Last week’s coup in Burkina Faso was a major setback in Western efforts to stabilize the Sahel region, most of which is facing years of Islamist insurgency in addition to a series of military takeovers in the last 18 months in Mali, Chad, and Sudan that has created political uncertainty in the respective countries.
The January 24 overthrow of the government of democratically-elected President Roch Kaboré by military officers has been applauded by those in the West African nation who believe that Kaboré, who first assumed power in 2015 and was re-elected in 2020, had both failed to unite the country and to provide a solution to the security crisis. The new junta, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, has indicated that the security crisis in Burkina Faso is its main priority.
Already, Burkina Faso has been suspended by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as well as the African Union (AU), and it is unlikely that France, after having made a large investment in fighting violent extremists in the Sahel, will engage the new leadership on how to deal with the insurgency in the Sahel, at least until it shows a commitment to put in place a transitional government. Needless to say, it will be difficult for the coup leaders to garner any international support. This puts Burkina Faso on the road to isolation, and much more vulnerable to jihadists who could take this as an opportunity to expand.
While France has been unable to eliminate terrorism in the region through Operation Barkhane, which then-President François Hollande launched in 2013, there have been tactical military successes that have helped prevent the expansion of insurgents in the fragile region. Security analysts have criticized France over the small number of troops it deployed in the Sahel and how its anti-terrorism operations focus mainly on Mali, thereby enabling jihadists who’ve been displaced from the country to move into its neighbors, especially Niger. If France no longer has a legitimate Burkina Faso government to partner with, it puts into question its ability to operate there, especially after having come down hard on the military junta.
In Mali and Chad, coups have fractured alliances between France and the governments and emboldened insurgents who control large swathes of territory. From the start of Operation Barkhane, France has led an operation targeting insurgent groups in the Sahel linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. But over the last four years, the French have been working to turn security over to government forces in the region. It has pledged to cut its 5,000 troops in half and close a number of military bases, and is also supporting a European special task force known as Takuba to accompany local troops during operations. These efforts have been jeopardized by two successive coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, which France condemned, insisting on a quick return to civilian governance. A deadlock between the President Emmanuel Macron administration and Mali’s current military junta is working against any cooperation between the two countries on fighting jihadists.
The relationship between France and the new military junta in Burkina Faso could go in the same direction. In fact, pressure is mounting on Burkina Faso from its citizens to do what the military junta in Mali did after the most recent coup—turn to mercenaries from The Wagner Group, a Russian private military company. Some supporters of the coup, fed up with France’s unsuccessful efforts to prevent rising violence from gangs and militant groups, have been calling for their country to switch alliances from France to Moscow.
If that happens, Western support for Burkina Faso in the fight against terrorists could further dwindle. The West would be uncomfortable working and sharing intelligence with a government that embraces a Russian group that has faced international condemnation for its human rights abuses. Already Mali is waiting to find out whether or not it would be left further isolated by the West for inviting Wagner mercenaries to the country.
Like Mali, Burkina Faso is also unlikely to receive much United States support under the new military junta. When President Boubacar Keita was overthrown by soldiers in Bamako in August 2020, the US suspended cooperation with Mali’s military. America has already hinted that it could do the same to Burkina Faso where it has provided tens of millions of dollars in security assistance since 2013. The coup may also prevent the US Air Force from continuing vital counterterrorism surveillance and targeting efforts in an area where Islamic terrorism is growing. If that happens, Burkina Faso, which reportedly has only three mostly grounded Super Tucano light attack aircraft and depends mainly on the US for surveillance and reconnaissance assistance, will have little or no capacity to track and target terrorists.
But the concern about Burkina Faso’s ability to fight terrorism following the coup isn’t only about the likely withdrawal of international support. The coup could present a threat to unity in the armed forces, as it appears that not every key officer in the military—especially very senior personnel—approved of the toppling of the Kaboré government by junior military officers. These divisions could threaten a unified approach to the security situation. In addition, some of the more experienced military personnel may be forced to retire, either because they had worked closely with Kaboré or are senior to the coup leaders. This would mean the armed forces would lose some of their most capable soldiers.
The toppling of the Kaboré government is one coup too many in West Africa, and the international community is aware that if it doesn’t come down hard on the military junta, it would lose the chance to pass a message to other militaries in the fragile region that democracies cannot be upended without severe consequences. The options for Burkina Faso’s international partners are limited. The likely route is to engage with the new government only if the military junta commits to stepping aside for a transitional government headed by a civilian. Rather than rushing to withdraw security assistance for Burkina Faso, France, and the US can give ultimatums to the military junta to draw up a plan for this, and only take action against the country if current leaders fail to meet the deadline. ECOWAS and the AU could play a role in pressuring the current administration to accept being part of an interim government that will conduct elections and usher back in a democratically elected government.
At the moment no one knows what the Burkina Faso junta’s plan is going forward. If it really wants a solution to the security crisis, and if it wants to ensure an international commitment to the fight against terrorism, it has to at least give assurances as soon as possible that its hold of power would be only for a short while.