With the latest coup in Burkina Faso, West African, French and American policy makers are at a crossroads. To analyse.
Le last coup in Burkina Faso is the fourth perpetrated in Africa, in the Sahelian region, in less than 18 months. The other three took place in August 2020 in Mali, in April 2021 in Chad, and the " coup within a coup in Mali last May.
Yet European and American leaders currently seem more concerned by the presence of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, which has links with Russia, than by the fundamental political problems of the region.
All these coups illustrate the risks linked to the prioritization of the fight against terrorism (and competition with Russia) by regional and international actors who at the same time ignore other warning signals. These include in particularelections distorted by low turnout, disconnected leaders and muzzling of freedom of expression.
The coup in Burkina Faso was the subject of urgent regional coordination meetings and emergency virtual summit of the Economic Community of West African States on January 28, which decided to suspend that country.
I have studied Islam and politics in North West Africa for the past sixteen years, focusing on the 20th and 21st centuries. My most recent book, Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups (Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups), is based on case studies carried out in Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, which make it possible to examine jihadist movements from within, uncovering their activities and internal struggles over the past three decades.
In my opinion with this latest coup, West African policy makers, West African, French and American policy makers are at a crossroads. They can decide to let the coup pass and confirm de facto military domination throughout the Sahel or draw a red line and demand a return to constitutional order.
From revolution to failure
The overthrow of the President of Burkina Faso, Roch Kaboré, was notably preceded by a series of national coups dating back to 1966. In the tumultuous 1980s, the clear winner was a military dictator named Blaise Compaoré who closed the door to the revolutionary promise of Thomas Sankara, his predecessor, who is not a perfect man but none the less admirable, by declaring himself president for life. Compaoré was overthrown in a popular revolution in 2014.
The revolution survived its first major challenge – an attempted coup plotted in 2015 by Compaoré loyalists; subsequently, it failed thanks to Kaboré who was elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2020. The latter, who was close to Compaoré until the early 2010s, joined the opposition late and turned out to be a a poor spokesperson for the aspirations of the youth-led revolution.
The classic alternatives weren't much better. In 2015 as in 2020, the finalists were politicians linked to Compaoré, including the former finance minister, Zéphirin Diabré. During his first and second terms, Kaboré went with the flow without having a real program.
Meanwhile, security has regressed across much of the country. The easy explanation – much too easy – sometimes given is that Compaoré had signed a unofficial agreement with the jihadists based in Mali and beyond, which would have apparently made Burkina Faso immune to their attacks. However, after his fall, jihadists are rumored to have amassed in the country.
Another simplistic explanation is that West African jihadists, with deep pockets and tactical know-how from from abroad, are masterminds of strategy, crushing everything in their path throughout the region.
The reality is much more complex: the Sahelian jihadists have experienced ups and downs, and it took the convergence of many factors – beyond the fall of Compaoré or the strategic acumen of the jihadists – to make the center of the Sahel one of the worst conflict zones in the world.
In central Mali, a new wave of jihadist mobilization, which began in 2015, has formed over old grievances related to inequitable access to land, entrenched social hierarchies and the brutal and unthinking reactions of the forces. Malian security forces.
Across the border, in northern Burkina Faso, similar developments emerged in 2016, starting with grievances very focused on local aspects, the exchange of personnel and ideas across the Mali-Burkina Faso border, and the deterioration of the situation throughout the sub-region.
Army corruption and military coups
As the Malian crisis morphed into the Sahelian crisis, the region's militaries were simultaneously and collectively pushed to achieve more results, in other words, to kill more jihadists. The elements of condescending language from Paris, Washington and Brussels about the “partnerships” and “trainings” barely hide their contempt. European and even American ground troops, helicopters and drones criss-cross the region, leaving the Sahelian armies to play supporting roles or by-passing them completely.
The litanies on “good governance” denounce corruption in generic terms, but rarely focus on specific officials, which means that the military and civilians are held to little account. Scandals related to corruption in the army are regularly shelved have been regularly swept away such as, among others, that Niger – now the next country where coup fears are mounting.
Meanwhile, Sahelian security forces are suffering casualties from enemies blending into the countryside, leaving soldiers and gendarmes fearful and trigger-happy against civilians, deepening insecurity.
Because of all this dynamic, the colonels – the main architects of recent coups – are caught between ineffectual presidents, complacent generals and their own disgruntled troops. Elections bring no substantial change, key opposition leaders offer vague alternatives, and massive protests periodically erupt in Sahelian capitals demanding an alternative to a disastrous status quo.
One can understand the reaction of the colonels and why many civilians often support coups in the first place. However, these worsen the overall situation by superimposing new political crises on top of existing ones stemming from insecurity, humanitarian emergencies and the inability of civilian politicians to address fundamental issues.
Set the limits not to cross
The reaction of France, the United States and ECOWAS to the latest series of coups in the Sahel and West Africa has been to denounce them while quietly accepting them as a fait accompli.
A “political reality” sets in the moment the ousted leader reluctantly agrees to resign under duress, thereby decreeing that such leaders will never return to power. The “international community”, with the Economic Community of West African States as the main negotiator, then negotiates with each junta on the parameters of a transition to a return to civilian rule.
Because of this pattern of approach, regional diplomacy gets bogged down in protracted negotiations with juntas that are unwilling to play by the rules; this kind of situation increasingly affects Mali.
Paris and Washington, meanwhile, seem consistently in a rush to resume business as usual with whoever holds the reins of power. In this case, that status quo involves waging counter-terrorism campaigns, which are supposedly a way to enhance political stability, but which actually limit effective diplomatic responses to coups. , cases of corruption, electoral irregularities and human rights violations.
Why should anyone consider it politically fanciful to attempt to reverse coups? Examples of reverse coups are rare, but that doesn't mean Washington shouldn't try. At least Washington can take the rhetorical lead in not just “expressing concern” or “demanding the release” of detained and ousted presidents, but in demanding the reinstatement of deposed leaders.
Any concerns about “loss of credibility” should be put into perspective given that Washington already seems weak and deeply hypocritical in terms of promoting democracy and respecting human rights.
It's never too late to try to be consistent, including in cases that are now supposed to be completely settled. The Chadian junta regime, for example, is as unconstitutional today as it was in April 2021, when it came to power. Beyond rhetoric, there are many options to pressure juntas, such as sanctions, aid suspensions, ambassadorial withdrawals, suspensions from regional and international organizations, etc.
ECOWAS waived draconian economic sanctions immediately after the August 2020 coup in Mali, but ended up imposing them about 17 months later, after realizing that the junta was basically ignoring the orders from the regional institution.
To fail to use these tools when they would be most effective – immediately after every coup – is to be complicit in the militarization of this region. This is true for the remote outskirts where the jihadists gravitate, but also for the other capitals of the Sahel.
This article was first published as a blog in Responsible Statecraft.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.