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NIAS Africa Monitor
Coup in Burkina Faso: Five things to know

  Apoorva Sudhakar

The coup in Burkina Faso represents a larger problem in West Africa, a region affected by shaky governance and Islamist violence. 

On 24 December, an announcement signed by Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba informed Burkinabes that the army had ousted and detained President Roch Marc Kabore. It cited deterioration of security and declared dissolution of the government and national assembly, suspension of the constitution, and closure of borders. 

The coup garnered criticism at the regional and international levels; however, there was domestic support to an extent. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres criticised "any attempt to take over a government by the force of arms." Guterres asked the coup leaders to "lay down their arms & ensure the safety of the President and the protection of the country's institutions." Al Jazeera quoted statements from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU), condemning the coup. ECOWAS maintained that Kabore's resignation was a result of "threat, intimidation and pressure” and on 28 January, the regional organisation suspended Burkina Faso; this makes it the third member country to face suspension due to military coups, the previous two being Mali and Guinea. Ghana’s President and current ECOWAS Chairman Nana Akufo-Addo said: “The resurgence of coup defeats in our region is in direct violation of our democratic tents. It represents a threat to peace, security and stability in West Africa.”

However, the domestic scenario presented a stark contrast with over a thousand people celebrating the coup in the capital, Ouagadougou, conveying what the Burkinabe population wanted. The celebrations were similar to those in Guinea and Mali after witnessing coups in 2021. 

Why are the coups being celebrated in Africa? Is there a larger political trend in Africa currently? 

Five things to know
First, the soldiers' motive. The announcement of the military takeover was made under an umbrella entity, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR). The soldiers had been increasingly wary of the security situation in Burkina Faso. They had often maintained that they were not provided with the latest technology and rations to fight the armed insurgency linked to the Islamic State in the country, especially in the north. A recent attack in November 2021 witnessed 49 military officials at a gendarmerie post killed. The armed forces unit said they had no access to the resupply of arms and food for weeks, thereby indicating a friction or miscommunication between the military and government. 

Second, the build-up towards the coup. Several incidents like the above fuelled the concerns of ordinary Burkinabes; they saw the attacks targeting security forces and civilians as a government failure. In November 2021, Ouagadougou witnessed protests demanding the resignation of Kabore. To quell the discontent, in December, Kabore replaced the Prime Minister. On 12 January, the government announced that a coup attempt had been put down; soldiers and civilians were arrested, thereby sparking a new round of anti-government protests. By 22 January, two days prior to the coup, hundreds of Burkinabes had gathered again in Ouagadougou demanding Kabore's resignation; on the other hand, soldiers were calling for more support to fight the Islamist groups. 

Third, the Islamist violence. With the Islamic State expanding its footprints in Africa and setting the stage in the continent's west since 2015, violence has plagued Burkina Faso. A news report in Al Jazeera cites that the number of violent instances in the country has doubled over a year, with close to 1150 reported attacks in 2021; in contrast, there were only 500 attacks in 2020. Similarly, a BBC news report estimates that the insurgency has caused over 2,000 casualties; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that violence had resulted in the internal displacement of 237,000 people, in the first six months of 2021. 

Fourth, the changing Burkinabe demands. In 2014, widespread protests brought down long-standing former President Blaise Compaore, who had come to power in 1987 through a military coup. Burkinabes opposed Compaore's proposal to extend his presidential term in 2015, eventually leading to his exile and the election of Kabore as the President. The people's demands were supported by a group of army men who refused to back Compaore. Kabore's election marked the beginning of a democratic phase for the country; however, the security threats mentioned above made him increasingly unpopular among the masses, especially after he was re-elected in 2020. Today, the Burkinabe demands and the support to the army are a contrast to the demands laid forward in 2015. 

Fifth, the popularity of coups in Africa. The latest coup is the fourth successful coup in West Africa in less than a year; in 2021, the region witnessed three military takeovers in Chad in April, Mali in May, Guinea in September. Certain sections of the populations in Mali and Guinea were jubilant and looked up to the military to address their woes. However, earlier in January 2022, ECOWAS imposed sanctions on Mali, placing the military in a fix. Guinea, under the military leader Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, maintained it would not follow the ECOWAS decision and extended support to Mali. 

Like every coup leader promises a democratic transition, the MPSR in Burkina Faso has also claimed to restore the same shortly. Meanwhile, in the east, Sudan, too witnessed a successful coup in October 2021. Therefore, speculations of whether Africa is back to its era of coups run high. 

What does this mean? 
First, the regional impact. The reasons listed by the MPSR, including the pressure to combat violence, are similar to those cited by Mali's coup leader Colonel Assimi Goita; this implies that the problem transcends geographical borders. In the near future, West Africa will remain a conflict hotspot and violence is likely to increase. This would lead to more casualties and increased internal displacement. 

Second, the effectiveness of ECOWAS. The coup in Burkina Faso, despite the regional organisation's sanctions on Mali, indicates that the ECOWAS decision has been ineffective in drawing a line. Similarly, Guinea's decision to defy ECOWAS also shows a growing rift within the region. 

Third, democracy in Africa. There is a visible backsliding of democracy in Africa, with more coups. Despite the hope of democracy that arose in the late 90s and early 2000s, a strong establishment of the same appears to be distant. 

About the author
Apoorva Sudhakar is a Project Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her areas of interest include peace and conflict in Africa and South Asia. She has previously worked on the conflict over the Nile Dam and the abductions in Nigeria. 

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