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PoliticsBurkina Faso

France agrees to pull troops from Burkina Faso

Martina Schwikowski
January 25, 2023

France has received a request from the Burkinabe military junta to withdraw its troops from the Sahel country and will do so within a month. The success of the counterterrorism operation has been limited, experts say.

A French soldier in Burkina Faso, November 5, 2019
French special forces are based in Burkina Faso in a deployment dubbed 'Sabre' to fight jihadists across the Sahel regionImage: Philippe de Poulpiquet/MAXPPP/picture alliance

The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that it will respect a request from Burkina Faso's ruling military junta to withdraw its troops within one month.

France has around 400 troops in the West African nation supporting Burkinabe armed forces in a fight against an Islamist insurgency that has spread from Mali across the Sahel over the last 10 years.

Paris withdrew its soldiers from neighboring Mali in August 2022, officially ending its military deployment — not least because of anti-French propaganda against the operation.

But relations between France and its former colony Burkina Faso had already deteriorated after a military coup a year earlier and the assumption of power by 34-year-old military officer Ibrahim Traore.

A Burkinabe man patrols the army's headquarters in Ouagadougou
The Burkinabe government has assured Paris it will not follow Mali by turning to Russia's Wagner Group to back up its armyImage: Ahmed Ouoba/AFP/Getty Images

Failed fight against terrorism

Since the new military regime took power, there have been repeated demonstrations by young people demanding the departure of France's ambassador and French troops — the most recent took place just day ago, when hundreds shouted anti-French slogans in the capital, Ouagadougou. 

Antoine Glaser, a journalist and expert on Sahel studies, assumes that the Burkinabe do not appreciate the presence of French troops in the fight against terrorism. But other factors — such as political propaganda — have also played a role in persuading the authorities to repatriate the mission.

Glaser told DW that he had no doubt that the young people were calling for the withdrawal of the French soldiers on a politically nationalistic basis.

"Since they [editor's note: the ruling military] are not really succeeding against the jihadists, they are strengthening their support among the population by saying: 'France must leave Burkina Faso'," Glaser said.

Burkina Faso's self-declared leader Ibrahim Traore is welcomed by supporters holding Russian's flags
Burkina Faso is ruled by a military junta, led by Ibrahim Traore, which seized power last SeptemberImage: Vincent Bado/REUTERS

Operation Sabre longest in action

Soldiers from France's Operation Sabre have been stationed in Ouagadougou since 2010, but the mission's presence was only formalized in 2018 under the tenure of former President Roch Marc Christian Kabore. It had been set up under the presidency of Blaise Compaore without official status.

The work of the special forces was not very visible, according to Sahel expert Seidik Abba.

But the soldiers intervened in the terrorist attacks in the capital in January 2016, Abba recalled. Sabre often intervened alongside other French missions outside Burkina Faso, especially with Operation Barkhane, to eliminate jihadi leaders.

Abba emphasized, the Sabre unit was formed 12 years earlier, even before Operation Serval in Mali and Operation Barkhane in the Sahel.

"At that time, there were European and even French hostages who had often been captured in the countries of the Sahel, even before the north of Mali was occupied. France had this unit to carry out special operations," he said, adding that at the beginning, there were only 50 to 100 men.

Burkina Faso police establish a barrier in Ouagadougou
In the capital Ouagadougou police establishes barriers after an attack by gunmen on a restaurantImage: Ahmed Ouoba/AFP/Getty Images

According to Abba, it was obvious that in January 2016, when the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou was attacked, Sabre and the Burkinabe authorities had worked together to free the 120 hostages and repel the terrorists.

Cooperation with Russia?

But terrorism is Burkina Faso's biggest problem, he said.

"Today, the Burkinabe authorities believe that the presence has no added value," Abba added. "Because despite the long duration of this deployment and the 400-strong force, no success of the sabre-rattling in the fight against terrorism is apparent."

With the withdrawal of the French soldiers, Burkina Faso — like Mali — could try to strengthen its military cooperation with Russia.

"Russia is a reasonable choice in this dynamic," Burkinabe Prime Minister Apollinaire Kyelem de Tembela said last week after talks with the Russian ambassador and a visit to Moscow in December. "We believe that our partnership needs to be strengthened."

Is the Burkinabe authorities' dismissal of Operation Sabre directly related to the Kremlin and the possible use of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group

Analyst Abba is sceptical: "No, I don't think so. The reason is the poor results in the fight against terrorism, despite the presence of Sabres on Burkinabe territory."

A group of people carrying a variety of items
Burkina Faso, a former French colony, is one of the poorest and most volatile in AfricaImage: imago images/Joerg Boethling

Security situation worsens

But all those who could benefit from the withdrawal of Sabre troops would be lying in wait. Be it representatives of Russian bilateral military cooperation, be it Wagner. "All these groups are lurking in ambush," said Abba.

And he pointed out that the Russian ambassador — who lives in Abidjan and apparently went to the authorities after the coup discussed with them and signaled that his country was ready to offer them his support in the fight against terrorism.

The security situation in the region continues to deteriorate. The need for humanitarian aid has reached unprecedented levels, according to the UN refugee agency. Two million people have fled their villages for fear of attacks by armed groups in the north, and thousands have been killed in attacks.

Etienne Gatanazi contributed to this article.

This article was originally written in German.

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