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PoliticsBurkina Faso

Is the Burkina Faso coup a boost for Russian influence?

Chrispin Mwakideu
October 4, 2022

A close ally of Russia's President Vladimir Putin with his own private militia was quick to praise Friday's power grab by Captain Ibrahim Traore. The new junta accused France of seeking to stage a coup within a coup.

Demonstrators gather near Thomas Sankara Memorial with Burkina Faso and Russian flags in support of what they believe to be another military coup in Ouagadougou
Burkinabes waved their national flag alongside that of Russia during Friday's coupImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

While a semblance of normality is gradually returning to Burkina Faso following last Friday's coup led by little-known Captain Ibrahim Traore, neighboring countries are watching the political turmoil with growing concern.

"Anyone who has been following the developments in the region for the past six years will be very very worried," said Mutaru Mumuni Muktar, executive director of the independent organization West Africa Center for Counter-Extremism (WACCE).

"We are seeing the threat of terrorism and extremist violence not only expanding withing the Sahelian states but moving downwards towards coastal states," Muktar told DW.

A security expert in Ghana, Muktar pointed to increased extremist violence on the northern borders of Togo, Benin and Ivory Coast.

Former President of Burkina Faso Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba addresses the UN
Ousted former interim President Damiba is reportedly in TogoImage: Julia Nikhinson/AP/picture alliance

Strong condemnation

The international community strongly condemned the coup that overthrew Lt Col Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who came to power on January 31, 2022, after staging a putsch that ousted democratically elected President Roch Marc Christian Kabore on January 24.

West Africa's regional body, ECOWAS, also condemned Friday's coup in Burkina Faso "in the strongest possible terms," calling it "inappropriate."

For Muktar, the frequent coups now becoming popular are worsening the violent extremism threat in the West African sub-region.

"This mixture of security threats should worry all of us, especially countries like Ghana along the coast, that have yet to experience direct violent extremist attacks."

ECOWAS calls for a return to democracy

ECOWAS, or the Economic Community of West African States, demanded the new military junta respect the timetable agreed with transitional authorities for a rapid return to constitutional order by July 1, 2024.

"I am not satisfied with the ECOWAS approach," Muktar said. "In the last couple of years, we have seen the same dysfunctional approach to dealing with the issue of coups and insecurity in the region."

Although Muktar lauded ECOWAS for condemning the latest coup, he urged the regional body to do more.

"What we need to see is ECOWAS go beyond the measures of sanctions and embargoes. We need to see ECOWAS activate all its protocols, especially when it comes to governance." 

Supporters of Captain Ibrahim Traore parade waving a Russian flag in the streets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Experts say Moscow is taking advantage of growing French resentment in West AfricaImage: Sophie Garcia/AP/picture alliance

Russia in, France out

France and Russia have been battling for influence in West Africa, with the latter gaining support from locals who seem fed up with Paris.

News of Burkina Faso's second coup in 2022 was welcomed by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the private military company Wagner Group.

Prigozhin, a close ally of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, quickly congratulated Traore on his successful coup.

"I salute and support Captain Ibrahim Traore," the Russian tycoon said in a statement, calling Traore, "a truly courageous son of the motherland."

Many Burkinabes greeted news of Damiba's departure by cheering, lighting fires, and waving Russian flags in the capital Ouagadougou.

Some threw stones at the French Embassy. Others attacked a French cultural center in Bobo-Dioulassou.

Some residents accused France of working with Damiba to conduct a coup within a coup on Saturday.

France later distanced itself from the coup, saying it was a victim of misinformation. 

A guard hut outside the French embassy on fire in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
The French Embassy was attacked by arsonists Image: Assane Ouedraogo/EPA-EFE

Praise for Captain Traore

"Sincerely, the coup was good, I myself am happy, the country was badly managed," a Burkinabe citizen told DW.

"President Damiba did not respect the mandate. That's why there was this event [counter-coup]," another Burkinabe said.

Damiba had accused former President Kabore of not doing enough to combat Islamist Jihadists. Captain Traore gave that exact same reason for his decision to topple his former comrade.

Sani Adib, a foreign policy and security analyst based in Accra, Ghana, told DW that people's expectations of coups are misplaced.

"ECOWAS citizens think coups provide you [with] a magic wand that will turn things around overnight," Adib said, stressing that things don't happen that way.

Burkina Faso's self-declared new leader Ibrahim Traore waves
Captain Traore (waving) has pledged a return to civilian rule by 2024 or earlierImage: Vincent Bado/REUTERS

Concerted effort needed

"I don't think Captain Traore will be able to change anything overnight. Rather, a more concerted, coordinated international approach must be taken."

The security expert warned that Burkina Faso cannot do this alone and urged other countries to contribute resources. "So we are able to deal with the situation once and for all."

Adib said it was sad that terrorists were winning in Burkina Faso.

"It's what has resulted or culminated in the coups we are witnessing, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso," Adib added.

Russia to the rescue?

Many observers like Adib and Muktar now think any possible solution will have to come from outside Burkina Faso. There are signs that Traore could reach out to Moscow for military assistance just like Mali did.

"There has been a growing sense of frustration and fatigue, and anti-French sentiment," Muktar said. He added that France and other Western partners seem to be becoming unpopular and that governments in the region are looking to ignite relationships with countries that they believe will bring a new dynamic.

In addition, Adib suggested that winning the war against extremist violence would require all hands on deck.

"We are supposed to be partners in this, but when there are cracks, when there are divisions, it plays to the advantage of the terrorists," Adib said. "That is why it's imperative that we bury our differences," he emphasized.

"We have a lot of splintered approaches. MINUSMA, Barkhane, Joint Task Force, G5 Sahel, the Accra Initiative — it's indicative of the uncoordinated approach we are resorting to."

Edited by: Jon Shelton