What Was Behind A Coup in Burkina Faso ?

On Monday January 24th, mutineers in Burkina Faso overthrew the democratically elected president, Roch Kabore.

This was the fourth military coup in the region in the past 17 months, including two coups in Mali and a coup in Guinea.

To better understand the significance of the coup in Burkina Faso and its broader international and humanitarian implications, I am joined by three guests.

Brice Bado is a political scientist and Vice-President for Academic Affairs, Center for Research and Action for Peace (CERAP)/Jesuit University, Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

Andrew Lebovich a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Alexandra Lamarche, the senior advocate for West and Central Africa at Refugees International.


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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

How Was the Coup in Burkina Faso Executed?

Andrew Lebovich [00:02:38] We’re still establishing a bit the order of events, and always after something like this, it’s always a process of reconstituting events, figuring out what exactly happened. But what we know so far is that the day before there were reports of shootings or gunfire in the air at military bases in Ouagadougou and Kaya in particular, there were some protests from members of the military, in at least one instance that I’m aware of, several journalists were taken inside the base and actually held for a certain amount of time so that the then mutineers could deliver a series of demands which included better support, better equipment for the fight against jihadist groups, better support for wounded personnel, and a replacement of senior figures in the military hierarchy. So, there was this series of events, and then, according to some press accounts, there were also negotiations overnight to try to respond to the demands of the mutineers. These negotiations evidently failed and by the next day, there were reports of fighting around the presidential palace. It was very confusing about where President Kabore actually was, still where he is, and then reports that he had been deposed and finally, that he signed a handwritten resignation letter that was handed to him. Then, of course, the mutineers appeared on TV, which has become a bit of a classic step in coups of this kind where they appear on state TV to actually announce themselves.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:23] It’s not a coup until you are in military fatigues on state TV.

Andrew Lebovich [00:04:28] Exactly. And there have been plenty of not so joking jokes that I’ve seen on Twitter about this, sort of laying them all side by side. So actually, formally announcing the new […], the Constitution, and even today, the leaders were meeting with the heads of departments in the ministries who will now be assuring the functioning of those ministries in the meantime, while we wait for more information about an actual program, and potentially a plan, for some sort of a transition, which I imagine will be in the […], we just haven’t seen it yet.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:09] And Andrew, one last question to you. What do we know about the whereabouts or the circumstances of the now deposed president?

Andrew Lebovich [00:05:20] I believe the latest that we know, though this might have changed in the meantime, President Macron of France said that he had spoken, I believe, spoken to Kabore, that he had received information that he was safe and in good health, but that’s, I believe, the last that we’ve found out about this. So, we’re still waiting for more confirmation that he’s actually being treated well and in good health.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:48] Thanks. Brice, you can unmute yourself. Please introduce yourself so folks can hear your voice.

Brice Bado [00:05:54] Hi. I’m Brice Bado, I’m a researcher at the Center for Research and Action for Peace in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

Who launched the coup in Burkina Faso? Who are the mutineers?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:04] Well, thanks. And Brice, what do we know about who these mutineers are? Do you have a sense of who they are and what motivated this kind of dramatic move yesterday?

Brice Bado [00:06:20] I think we see young, how do you say, military forces? Yeah, they are very young, Damiba for example is only 41 years old.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:35] And this is the leader, Lieutenant Colonel Henri-Paul Damiba.

Brice Bado [00:06:37] Yeah. And his group, all of them are very young. They are really dissatisfied by the way that the government of the Kabore was handling the security situation in Burkina Faso. So, these are frustrated officers that have decided to take over the power in Burkina Faso. I have to say that this coup, it was not a surprise for many. We have seen that coming at least for months. And so, what happened was really expected in Burkina Faso.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:26] But why is that? Why were you as a researcher who specializes in this very issue, not surprised by what happened yesterday?

Why was a coup launched in Burkina Faso by the mutineers?

Brice Bado [00:07:34] We are not surprised because, you know, the regime of President Kabore has shown its limits. After he arrived in power in 2015, only two weeks later, Burkina Faso witnessed its first terrorist attack. Since then, Burkina Faso has witnessed a lot of terrorist attacks. And right now, the government controlled only one third of the country so two thirds of the country are under terrorist groups. And we have more than two million of people that are internally displaced. All these things have shown a kind of dissatisfaction. The population were really upset by the way that President Kabore was handling the country. And recently there were some significant attacks in Burkina Faso, like the killing at Solhan which was only in June that had more than 100 victims and, recently in November, we had 53 gendarme that were killed, and these gendarmes did not even have food and ammunition. So, all these things have really upset the population and even the military. Since then, civil society organizations have called for the president to step down. So, for us, it was really a matter of, I mean of weeks. So that’s why we are not surprised by what happened in Burkina Faso.

Who are the terrorist groups in Burkina Faso and why have they enacted so much violence over the past couple of years?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:33] Andrew, you know, as Brice just articulated, it was this dissatisfaction with the government’s ability to provide security throughout much of the country in the wake of mounting terrorist and jihadist attacks. I know that you have studied jihadist movements in the region for a long time. Can you describe like, who are these groups that are so profoundly threatening the security of Burkina Faso to the point that these junior officers mounted a coup?

Andrew Lebovich [00:10:04] Well, the militant picture is a bit confused in the region at the moment, and in Burkina Faso in particular, there’s still a fair bit of crossover between different groups, there are a number of attacks that go unclaimed where there is a supposition of who is conducting the attacks but generally speaking, the militant groups in Burkina Faso, like in the rest of the region, are divided between those that are part of the groups with the support of Islam and Muslims so aligned or affiliated with Al Qaeda and then the fighters that are affiliated to the Islamic State. And this is where there’s what’s known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara but just that’s the name that is used to describe it. It’s formally part of the Islamic State West Africa province, which is better known for its attacks and for its presence in Nigeria, although they are separate with some connections between them. So generally speaking, the militant groups that are active in Burkina Faso fall under one of those two, though there are some groups that are active that are perhaps operating a bit more autonomously. For instance, groups that are linked to […] are believed to operate somewhat more autonomously in Burkina Faso than perhaps in parts of Mali, for instance. So, there are still affiliation, but this is part of why things are a bit confusing, and it’s sometimes a challenge to say who exactly is responsible for what attacks and where.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:42] And generally speaking, what have been the tactics of these groups that are mounting attacks in parts of Burkina Faso and as Brice said earlier, are controlling, you know, like large swaths of territory?

How do the terrorist groups in Burkina Faso attempt to gain power?

Andrew Lebovich [00:12:02] Well, it depends, the tactics, on the one hand, are not that different from in other parts of the region. These groups often operate in rural areas, in areas that are a bit more heavily forested where they can cover more easily and often conducting ambushes, sometimes complex attacks, on military posts. In Burkina Faso in particular, there have been also a number of not just ambushes, but attacks on the posts of volunteer militias that are in some cases affiliated with the government that are sometimes drawn from traditional hunters, brotherhoods called the Koglweogo, and in other cases are known as the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland or Volontaires pour la Defense de la Patrie, and the latter in particular, as they have received government support, as they’ve become more integrated into military operations, particularly as scouts or as a sort of lead troops, they faced a number of serious attacks, both assassinations and attacks on their posts, from militants both affiliated to the Islamic State and also to […]. And there have also been attacks in some cases as in Solhan, for instance, on these posts that are very close to gold mines and so there is a there’s an economic aspect to some of this as well that is related also to government control and to weakening the control of either government forces or militias that are affiliated with the government in one form or another.

Will the mutineers in Burkina Faso be successful in their coup and attempted power grab?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:42] So Brice, I mean, as Andrew sort of describes like this witch’s brew of organizations that are undermining the security of large swaths of Burkina Faso, what do you expect the sort of next steps of this mutineer group to be? What are their demands and how do you expect them to sort of conduct themselves over the next few days?

Brice Bado [00:14:12] I think that right now they will have to build a strong compromise within the armed forces and security forces in Burkina Faso because we don’t really know if they have the support of all the army and as you know, the Burkina Faso army is a little bit divided even during the time of Kabore, you know, we have several faction within the army in Burkina Faso. And so, I think that for the soldiers that took the power to remain in power, they really need to build a strong compromise to have strong support from all the army. Also, I’m expecting them to have also to deal with the Civil Society Organization because, in Burkina Faso, civil society organizations are really very important. I think the military will not be able to stay in power if they don’t get the support from civil society organizations. I know that yesterday and today, some organization went out to support them, but they will need to always get this support to remain in power. And of course, they will face sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and maybe the African Union, so they will have also to deal with ECOWAS leaders. If not, it will become the case of Mali. So, I think that in the few weeks to come, they will have a lot of work to do to convince the population and also West African leaders about their program. I know that for the population, they promised that they would strengthen the security, that’s why they took over the power, but they will need to have concrete results so that people may accept them.

How are people in Burkina Faso reacting to the coup?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:33] Thus far, what has been the popular reaction in Burkina Faso, perhaps like on the streets of Ouagadougou, to the coup? Have they been sort of greeted warmly at all? Is there deep suspicion? Like how have civil society actors responded and how has the general public responded thus far?

Brice Bado [00:16:55] Yes, we have seen a lot of mobilization of civil society organizations in Burkina Faso, people on the street, even today that support this military coup. However, we don’t know exactly if the biggest organization in Burkina Faso were a part of this demonstration. Right now, we have seen spontaneous, but we have not seen a kind of coordinated support from the civil society organizations. At least we can say that that many people were dissatisfied with the regime of Kabore, there seems to be in a maybe prudent way that they tend to support the military coup, because they could not see what they Kabore regime could bring, could improve in the security situation.

What key factors or decisions have an impact on the outcome of the coup in Burkina Faso?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:10] I’m going to bring Alexandra into the conversation in just a moment but Andrew, I’d love to ask you the same question. In the coming days or weeks are there any sort of decision points or inflection points or things otherwise that you will be looking towards that will suggest to you how this crisis may unfold? Andrew, I’ll start with you and then go to Brice.

Andrew Lebovich [00:18:36] Well, on a regional level, there’s already been some reaction from the G5 Sahel and from ECOWAS so I can imagine that ECOWAS will convene an emergency meeting at some point soon to discuss this and so any decision that comes out of a meeting like that would certainly be something to watch, at least in terms of regional reaction. There’s also a G5 EU meeting coming up that I’m not sure will happen at this point, given that Mali’s participation was uncertain and now that there’s been this coup in Burkina Faso, it’s a bit hard to see that meeting going forward and in the format that its planned. But that’s what I’m looking for right now and as I said before, I’m also looking for an announcement of some sort of a transitional plan. The junta announced that they intended to return to civilian rule and so presumably there is going to be some sort of a transition. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of transition they propose and particularly how long of a transitional period they propose.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:49] Thanks. And Brice, what inflection points or decisions or moments in the near future will you be looking towards that will suggest to you how this this crisis may unfold?

Brice Bado [00:20:01] I think the most important thing will be the transitional plan. I think that this will be the most important thing that will be the tipping point, depending on the calendar that they will present. People, civil society organizations and political parties within the country, they will have to take positions and also regional organizations like ECOWAS and the international community, like France, who is very much involved in Francophone West Africa with all these actors will take position and then things will become a little bit clear.

Why have there been so many recent coups in West Africa?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:20:57] You know, I opened this conversation by noting that this is now the fourth coup in the region in 17 months. That’s two coups in Mali, one in Guinea, and now in Burkina Faso. If you sort of expand your geographic remit a little bit and go to Chad and Sudan, that’s two more coups. Is this a contagion? And is there something unique about this historic moment that is sort of driving all these military coups?

Brice Bado [00:21:27] Yes, I think that there is a crisis of legitimacy, and this is really important. You know, for many years, we think that we define legitimacy by the election. When you have been elected, you are legitimate but right now, we have seen that from popular movement, to be elected is not seeming to be enough, that people are expecting their government to be effective in delivering public goods such as security and other goods. I think that the rise of civil society organizations in many of these countries that are able to mobilize through social media and other means and that are able to stand as a contrepoids, how would you say that in English…

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:35] Andrew, you can translate. Je suis desole.

Andrew Lebovich [00:22:41] A counterweight.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:41] A counterweight. Thank you!

Brice Bado [00:22:43] Ah, yes, thank you! So, I think that the situation has really changed. So, for government, there is a demand of accountability, you know, that as a right. So, these explain why we have popular support to such a coup. And honestly, I think that the trend will continue if really, we don’t add to democracy, if we don’t think democratically behind elections to incorporate the government capacities to deliver public goods. And also, the armies, people are also trained. For example, Damiba in Burkina Faso, as well as the one was arrested two weeks ago, there was suspicion that he will make a coup. All these people are also intellect, I mean, I don’t want to say intellectual, they publish books. So, we do have a kind of military that has emerged, a kind of civil society that emerged, and a population that has become more critical, you know, so in such situations, I think that we will witness more demonstrations that will challenge governments and maybe the military will seize this situation to take power.

Andrew Lebovich [00:24:14] Also, if I can add really quickly, build off of the last point, something else that’s not necessarily a deciding factor, but is an interesting thing that’s emerged in the current trend, is the participation of the, I guess you’d call them mid-level officers rather than junior officers so Lieutenant Colonels and Colonels and particularly that have come from special units, special forces units, other kinds of special units that have been trained and in particular received quite a bit of European-American training, equipment, but also have received quite a bit of legitimacy from that and have also been more active in combat operations. This is the case in Burkina Faso and in Mali, especially, but there’s a kind of aura and legitimacy that people tap into and that also, I think with the creation and the rise to prominence of these special units—and there are parallels that can be drawn to the roles of special forces units in Western militaries especially the U.S.—where people sometimes see themselves not only as separate but as having a different kind of responsibility or a greater responsibility to respond to the failings or perceived failings of civilian politicians. And this is something that is also, I think, an important factor here.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:25:40] I’d like now to bring into this conversation, Alexandra Lamarche. Alexandra, can you unmute yourself and just briefly introduce yourself?

Alexandra Lamarche [00:25:49] Hi, everyone. I’m Alexandra Lamarche and I’m the senior advocate for West and Central Africa at Refugees International.

What are the living conditions like in Burkina Faso amidst the recent coup?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:25:55] Alexandra, what are you hearing from your humanitarian colleagues on the ground in Burkina Faso today and over the last couple of days?

Alexandra Lamarche [00:26:05] I’m not hearing much and that’s the issue that’s happened sort of increasingly over the last years and especially under Kabore’s years in power is silencing of NGOs, and people are very, very reluctant to speak on the phone, very reluctant to sort of conduct normal business by email and fully inform outside colleagues about what’s happening because of the fear of government. And that’s the thing that I find a bit interesting about this current dynamic is that because many people were sort of anti-Kabore doesn’t necessarily mean that they are pro coup, right? Or pro this type of change of power. There’s been a significant crackdown on NGO’s and kicking out NGO’s that were critical. There’s lots of journalistic censorship and preventing anyone from reporting on the military operations or anything, and I think that demoralizes the national forces. So, I have a lot of trouble thinking that that will change under this new leadership.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:27:08] Could I have you sketched like the humanitarian situation on the ground. Brice discussed and mentioned an IDP crisis, internally displaced people, in Burkina Faso. What is the humanitarian situation in Burkina Faso today and how might this coup impact that one way or the other?

Alexandra Lamarche [00:27:30] It will definitely make this worse. It was already, the trend lines have been steadily deteriorating over the past few years since the crisis started in 2018. There are currently 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and 1.5 million people who are displaced. The bulk of that are internally displaced, as Brice said, but there’s about 24,000 refugees in neighboring countries. This has steadily inclined. I wrote a report in July and there were 1.2 million, so an extra about 300,000 people so it’s a constant, constant spread of violence, constant waves of displacement. And it’s important to note that the military is the most cited reason for displacement. As much as the violence of armed groups is extremely real and poses a very serious protection threat to people. The majority of people note that they are scared of national forces. So now that the national forces are in power, I anticipate the humanitarian needs and displacement numbers will both increase in the coming months.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:28:34] And this is, you know, common throughout the region in which national forces are not always seen as like the saviors or rescuers of displaced people or people facing security threats from other armed groups.

Alexandra Lamarche [00:28:48] Yeah. And I think that there’s a real disconnect often between capital cities where they perceive that there is a threat to them. It’s possible, but it tends to be much more in the rural areas so there’s a disconnect between populations that want, yes, of course, their national militaries to resolve these issues compared to the people whose lives are directly impacted by their presence. So, there’s a bit of a disconnect. It will be interesting to see if that does shift over the coming months. It’s also important to note that I mean, regionally, there’s a looming threat of famine and we’re expecting between Mali, Burkina, and Niger we’re expecting 8.2 million people to be food insecure by the summer because the lean season is actually starting sooner. And these were the projected numbers a few months ago so I anticipate that this this change might have ripple effects on that. If there’s an increase of insecurity, there’s likely to be a worsening famine situation for the people of Burkina Faso.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:29:45] A huge thank you to Alexandra for speaking with me and to our other speakers as well. So, with that, let me just thank everyone. Stay safe and we will see you next time. All right. Thanks, everyone. Bye! All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Alexandra, Brice, and Andrew for speaking with me. As I mentioned, you can find the full recording by following me on Twitter @MarkLGoldberg. The full recording is available exclusively directly on Twitter, there’s no way to export it, but if you want to listen to the whole thing, you can do so just right on Twitter. And just a disclaimer that the views and opinions expressed in this episode belong solely to those of us who expressed said views and opinions. All right, we’ll see you next time. Bye!