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Burkina Faso: Obviously, this is not working

Tuesday 25 October 2022, by siawi3




Burkina Faso: Obviously, this is not working

An interview with Lassane Ouedraogo

A jihadist insurrection has claimed 40% of Burkina Faso’s national territory. The response by military-political elites has been to add to the instability and crisis by fomenting coups.

Gorum Gorum Market, Burkina Faso. Image credit Cordelia Persen via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

Interview by Bamba Ndiaye

On September 30th, 2022, Captain Ibrahim Traoré and his contingent marched into Burkina Faso’s capital city, Ouagadougou, and toppled President Paul-Henry Sandaogo Damiba. As soldiers loyal to Damiba braced to defend him, fear of an imminent confrontation overtook the country. Captain Traoré called the general population to the streets to support him. After several hours of confusion and uncertainty about Damiba’s whereabouts and who would lead the transition, the putschists suspended the constitution, dissolved the national assembly (and the government), and declared Traoré head of state on October 6th, 2022. The backdrop to this latest coup in Burkina Faso is a jihadist insurrection that has claimed 40% of the country’s national territory, coupled with a succession of popular revolts and coups that thrust the country into an unprecedented period of sociopolitical instability starting in 2014. The following is a conversation between Dr. Lassane Ouedraogo of the Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo in Ouagadougou—a former Africa Is a Country fellow—and Bamba Ndiaye of The Africanist Podcast on the general situation in Burkina Faso the day after the coup. This is an edited version of the conversation. You can listen to the original podcast interview here.

BN: What is the current political situation in Ouagadougou, but also in the rest of the country? What happened?

LO: Well, on the morning of the 30th of September, Burkinabe woke up to the sounds of gunshots in the capital city, Ouagadougou. We quickly learned that soldiers were unhappy and were making some demands. By late in the morning it was clear that a coup d’état was underway. We have a new leader … he was referring to himself as the chair of the MPSR [Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration], the ruling military junta which took power back in another coup on January 24th, 2022. At midday, the coup leaders read a declaration on television in which they announced, among other measures, the suspension of the constitution and the dissolution of the transitional government. This is the country’s second coup d’état in the span of one year, following the January coup which brought Colonel Damiba to power. This time around, the coup leader is 34-year-old Captain Traoré Ibrahim.

BN: So, as we speak, it’s Sunday, October 2nd. And you said that Captain Ibrahim Traoré is—officially or unofficially—the president of Burkina Faso. Right?

LO: Yes, Captain Traoré and his men are in control as we speak.

BN: Because there was a lot of confusion. Up until yesterday [October 1st], Damiba did not confirm that he was leaving power. And there were a lot of conflicting narratives about his whereabouts, but also who was in control of the power.

LO: Indeed, there was a lot of confusion and fear. Yesterday, the men of Captain Traoré Ibrahim came on national television to call the people of Ouagadougou and the people of Burkina Faso to come out in support of their movement, because Colonel Damiba had reportedly been in hiding at the French military base in Ouagadougou. And he’s reportedly organizing a counteroffensive to fail the coup. So coup leaders were asking the people of Ouagadougou to come out and get between them and Damiba, to support them, and prevent Damiba and his alleged French support from reversing the coup. And a lot of people have actually come out spontaneously to answer the call of the captain. In Ouagadougou, thousands of people have been out in support of the coup and some of them have even marched to the French embassy demanding that Damiba be released at once, or demanding that the French stop supporting or harboring the side of the Burkinabe army still loyal to Damiba. And of course, the French embassy has issued a statement indicating that this allegation is totally false. And Damiba himself managed to post something on his official Facebook page, claiming that he is not hiding at the French military base. So there was a lot of confusion going on and we didn’t know what was going to happen, because obviously a part of the army did not rally with the new strongman. They were still in support of Damiba, and Damiba knew that their support meant a lot. The Air Force especially did not respond to Captain Traoré’s calls earlier yesterday.

This morning, the Air Force finally surrendered and agreed to join Captain Ibrahim and his men as the new leader of the junta. And what is to be clearly stated here, too, is that this new group was part of the initial coup in January 2022. It is not a group that is external to the coup of January 2022. And according to the very first communiqué on national television, they blame President Damiba for having derailed from the initial goal of the January 2022 coup, which was to fight against terrorism—to find ways and means to stop the advance of jihadists who are now occupying more than 40% of the national territory, according to official data. They also submitted that Damiba had turned into a politician, was busy doing politics, and failed to focus on the fight against jihadism. So that is primarily the reason why these young officers have decided to take control. And in their communication, they have said that over the past couple of weeks they have been in communication with Damiba, seeking to convince him to recenter his focus on the fight against terrorism. But Damiba had obviously tasted the delicacies of power, and he did not seem to be super interested in their common initial goal anymore, according to them.

BN: Apart from the claim that Damiba and his regime were not fighting the jihadists efficiently, what are the other demands of the junta? What else pushed them to overthrow Damiba?

LO: One of the claims that are transpiring from the communications we have heard from the junta and Captain Ibrahim is that Damiba is too close to France and Damiba is not willing to diversify the country’s partners in the fight against the terrorists. And in a disturbing manner, we have seen the flag of Russia in the crowds and even among some of the military officers who were parading in Ouagadougou this morning. Some of them clearly are calling for a collaboration with Russia, which Damiba was very reluctant to sign up for. So that would be a second claim that is transpiring from the communication from the junta. Besides that, a third claim that they advanced in the communications is pretty close to the very first one, the fight against jihadism in Burkina. They are projecting on how to bring the internally displaced people back to their villages. They talked about the misery and the suffering of the Burkinabe of the countryside, which they saw firsthand while fighting against the jihadists. They indicated that a lot of disturbing things are happening to the Burkinabe in the countryside that Captain Traoré has seen with his own eyes—people dying of hunger, people having to eat wild leaves to survive because there is no food. The jihadists systematically burn down the crops of villagers they suspect of supporting the government. They systematically kill cattle or chase them away. So the people who are left behind, who have not been able to run to the major cities, are pretty much dying of hunger. According to coup leaders, this is why they need to take control of power and recenter the fight on recovering the integrity of the national territory.

The new coup leaders also argue that Damiba was not giving them the weapons to fight. Captain Traoré said that for some petty logistics failures, he has seen some of his best men die. Some of the men who died who fought alongside him had died simply because they were lacking basic necessities. And one example that he quickly pointed out is the burning down of 80 lorries which were carrying food of primary necessity toward a zone that is very remote. And the helicopter, which was flying over the convoy at some point, returned to Ouagadougou claiming that it did not have fuel. And minutes later, the convoy was ambushed. This happened just last week. To this day, we don’t know how many people died among the civilians. The official communication talks about 11 uniformed men dead and 50 missing civilians. They did not give us the exact number of dead civilians. According to the official communication from President Damiba’s government, no civilian died in that convoy. Rather, 50 civilians are just missing. This adds to many, many, many other defeats that the military has recorded over the course of the past eight-month rule by Colonel Damiba. So those are, among others, the reasons advanced by Captain Ibrahim and his men to come back to Ouagadougou and claim power back from Colonel Damiba.

BN: So you mentioned people calling for the diversification of Burkina Faso’s partners in the fight against the jihadists and inviting a rapprochement with Russia. Which is basically a similar situation that we saw or that we are seeing in Mali—that there is a big segment of the population that wants distance between France and their respective countries, so either Mali or Burkina. What do you think of that?

LO: Obviously, a lot of Burkinabe people have lost trust in France, and the French authorities have not been able to work in the sense of reestablishing that trust. So most Burkinabe people would definitely attribute most of the failures in the fight against jihadism to France, which is the readily available scapegoat. I myself and a couple of academic friends have done some research on the fake news phenomena pertaining to France and its anti-terror fight in the Sahel. And what came out of that is that most people do not understand what kind of bilateral relations exist between France and their countries. They do not understand: why is France persistently here and why is she not leaving? Why is France here and we are not winning this war? That is the primary question that a layperson, be it in Burkina Faso or Mali, asks themselves. Why are the French here with all the weapons, with all the technology, and the jihadists are still able to hide in this desert of the Sahel, and they cannot locate them and destroy them at once? So, these are the types of questions that laypeople, of course, are asking themselves. And when politicians who are working with France are not able to really explain or make people understand why it is vital for them to work with France, then the result is that most people just don’t have trust in France.

There are even a lot of people who believe that France is not playing a fair game. They believe that France is supporting our military, but at the same time providing intelligence to the jihadists, or they are providing them with weapons and all kinds of support that allow the jihadists to persistently gain ground on the battlefield. So that is a fact that you can observe in the everyday discourse of most people in Burkina Faso. And the young military officers who are on the battleground are not immune to that kind of discourse. They are also on social media. They have parents and relatives who are living in our towns and cities. And also with the relative success of Mali over the past months in terms of getting people to rally behind the junta in the fight against jihadism, in Burkina we have not seen a lot of that under the leadership of Damiba, because Damiba obviously has not been able to live up to the occasion. So, on January 24th, 2022, when Damiba staged his coup and evicted President [Roch] Kaboré, he was applauded in the streets of Ouagadougou. Even civil society organizations, which were not at ease with a military coup, saw it as some sort of dishonorable benevolence in the social transformation of the country.

The January coup was considered by most as the least of the two evils, because although President Kaboré was elected and reelected as the first civilian president in the history of the country, he was not doing well in securing the Burkinabe. Under President Kaboré’s tenure, between 2015 and early 2022, Burkina lost around 2,000 people to the hands of jihadists. And we had recorded about 2 million internally displaced people. So when Colonel Damiba staged a coup in January 2022, people supported him not because they were in favor of the coup, but simply because they believed that he could and would be able to stop the advance of the jihadists. Months later, the result is catastrophic. We’re still not in control of over 40% of our national territory and the major axes of the country—say, from Ouagadougou to Bobo in the western side of the country, which is the second major city. You cannot easily go there. So, you should think about it twice before taking that road, because jihadis can stop you anytime to control you. And if they find you fit for death then they will kill you. And that happens a lot.

BN: Since 2014, Burkina Faso has experienced a succession of military coups. In 2014, we saw the overthrow of President Blaise Compaoré after 27 years, and we have seen three more coups since then. Could you give us a brief history of these different regime changes?

LO: Yes. In 2014, the Burkinabe and the majority went to the streets, organized under the leadership of some civil society organizations such as Balai Citoyen, in the fight against Blaise Compaoré, who was the then-27-year president of the country. Blaise Compaoré also came to power back in 1987 after killing the revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara. So after 27 years of rule, Blaise Compaoré was on the brink of revising the constitution and running for an unlimited number of times. And Burkinabe youth were not in agreement with that. So that culminated in the 2014 popular revolution that saw Blaise Compaoré kicked out of power. And they put in place a transitional government that was supposed to lead the country for one year and organize elections a few months into that transition.

In 2015, we had a coup by General Diendéré, who was a close military leader of Blaise Compaoré. He almost succeeded because he arrested the then-transitional government’s key personnel: the president, the prime minister, etc. They were all arrested, but Burkinabe civil society organizations mobilized in the streets to stand against the success of that coup. So General Diendéré obviously failed and was later arrested, and the transition went on till 2015. We organized general elections won by President Kaboré. And while all of this is going on, jihadist terrorism was gaining ground in Burkina and under the regime of President Kaboré, who was one of the first civilian elected leaders of the country. He would go on to win a second term in 2021, only to be deposed in a coup again in January 2022 by Colonel Damiba. And Colonel Damiba claimed that he staged this coup simply because Kaboré failed to fight properly against jihadism—so he was going to take over and organize and fight properly. Eight months after Damiba came to power, we now have Captain Traoré and his men organizing yet another coup, the second in a year and the third in less than six years.

BN: In 2014, social movements such as Balai Citoyen played a key role in the removal of President Blaise Compaoré. What is the position of civil society movements right now vis-à-vis the military coups since 2014, especially vis-à-vis the most recent one?

LO: In general, serious civil society organizations in Burkina Faso have been close observers and players in the political evolution of the country, and they have been mostly to the left side of the political spectrum, and in that sense they were in favor of some sort of socialist or revolutionary leadership of the country. But over the past five, six, or seven years, we have seen the emergence of new civil society organizations, which do not necessarily subscribe to that kind of political or sociological vision in the sense that you now have civil society organizations who are in support of specific men, such as General Damiba. You now have civil society organizations which were organized expressly to support some political leaders. So the civil society organization ecology in Burkina is to some extent difficult to make sense of, although the traditional ones are still the most relevant ones. When you take civil society organizations such as Balai Citoyen, their words still mean something. But they have been very careful not to comment quickly on what is going on. They called the Burkinabe to restrain from coming out and burning down properties, as we have seen yesterday, because most people, upon hearing that the Damiba is hiding among the French and that he might be getting support to reverse the coup, rushed to the French embassy to burn it down. In Bobo-Dioulasso, too, people rushed to the French cultural center to burn it down. Of course, they were not able to do that, because the men of Traoré intervened and tried to explain to them that this was not the object of the coup. The coup is not here to burn down anyone’s representation, but rather to evict an incompetent leader and replace him with a set of young people who have a vision to fight for the liberation of the country.

So civil society organizations in Burkina Faso—it’s to some extent, and forgive my French, but it’s a mess. It’s a total mess. But at the same time, when you look at certain organizations, though, they might not have the financial means, they might not have access to the major television and radio platforms, but they are invested on social media, and they have leaders who inspire trust among the general population. And that is what is holding Burkina Faso together today. It is not the military. It is not the political establishment. It is not even the religious leaders who have lost their vocation and trust in the eyes of most people as well. So civil society organizations are battling each other in the media. They’re battling each other everywhere, on social media and traditional media. And those are the real heroes here. Those are the ones who are educating the Burkinabe people on what is good for them, where to go next, what to do next. I’ve seen the leaders or Balai Citoyen call for people yesterday and even this morning to refrain from breaking down establishments which are considered to be French like the gas station, Total, which most people believe belongs to France

BN: It’s interesting, because in Senegal last year, when the popular uprising took place, French establishments and businesses were also the target of the population; we’re talking about the gas station Total, but also the retailer Auchan and the telecommunication company Orange. What we are seeing in Burkina is not at the same level of what happened in Senegal in terms of destruction of French businesses, but seeing people trying to burn down the embassy and the cultural center is definitely reminiscent of what happened in Senegal last year. This still confirms a sentiment of “Francophobia” that’s been happening all over Africa. As we speak, what are the latest developments regarding the situation in the streets of Ouagadougou, but also other parts of the country and the French embassy?

LO: To begin with the situation at the French embassy, I think people have been kicked out of that place already. Captain Traoré had made it clear in his latest television message that people should refrain from that kind of vandalism of properties. And he also stationed some armed men around those premises. So I think the French embassy is safe. But across the country, there’s a lot of movement. There’s a lot of spontaneous gathering in support of the captain and his men, because here in Ouagadougou, around 2 p.m., there were a lot of conversations about some of the military establishment wanting to take over leadership because Captain Traoré did not declare him as president of Burkina Faso. At first, he said that he is leading this coup and that in the coming hours and coming days, he will, in consultation with everybody, decide together who is going to lead the remainder of the transition. [He also said] that ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] should not worry about the agreed-upon transitional period that they established with President Damiba. He added he will accept and will follow that agenda in organizing elections within the next two years, and if not even before the two years. And those were his exact words. And across the country, there’s been a lot of mobilization in support of Traoré and his men.

And this is the moment when the French should actually seek to live up to the occasion—to communicate plainly, openly with the people, and explain to them that they might not be the enemy here. But if the communication is very offensive and is perceived as being offensive, it really gets on people’s nerves, and they will believe that France is supporting Damiba to come back to power. But I think that situation has quickly evolved, and things are settling down now. I think the worst of the fears are behind us. Because the soldiers from both sides were close to confronting each other in the city, and that was going to be bloody. So that situation, I hope, is behind us now that we know who the leader is. Captain Ibrahim has been declared head of state. No other person is claiming the leadership at the moment. His men are stationed all over the city, and they have asked the people to go about their business. They have also lifted the curfew, which was established to go from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. So this afternoon they lifted that. I also read online recently that they reopened the borders, and that means planes should be able to fly in and out and people should be able to cross the borders and come in and out.

BN: Do you think there might still be fear that another group will try to take over again, especially given how relatively young the leader of the junta is? Are there any apprehensions about his age and experience?

LO: Well, I have no concern about his age. He is 34. But when Captain Thomas Sankara came to power—and of course, that was a different time—he was also around the same age, 33 or 34. So his age would not be an issue, but rather his experience in leadership might come into question when traditional politicians and other career politicians get in the mix, or even the army. Because the Burkinabe army today is very, very much divided. There are a lot of people who are higher rank than him. But the thing is that they are not in contact with the men on the ground. Office and armchair colonels and captains cannot command younger soldiers in the battlefield to return to the city and stage a coup for them. So it is difficult for someone who is sitting in an office, although they are highly ranked, to be able to mobilize and mount a successful coup. So the coming days and weeks will determine how and who the captain will call in to be with him in terms of leading this country. He had promised that once all of this is settled, he wouldn’t mind returning to the field to fight against jihadists. But we have heard that kind of story before, and we do not take that as it is. The overall situation in Burkina Faso is very, very complex in the sense that even during this short period of time of Damiba’s leadership, a lot of people have benefited from tremendous advantages that they might not be willing to abandon that quickly.

A resounding example of that is the legislative body of the transitional government. Almost 40% of the people sitting there were people who were handpicked by Damiba. And these people were receiving pretty decent salaries under these circumstances. What Damiba tried to also do is to transform the administration. He appointed a lot of people, including his own colleagues, his own military peers, to key administrative positions, and I don’t think the young men are ready, or are going to be able to coexist with those guys. They are obviously going to try to replace them. And we also cannot forget the establishment or the career politicians who are ready anytime to take up any role, provided that it’s in their personal interest. So I think the fear also comes from the fact that the captain and his men might pursue a similar political orientation—meaning similar to what we have seen in Mali. And if that was to happen, they would isolate themselves; they would isolate the country. And that’s not going to be easy.

BN: So what do you hope happens from this point on?

LO: Honestly, my hopes and prayers are that Captain Traoré succeeds in getting everyone to agree that the most important point today is not who sits at the presidential palace. It’s rather how to make sure that the 3 to 4 or 5 millions of Burkinabe who do not have their homes today can return to their homes. That the 3 to 4 millions of Burkinabe who do not have access to their farms can return to their farms. That the jihadists who are killing every single day are brought to justice or kicked out of the country. That security is returned to the country and that we return to civilian rule whereby we have fair elections in which the winner is accepted by all. In the short term, my wish is that in the coming weeks and months we do not witness this kind of situation again, that the military remains loyal to the country and that they have a sense of nationalism that would allow them to put their personal interests aside and work together in bringing back peace in Burkina Faso. Perhaps the career politicians, too, should think about it twice and find something else to do—because obviously, this is not working.

Lassane Ouedraogo is an inaugural AIAC Fellow.

Bamba Ndiaye is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society for the Humanities and the Music Department at Cornell University.