The 24 January military coup that overthrew Burkina Faso’s president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré comes amid a deepening security crisis in the country. Both civilians and defence and security forces have long voiced their discontent, including with Kaboré’s political stewardship.
This is also West Africa’s fourth coup in less than two years. Kaboré’s deposition follows those of former Malian presidents Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and Bah N’Daw in August 2020 and May 2021 respectively, and that of former Guinean president Alpha Condé in September 2021.
Much more than a trend, increasing coups reflect a major crisis in West Africa’s political systems, which aren’t meeting the people’s expectations and are plagued by corruption. They indicate a need to rethink democratic models – not just elections, but also the effectiveness of institutions that are supposed to protect and serve citizens.
Burkina’s latest coup was orchestrated by Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who was recently promoted to head the country’s third military region.
Since 2015, the country has faced an unprecedented crisis that has killed an estimated 7 569 people in six years and displaced more than 1.6 million. Frequent attacks by jihadist insurgents have targeted civilians and government officials, especially the armed forces, which have suffered heavy losses. Teachers, civil servants and judicial staff are also being targeted, leading to the disuse of public services in conflict-affected areas.
In June 2021, an attack on the village of Solhan, not far from the Niger border, killed at least 132 people. It was one of the deadliest in the country but wasn’t an isolated case. In 2021 alone, Burkina Faso recorded some 1 337 crisis-related violent incidents, with 2 294 casualties.
This despite Kaboré’s efforts to prioritise security. In January 2020, his government created the Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie, a corps of civilian auxiliaries mobilised to support the national defence and security forces. Most of its members come from former community militias. The government has also made budgetary efforts. Between 2016 and 2021, the national budget for defence and security grew from €240 746 280 to €652 759 680 – an increase of 271.14%.
However these investments haven’t improved the forces’ living conditions or operational capacity much, partly due to financial management problems. Rather, persistent equipment and supply problems have made them weaker while jihadist groups grow stronger.
In November 2021, 53 police officers died in a terror attack on the Inata military post while they were waiting for logistical support and supplies, including food rations. The incident sent shock waves through the country, leading to calls for Kaboré’s resignation. The dismissal of his prime minister Christophe Dabiré in early December initially eased tensions, but this was short-lived.
The Inata tragedy widened the gap between troops on the ground and military and political hierarchies. But the distrust isn’t surprising or new – it is mutual and long-standing. It dates back to the fall of Blaise Compaoré in 2014 and the dissolution of his presidential security regiment, as well as the attempted counter-coup in September 2015. While the counter-coup was thwarted, it damaged political leaders’ confidence in the military.
Many Burkinabè were also frustrated with the political management of the Kaboré regime, which was regularly accused of corruption, laxity and nepotism. Since 2017, polls have shown a steady decline in trust and satisfaction with a government that has failed to meet the Burkinabè people’s expectations for good governance. These expectations were considerable after 27 years of rule by Compaoré, who also came to power in a coup.
Rumours of a coup resurfaced in late 2021 amid continued security and governance problems. If the arrest of Lieutenant-Colonel Emmanuel Zoungrana in early January this year is any indication, the threat was taken seriously. He was suspected of inciting the action.
This is not the first time Burkina Faso has faced a coup: it’s at least the country’s fifth since its 1960 independence, not counting the aborted attempt in September 2015 and the popular uprising in October 2014.
In the current regional context, though, the recent coup highlights the challenges of ineffective governments that fail to meet people’s expectations in terms of transparency and security. Together, these coups reflect a major crisis in West Africa’s political systems, which mustn’t be overlooked.
While military transitions with unpredictable outcomes are multiplying in West Africa, the upcoming one in Burkina Faso carries high stakes. It could compound political and security problems in a region facing growing insecurity in the Sahel and the coastal states.
This new constitutional breach should urge the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to learn from Mali’s case by adopting a pragmatic and constructive approach.
With three military transitions now in its hands, ECOWAS will have to go beyond the expected condemnations and initiate dialogue with Burkina Faso’s new leaders. In this respect, the diplomatic and military missions decided by the region’s heads of state on 28 January are encouraging.
Going forward, this dialogue should aim to establish a roadmap based on concrete objectives jointly agreed with the whole of Burkina Faso’s political class and civil society. The success of this approach will depend on the regional bloc’s ability to take into account the unique national realities of the country – beyond posturing.