In Burkina Faso people watchmilitary P H S Dambia in TV on Jan 27, 2022
Customers watch Lt. Col. Henri Sandaogo Damiba address the nation on national television in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 27 Jan. 2022 | Photo: Sophie Garcia | AP Photo

Looking back to understand the present: The coup in Burkina Faso and the legacy of regional interventions

The third military coup in West Africa in less than a year happened on 23rd January 2022 in Burkina Faso. The government of ousted President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré was declared deposed, the constitution suspended, and parliament dissolved. The strong man behind the military take-over is Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. Initial international reactions have called on the military to engage in dialogue and return to democratically constituted order. A delegation of ECOWAS and UN high representatives arrived in Ouagadougou to hold consultations in the country which will inform the ECOWAS summit on 3rd February 2022. Eyes are on the regional body following its harsh sanctions applied against neighboring Mali. While comparison with Mali is important to understand developments in the Sahel region, looking at the current situation in Burkina Faso through the prism of previous coups in the country as well as local experiences of regional interventions might yield more fruitful insights to understand what is going on.

Things had been uneasy around the former government for several months. In December, the then president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré reshuffled a large part of his cabinet, followed by a foiled coup attempt on January 11th 2022, which resulted in the arrest of eleven military officers. The preceding terrorist attack on a gendarmerie unit in Inata, northern Burkina Faso, in November 2021 was certainly critical to these unfolding events. With more than 50 casualties, it has been the deadliest attack on state security forces in the country’s six year fight against terrorist groups.

Motivations of the coup are mainly based on the disastrous security situation and failure of the ousted government’s response to halt the spread of deadly violence. From his own professional experience, the leader of the junta knows how (bad) things are on that front. The coup is a reaction to a growing frustration and resentment especially among the younger cadres of the Burkinabè military against widespread corruption as well as lacking adequate financial and material resources. This has caused a generational rift within the Burkinabè military, between young, internationally trained military officers who know the terrain, like Damiba, and the old elite at the top of the military apparatus in the capital.

A history marked by military coups

Characteristic of the Sahel and the region, this coup joins a series of military takeovers in the country since Burkina Faso’s independence in 1960: 1966, 1980, 1983, 1987, 2014, 2015, and now 2022. As such, Burkina Faso has one of the highest coup and mutiny rates on the continent. But what will give many citizens a deja vu, these collective memories are not only shaped by bad or violent experiences. The 1983 coup by Captain Thomas Sankara ushered in a revolutionary project of state transformation that continues to have an impact far beyond the country’s context, and whose body of thoughts and imaginations were drawn upon both in the overthrow of Blaise Compaoré in 2014, as well as in the coup a few days ago. In a patriotic video broadcasting Damiba’s first public announcement, the junta put peasants and rural Burkinabè life to the forefront, thereby building strong ties to Sankara’s rhetoric in the 1980ies.

The 2014 uprising and regional interventions

In Burkina Faso’s recent history, military takeovers have often been preceded by protests against the incumbent government – mobilized by trade unions as well as more spontaneously created protest structures. This was also the case in 2014, when months of mass protests in the country’s major cities brought down Blaise Compaoré’s semi-authoritarian regime after 27 years in power, also known as the Burkinabè „revolution“. The power vacuum left was eventually, and without much planning, filled with a military – Leutnant Colonel Zida – on demand of protagonists of the uprising. ECOWAS, the AU, and the UN sent diplomatic representatives and, under the threat of sanctions, a transitional government was quickly established with an interim civilian president and Zida as prime minister, as well as a national transitional council and a transitional constitution drafted and approved by interveners. This transitional period supported by large parts of civil society and of the military – both represented in the transitional council – was interrupted by a military coup by a group of soldiers from Blaise Compaoré’s former presidential guard. This break of the transition faced widespread resistance not only against the coup plotters – including from the country’s military leaders of today – , but also against ECOWAS whose mediators were perceived as supporting the putschists with their amnesty proposal. Whereas the 2015 coup was an elitist attempt to stop the transition and restore lost prerogatives, the 2022 coup starkly differs from the last one in that it unites soldiers‘ grievances from multiple units, services and geographic regions, referring to social welfare but also urgent combat related demands.

Local reactions to the 2022 military coup

As in Mali, some protesters took to the streets to display their support for the military government and its promises to restore security in the country. However, in comparison with Mali, the junta did not take over power following massive uprisings, and there is no post-electoral crisis as in Mali, explains political scientist Dr. Abdoul Karim Saidou, from the Centre pour Gouvernance Démocratique (CGD) in Ouagadougou, and a project partner of PRIF. But both military leaders refer to the failing management of the security crisis when justifying the respective coups. First reactions from Burkinabè citizens and civil society in local media rather reflect a more diverse range of opinions: Some criticize the coup as a step backward and a threat to their democratic-liberal freedom, while others welcome it. They all agree only on the cause to which the coup is a reaction – the catastrophic security situation and how it was handled by the deposed president. Several unions condemn the military coup and call for a return to a democratic order. In 2015, they were among those who mobilized for demonstrations against the military takeover and for the disbanding of the presidential guard as well as against the proposition of amnesty by ECOWAS mediators. Initial proposals made a group of civil society activists which included the setting conditions for a three-year civil-military transitional government as well as a legislative organ, have been put on the table. These reactions are a clear sign of the desire to prevent the handing over of complete control to the military, while at the same time activating collective memories of joint resistance against the military takeover in 2015 and of collective defense of the 2014 “revolution’s” achievements.

After the – rather spontaneous – military take over following the ousting of former long-term ruler Blaise Compaoré at the end of 2014, traditional civil society organizations were critical towards the military remaining in power as prime minister of the transition, while newer social movements, which played an important role in mobilizing thousands of Burkinabè, actively sought military support in last instance. Today, the most prominent movement, Balai Citoyen, is condemning the coup as undemocratic and unconstitutional, and demanding the fulfillment of the 2014 uprising’s aim to reform the political system, while other social movement leaders are less critical, calling the coup „salutary“. Similar words as the latter come from the ex-majority, the coalition of former supporters to Blaise Compaoré. These reactions to the recent coup follow remaining conflict lines of the 2014/2015 period in terms of ‘winners and losers’ after the fall of the 27-year long rule of the then ousted president, as well as failed expectations of the 2014 uprising’s protagonists to reform the political system. The hope of the latter remains now on the upcoming transition.

International responses

International actors have already reacted and condemned the coup with the US Government being the first, as well as international organizations such as the UN, EU, AU and ECOWAS who have all condemned the military take over and detention of former president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. Interestingly, China has also announced itself publicly to request a pacific resolution of the crisis through dialogue and return to – note – ‘normal’ order. And to make the geopolitical concert complete, the head of the Wagner Group added further fire by describing the coup as a „liberation“ of the people and praising the initiative of the military in neighboring countries. While these international tones are worth another analysis, many eyes – local and international – are looking on ECOWAS’ decision expected on 3rd February 2022. During the summit held last Friday, heads of state from the region condemned the coup, demanded the liberation of former government members and suspended Burkina Faso from the organization, thereby following its 2001 Protocol. It has dispatched ECOWAS chiefs of staff to meet the putschist government on Saturday, and sent a high-level delegation together with UNOWAS on 31st January. With regard to sanctions imposed on the junta in Mali early this year, this is expected by observers, as well as feared by Burkinabè closely monitoring situations in neighboring Mali, as well as Guinea.

Why local experiences matter

Comparisons between these countries are worth to understand current patterns of military coups in the region – notably conducted by young and internationally trained leaders in the context of decreasing legitimacy of elected governments – and – with regard to Mali and Burkina Faso – their failure of responding to a growing security crisis. However, these events take place in countries which have their own history and legacy of interventions, and which shape a diverse range of local perceptions and experiences. The latter do not necessarily reflect an image of coups ‘supported by the population’ as spread in international media. The above outlined reactions and opinions give a glimpse of how specific local experiences shape today’s expectations both with regard to the political situation as well as towards interveners.

The transition of 2014/2015 was deemed successful by protagonists of the uprising in that it was civilian-led and ended by a peaceful transfer of power after free and fair elections took place in November 2015, as well as brought some important judiciary reforms. However, these elections have not brought any change to the ruling elites on the top of the system. Kaboré and a majority of candidates of the 2020 elections are former allies of the old system. Today, many protagonists of the fall of Blaise Compaoré in 2014 blame the shortcomings of the transition as a major obstacle, which lasted too short to bring about the change needed through major reforms of the state system. By the time of consultations with regional interveners, the duration of the transition became one of the most contentious issues of that time with ECOWAS demanding a 6 months transition, and local actors opting for a two or three year transitional period. However, consultations with a broad range of local political and societal actors led to a consensus on a one-year term transition.

Ways forward for ECOWAS

International and regional organizations should be aware of these local experiences made during the 2014/2015 period including interventions by ECOWAS, AU and the UN by that time. ECOWAS, whose mediators faced harsh critique of its amnesty proposal vis-à-vis the junta in 2015, should be aware of this widely shared legacy of its intervention in the country. While the regional body should stay firm to its own principles and anti-coup norm, it will be worth considering experiences made during the previous transition including the remaining political and social grievances as well as unaccomplished expectations. Consultations should be inclusive of all actors and stakeholders, including from civil society that is experienced in dialogue and finding a consensus in times of political turmoil, as well with intervening organizations. This is an important asset for negotiations to come up in the next weeks.

Simone Schnabel
Simone Schnabel is a Doctoral Researcher at PRIF’s Research Department Glocal Junctions where she is working on African regional organizations and the African Peace and Security Architecture, as well as on International Development Cooperation. | Twitter: @schnabel_simone

Simone Schnabel

Simone Schnabel is a Doctoral Researcher at PRIF’s Research Department Glocal Junctions where she is working on African regional organizations and the African Peace and Security Architecture, as well as on International Development Cooperation. | Twitter: @schnabel_simone

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