The coup in Burkina Faso on 24 January which forced the resignation of President Roch Kaboré led to some celebrations in Ouagadougou, but on the whole the response was measured. Burkina has a legalistic political culture. The popular insurrection that brought an end to the previous regime, in 2014, was driven by anger: President Blaise Compaoré had failed to prosecute anyone for the murder of the journalist Norbert Zongo, who had been investigating Compaoré’s brother for the torture and murder of his chauffeur. In 2015, when General Gilbert Diendéré launched a coup to restore Compaoré without any popular backing, he was quickly brought to trial. Last year, fourteen defendants, including Diendéré and Compaoré, were indicted in connection with the murder of Thomas Sankara, Compaoré’s predecessor, in 1987. That trial has been suspended until 1 March, but the prosecution is seeking a thirty-year sentence for Compaoré, accusing him of ‘harming state security’, ‘concealment of corpses’ and ‘complicity in murder’.
Unlike in other parts of West Africa, frustration with the political class is tempered by a belief in due process. The coup was met with greater enthusiasm in Mali, which borders Burkina to the north. Mali has been run by a military junta since a coup in August 2020. Sanctions, including border closures, were brought against it last month by Ecowas – the Economic Community of West African States – when its interim president, Assimi Goïta, proposed a five-year ‘transition’ to constitutional governance. Goïta is lionised by much of the Malian public, who hoped that Burkina would join Guinea – also run by a junta – and open its borders in defiance of Ecowas. This hasn’t happened, and the Burkinabe constitution, briefly suspended, has now been restored. This means, at least in theory, that Burkina’s coup-makers are presiding over an interregnum, not a regime of exception like the one in Mali.
The events in Burkina are playing out against a wider crisis in the Sahel. The closing of borders makes little difference to the armed jihadist groups whose activities are the efficient cause, as Aristotle would have it, of the coups in both countries, even if their roots go much deeper. For the two main jihadist outfits, the al-Qaida-affiliated Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), the theatre of war transcends national boundaries. JNIM operates mainly in a swathe of land that extends from the Niger Bend to Burkina Faso’s borders with Niger, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, while ISWAP controls parts of north-east Mali and the Niger-Mali borderlands.
The struggle for sovereignty against shape-shifting imperialisms naturally takes many forms. What Malians want is ‘libération’ – a popular word among supporters of Goïta’s junta – not just from jihadists but from Western high-handedness. What Burkinabes want is completion of the reforms that began eight years ago. This contrast in attitude is due in large part to France. In 2013, the French military appeared to have rescued a Malian state routed by the combined forces of jihadists and Tuareg rebels. But rather than supporting the army, France then chose the rebels – an assortment of minority aristocratic Tuareg groups – as allies and partners in what François Hollande thought would be a mopping-up operation to see off the jihadists. The Malian army was barred from entering Kidal, a northern region claimed by the rebels, and in 2015 the government was forced to negotiate an agreement – the Algiers Accord – over a quasi-federalisation of the country favouring the ‘Tuareg cause’ and conceding ‘northern autonomy’. Many Malians are convinced that the French trained or otherwise assisted the Tuareg rebels. A retired Malian ambassador I interviewed suggested that the ‘Tuareg problem’ was ‘fabriqué de toute pièce’ by France. In return for suffering what they see as colonial disdain, Malians weren’t even rewarded with victory over the jihadists, which the French forces failed to secure.
Burkina was different. When jihadist incursions became intolerable in 2018, the government drew lessons from Mali and determined to limit French involvement in its military operations. This meant putting its own house in order: comprehensive reform of the army and all ‘regalian’ functions of state, including security governance, the justice system, regional administration and taxation. These were reforms which had first been proposed in the year-long transition that followed Compaoré’s removal from power. Kaboré had promised to implement them when he was elected in 2015, but there was only really a pretence of change until the jihadist crisis made complacency unsustainable, at which point he set in train some of the promised initiatives. But what little he did was too late.
Last October, the Parti pour le Développement et le Changement left the ruling coalition, citing the government’s ‘lack of response’ to the jihadist challenge. The party’s founder, Saran Sérémé, spelled out its grievance: ‘People feel abandoned when they see officials on television strutting about in shopping malls, at gala receptions, making speeches, when they [the people] are under the yoke of jihadists.’ More significant, Kaboré could not bring himself to reform the defence sector: he was paralysed – as Emmanuel Macron confided to journalists – by fear of a coup. It can hardly have been a surprise to him when the day finally came. As the plotters typed out his resignation letter on official paper, Kaboré grew impatient and wrote a sentence by hand ceding authority to the chairman of the new ruling body, which calls itself the Mouvement patriotique pour la sauvegarde et la restauration. He looked ‘relieved’ afterwards, according to members of his entourage: his resignation at least ruled out the prospect of bloodshed.
In Mali, matters have only grown more complicated since the 2020 coup. At first Goïta acceded to demands from the ‘international community’ – which meant Ecowas and France – to organise a swift transition and abstain from seeking power himself. But in May 2021 he carried out a coup within the coup, removing the transitional government and taking charge of the administration, flanked by the populist politician Choguel Maïga. Between them they formulated the plan for Mali’s long ‘transition’, which involves seeking Russian assistance in the fight against the jihadists. Goïta, like many Malian army officers, was trained in Russia, and the army is familiar with Russian military equipment. Goïta and Maïga made Russian involvement more attractive to the public by hyping up grievances, legitimate and spurious, against the French. They relied in part on the propaganda skills of Russian operatives, and when the French tried to compete the result was lacklustre at best.
The notion that Goïta and Maïga might be in power for another five years enraged West African heads of state, and the Takuba Task Force – a joint European military mission to put French policies into action – bitterly opposed Russian deployments. Only Guinea and Mauritania, a non-Ecowas country, have kept their borders with Mali open, and only Algeria, which closed its airspace to French military planes following a spat with Macron (he asked if there was ‘une nation algérienne avant la colonisation’?), has allowed Russian aircraft to cross into Mali with troops and equipment. France fears Russian success in the region, whatever ‘success’ might mean. In Central African Republic, the Russian mercenary outfit Wagner has recovered territory for the government and brought rebel forces to the verge of collapse. The cost to the state, in money and lives, has been exorbitant, but it is a better result than French forces obtained, or failed to obtain, when they tried to prop up the regime.
In Mali, the Russian intervention, though secretive, appears to involve not just Wagner but state forces too. Success here would seriously compromise French influence in West Africa at large, which may explain the overexcited interventions by French officials, including Macron and the minister of foreign affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who called Goïta’s coup ‘illégitime’. Last month France’s ambassador was expelled from Mali and sent back to Paris with a diplomatic note: it wasn’t usual, the note said, for a state to retain an ambassador in a country whose government it refused to acknowledge. This put Macron in an impossible position. He can’t recognise the junta without lending it legitimacy, but not doing so means he can’t realistically object to Russian involvement. Under these circumstances, a French military presence in Mali becomes a political absurdity. At the National Assembly, Le Drian repeated the charge of illegitimacy and referred to the ‘coup d’état government’, which was, he said, so thoroughly isolated that it could only partner with mercenaries. Mali, they suggested, was now at the mercy of a foreign power.
Given France’s history in Mali, the hypocrisy is pretty brazen. But the Malian ambassador I spoke to was just as cynical about the Russians: ‘Emergency military interventions based on geopolitical considerations have never brought lasting stability and security to a country.’ Russian assistance comes at a price, and it may be higher than that exacted by the French. The aim of the Takuba Task Force is to raise the standard and capacity of the Sahelian armies, empowering them to stand up to the jihadists. Strong armies shore up sovereignty. If this isn’t happening, it’s a result of the messiness of the European intervention and even more of the choices made by governments in Mali, Burkina and Niger (another country in the region under jihadist attack). The countries of West Africa can, in theory, influence French policy through lobbying, media campaigns and the demands of civil society, even if they rarely manage this in practice. Russian foreign policy is not sensitive to pressures of this kind. But, as Burkinabes appear to have recognised, it would be foolish to think one imperialism any ‘better’ than another. On 29 January, a decree in Ouagadougou appointed a team of independent experts with the triple mission of proposing, within two weeks, a ‘methodology’ for the securing of a broad-based consensus over the struggle for the safety of the ‘Patrie’; a charter supplying operating principles for the transitional administration; and a timeline for the return to constitutional government. The idea is for the nation to regroup and confront its ‘existential priority’ – a strong euphemism for the jihadist challenge – without any outside help.
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