The African continent was rocked by another military coup on Monday – its fourth in less than two years – after Burkina Faso’s army ousted President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré from power.
Led by Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, it is the latest episode of unrest in the Sahel, where Islamist violence and chronic poor governance have combined in recent years to create a particularly toxic environment for local populations.
We reached out to our in-house Africa lead, Cameron Hudson, a former director of African affairs on the staff of the National Security Council, to explain what’s behind Monday’s military move and what it means for the region at wider.
How did the situation in Burkina Faso deteriorate to this point?
Kaboré’s political destiny is inversely linked to the rise in violence and extremism that has engulfed Burkina Faso and the entire Sahel region for years. Elected in 2015 partly on a platform of neutralizing the Islamic extremist threat, he largely failed: more than 1.4 million people (out of a population of twenty million) were displaced last year, and two thousand others died directly from extremist violence. A series of public demonstrations against Kaboré and his supporters in the French army have been accompanied by growing discontent within the army, which believes that the leader has not taken the extremist threat seriously enough and is not s is not sufficiently prepared for it. Since taking power, the military has promised sweeping changes to the country’s strategy to fight extremists.
What do we know about Damiba and his coup companions?
Like so many other Sahelian military officers, Damiba was trained at a French military academy and was previously a member of the elite presidential security commando. Last December, he was appointed commander of one of the three military regions of the country, responsible in particular for carrying out anti-terrorist operations in the eastern zone of Burkina as well as in the capital, Ouagadougou. Damiba’s promotion is part of a broader restructuring of Burkina’s political and military posture following a militant attack on a gendarmerie outpost last November in the northern town of Inata. , in which forty-nine military police officers were killed.
What are the implications for terrorist groups in Burkina Faso and the region?
In many ways, the rising tide of extremist violence is occurring across the Sahel, with a number of high-profile attacks also taking place in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Mali over the year. last. During the same period, armed groups carried out more than 800 attacks across the region, bringing the number of internally displaced people in the region to more than 2.5 million, according to UNHCR. Governments there are increasingly paying a political price for failing to protect threatened civilians. Mali has suffered two military coups in the past year, while in neighboring Chad a longtime former strongman was killed in a crossfire against a national armed rebellion – only to be replaced by unconstitutionally by her son, demonstrating some public and international willingness to accept a less than democratic succession if she promises to preserve security interests. Chad has been the largest and considered the most effective troop contributor to African counterterrorism operations across the Sahel.
Taken together, what is behind this level of instability?
The causes are multiple and profound. They include: a booming youth population, aided by the highest birth rates in the world; collapsing living standards and economic decline (most recently associated with the coronavirus pandemic); climate change, which has forced traditionally rural populations to settle in ever-increasing cities; and the rise in arms, drugs and human trafficking triggered by the fall of neighboring Libya a decade ago. But most analysts agree that poor governance – whereby the state no longer functions as the state in areas beyond the capitals – is to blame. In many cases, public services such as health care and education are non-existent, corruption has become endemic and security forces have been stretched to the limit. Unless and until these fundamental challenges can be addressed, it seems unlikely that these countries will have the capacity, individually or collectively, to address the larger transnational challenges plaguing the region.
Is there a constructive role that Western powers, notably France and the United States, can play here?
The two countries have been engaged in a counter-terrorism security operation in the Sahel for more than a decade. But this operation is increasingly criticized by outside observers and local citizens, who point to the fact that extremist attacks and the displacement of civilians have only increased since it began. In a series of announced military mission reforms, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to reduce his country’s military role and commit more resources to address the development and governance challenges that underlie the instability of the country. region (although these changes have yet to materialize). During protests this week in Burkina Faso – and earlier this month in Mali – massive crowds gathered to support military coups in those countries and to demand the withdrawal of French forces, which are considered by increasingly large segments of the local population as advancing narrow Europe. security interests to the detriment of the region’s demands for improved governance and development.