the chain of military coups that have affected Mali, Guinea and, now, Burkina Faso. Even more, it sould be taken into account the situation of Chad, which could be described as a “soft” military coup. If the regional integration blocks are not capable to give solutions to the political instability, the democratic fragility of the region will get worse and the utility of the AU and the Ecowas will, once again, be analyzed.
This context may be an excellent opportunity for Morocco and Algeria, two countries that are currently being confronted (due to the Sahara conflict) and that are trying to deepen their ties with Sub-saharan countries. In relation to this, Morocco has historical bonds with West Africa and thanks to Mohammed VI ‘African policy’ has gained influence in the Sahel. At the same time, Algeria’s President, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, has been developing a new policy toward Sub-saharan States and is trying to recover the relevance they had in the past, especially in countries like Mali. So, the ‘Cold War’ between Algeria and Morocco could open a new front in the Sahel.
Finally, the humanitarian situation, the wave of civilian demonstrations and the clashes between farmers and shepherds will be relevant variables that, surely, will play an important role in the current process of social and political changes in West Africa and the Sahel.