The African Union at 20 — Burkina Faso and the curse of coups d’état

The African Union at 20 — Burkina Faso and the curse of coups d’état
People take part in a rally in support of the coup in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 2 October 2022. Thousands of residents came out in support of the coup and protested against France and called for more involvement from Russia. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Assane Oudraogo)

The region may experience more military coups if the African Union and international community are not more rigid in their opposition to the unlawful use of instruments of coercion by the military.

As the African Union (AU) continues to celebrate its 20-year anniversary, the resurgence of coups d’état in the Sahel has called into question its seriousness in combating “unconstitutional change” of government.

On 30 September, news of another coup d’état filtered through from Burkina Faso. Sporadic shots were heard at the heart of the country’s capital city, Ouagadougou. The news of a coup is gradually becoming a familiar narrative in the Sahel. In Burkina Faso alone, the military has struck nine times since its independence in 1960.

Prior to the announcement of this military takeover by a section of the military, things had fallen apart within the military leadership, and the sacking of the interim president, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba did not really come as a rude shock. Damiba ascended to power in a coup d’état on 31 January 2022, ousting the civilian administration of president Roch Kabore. Captain Ibrahim Traore has now taken over as interim leader of the military insurgent group until a new leadership arrangement can be negotiated.

The inability to combat terrorism and restore order to the country was given as the reason for the military putsch. Ironically, Damiba had given the same reason for the sacking of Ibrahim Traore earlier this year. Stakeholders in Africa’s governance, peace and security need to be very worried about the character and erratic nature of the Burkinabé military.

As usual, the international community, including the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), and the African Union (AU), has condemned the military takeover.

While a military coup remains an aberration and condemnable, it is also an aberration for a state to control only 60% of its territory, losing the other 40% to armed groups. Since the 2015 outbreak of terrorism in Burkina Faso, tens of thousands of people have lost their lives, and millions have been internally displaced.

The depth of terror has increased at an alarming rate since 2020, with the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), small arms and light weapons. Across the country, the targets of the attacks have changed from state security to volunteer defence forces and the civilian population.

In the first week of April 2019, more than 60 people died during an attack by terrorists and an outbreak of intercommunal violence in Arbinda, northern Burkina Faso. In August 2022, an Islamist fundamentalist group killed four soldiers and nine civilian army volunteers in an ambush in northern Burkina Faso, while the army also claimed to have killed 34 militants during the attack.

Both state security and the insurgent groups have killed innocent civilians during several gun battles. Burkina Faso has become the most insecure country in the Sahel.

Apart from terrorism, the country also harbours crimes such as kidnapping, banditry, money laundering and terrorism bankrolling. Based on reports by the US Department of State, terrorist organisations operating in the country fund their reign of terror through the trafficking of illicit goods in collaboration with existing organised criminal networks, including armed robbery, and kidnapping.

They have also targeted the resource community during gold mining operations. Despite the exploitation of resources in the country, more than 42% of the population is living in poverty — Burkina Faso is the fourth largest producer of gold in Africa. Unregulated exploration has also come with its own threats.

In addition, the country is at risk from climate change, which is evident in the loss of agricultural productivity and land degradation, including restricted access to water resources.

The AU has responded to the waves of coups with intensified efforts at repackaging its stance on military takeovers. One such was the convening of the 16th Extraordinary Session of the Assembly of the AU on Terrorism and Unconstitutional Changes of Government in Africa in May. The rate of military interventions in politics and the boldness of the military to strike for the second time in eight months since January shows how little they “feared” the AU.

The declining fearsomeness of Nigeria within Ecowas has also limited its deterrence capability in West Africa. Thus, the region may experience more military coups if the AU and international community are not more rigid in their opposition to the unlawful use of instruments of coercion by the military.

To gain a deeper understanding of the root and immediate causes of military interventions in politics and attempt to proffer sustainable policy frameworks to deter coups in Africa, the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, Codesria, and TrustAfrica’s forthcoming AU@20 symposium between 2-4 November has become more important. A conversation like this is an essential corollary for the peace and security of Africa. DM

Dr Adeoye O Akinola is Head of Research and Teaching at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.


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