February 1, 2022

IntelBrief: Burkina Faso Coup Destabilizes Country and Opens Door to Foreign Influence

AP Photo/Sophie Garcia

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The January 23 coup in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou continues a recent trend in West Africa of soldiers mutinying against their leaders over governance-related grievances.
  • The international condemnation of the coup is providing an opportunity for Russia to gain influence in Burkina Faso, which seeks military support to combat jihadists, but without strings attached to human rights promotion.
  • Possible Russian collaboration with the new military leaders in Burkina Faso would follow growing Russian military influence in other West African countries, such as neighboring Mali and Central African Republic (CAR).
  • Although the coup was purportedly intended to increase Burkina Faso’s ability to combat jihadists, the lack of a viable counterinsurgency strategy casts serious doubt on whether the coup will achieve any of its purported goals.

On January 23, another coup rocked West Africa when soldiers in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, detained President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré at a military base and took control over the areas surrounding the president’s residence, the main radio station, and other facilities. Key among the mutinying soldiers’ grievances was the deteriorating security situation in the country as a result of jihadist attacks by al-Qaeda-aligned Group for Supporters of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) and Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS). More broadly, the soldiers accused Kaboré of mismanaging government affairs, with the failure to curtail the jihadists as one such example.

The coup in Burkina Faso was reminiscent of the one just over ten years earlier in Mali, when soldiers also mutinied against the democratically elected president over concerns about the government’s failure to provide soldiers with training and equipment to effectively combat a jihadist insurgency. However, neither the military nor political crisis in Mali has been resolved more than a decade later. In fact, Mali itself experienced another military coup to overthrow an elected government only last year. The coup in Mali in 2021 and in Burkina Faso this year represent a broader trendline of coups destabilizing the region. Chad and Guinea also experienced coups in 2021, and Gabon faced a coup attempt in 2019. The region’s traditional powerhouse, Nigeria—which had been prone to military coups before embracing democracy in 1999—has, if anything, been the anomaly, with six transitions of power since 1999 without coups, despite the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency since 2009.

Over the past week in Burkina Faso, the government, parliament, and Constitution have all been suspended. If the situation unfolds in a fashion similar to what happened in Mali last year, the soldiers who came to power through the coup will perpetually delay new elections. This raises concerns on two primary fronts: that Burkina Faso’s political environment will become less democratic, and that the military itself still has few answers or new strategies for combatting the jihadists. Moreover, the condemnation of the coup from the international community, and in particular Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), means Burkina Faso’s new leadership is stigmatized, and needed military and development support may not be forthcoming.

The widespread opposition to the coup abroad, however, is opening up potential avenues for Russia to expand its influence in Burkina Faso, just as it has done in other countries in the region that have suffered from a mix of coups and internal conflict, such as Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali. In Mali, for example, Russia is willing to work with the military leaders who conducted the coup last year to train Malian soldiers in bases that France has abandoned as Paris recalibrates its approach to the Sahel. In Burkina Faso, supporters of the soldiers who conducted the coup know that Russia not only has the equipment and military trainers, including mercenaries that comprise the Wagner Group, that can be used to combat the jihadists, but that Russia also would not allow a non-democratic transition of power to affects its relations with Burkina Faso.

The United States, meanwhile, has expressed “deep concern” about the coup, but has avoided taking a strong position against the coup plotters. The U.S. State Department is reviewing whether it will continue providing military and other forms of assistance to Burkina Faso, while requesting the coup plotters de-escalate, return to civilian leadership, and not harm deposed president Kaboré. If Washington takes a strong stance against the coup plotters, there is concern that the result would push those in power closer to Russia at a time when Moscow is not only increasing its influence in West Africa, but also contesting the United States and its allies in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere. In fact, one of the apparent attractions of coup supporters to Russia is that it is perceived as more effective at countering insurgencies than France, the United States, or other Western countries. Moscow also places fewer strings on the assistance, such as not demanding that West African armies abide by human rights standards or that regimes democratize. Should Burkina Faso and Russia enhance relations, therefore, it is unlikely Burkina Faso will return to a democratic system anytime soon. This trajectory, in addition to Russia’s lack of experience in counterinsurgency in sub-Saharan Africa, does not bode well for Burkinabe, and even mutinying soldiers themselves, for addressing the grievances that led to the coup in the first place.