Coup in Cyrillic script. "France out, Russia in"

The president was deposed by a lieutenant colonel, a lieutenant colonel by a captain. In a moment will the Wagnerians come in?

This was the sixth military coup in the Sahel in just two years. And the second after just eight months in Burkina Faso. The putsch perpetrated by Captain Ibrahim Traore has much in common with the coups in Mali, Chad and Guinea. It weakens the traditional influence of Paris, strengthens the jihadists, and opens the way for Russia to take the place abandoned by France.

It has been 62 years since the independence of Upper Volta, and in that time the country has already had 10 presidents (two out of three in uniform), none of whom have failed to fulfil two conditions at once: gaining power through democratic elections and leaving peacefully at the end of their term. And not even changing the country's name to Burkina Faso, meaning 'country of the righteous people' in the language of the dominant peoples there (1984), has changed this. More recently, it can even be said to be more of a 'country of military coups'.

Junta devours its own children

Friday evening, 30 September. Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. A group of officers enter the television headquarters. In keeping with the tradition of military coups in the Black Continent, they stand in front of the cameras and read out a statement: the captain of Burkina Faso's army, Ibrahim Traore, has ousted the country's previous leader, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba, because he "could not cope with the deteriorating situation in the country caused by the increasing activity of extreme Islamist groups". Traore declares himself the new leader of Burkina Faso. He dissolves the government, suspends the constitution, closes the borders and bans all political parties and social organisations.

After two days of clashes between Traore's forces and soldiers loyal to Damiba, the hitherto military dictator steps down, but on seven conditions. Including a guarantee of security for himself, security for the soldiers who supported him, honouring promises made to the West African bloc of states (ECOWAS) to return to constitutional rule by July 2024 at the latest. Lieutenant Colonel Damiba then goes into exile to Togo. He did not enjoy for long the power he had gained only eight months earlier.

The rebel army announced on 24 January that it had removed President Roch Kabore from office, suspended the constitution, dissolved the government and parliament and closed the borders. In a statement signed by Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba and read out on state television, it said that the seizure of power was non-violent and that detainees were in a safe place.

The previously unknown and most likely ad hoc contrived Patriotic Movement for Protection and Reconstruction (MPSR), "which includes all sections of the army, decided today to terminate President Kabore's tenure," Damiba said.

Kabore lost power primarily because he was not doing well in the war against the jihadists. They were murdering civilians and soldiers with increasing frequency and scale. The former French colony has been struggling for years with attacks by groups linked to al-Qaeda (JNIM) and the so-called Islamic State (ISGS), which infiltrate the country from other countries in the sub-Saharan region. In 2021 alone, at least 2,000 people were killed in attacks conducted by jihadists.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Alongside the civilian authorities, the other target of the Burkinabe's ire has become France, which they believe is insufficiently helping to fight the Islamists, despite having deployed several thousand troops in the Sahel region. Does this remind you of anything? Yes, the situation in neighbouring Mali.

More than a thousand Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group are now operating in Mali, and the junta has expelled French troops from the country. In January 2022, the Wagnerists were given a military base in Timbuktu, abandoned by the French, by the authorities. There is no shortage of supporters of the 'France out, Russia in' strategy in Burkina Faso. Besides, Moscow itself, through the French-language versions of RT and Sputnik, Prigozhin's internet trolls, and finally the intelligence services, stimulated anti-French and at the same time pro-Russian sentiment in the streets during both Burkina Faso coups. Civilians, but also soldiers themselves, were often seen climbing on armoured vehicles with Russian flags in hand, surrounded by a crowd chanting "Russia! Russia!".
It is worth noting that the January coup was preceded by a veritable flood of pro-Russian content on social media. Support for Russia on the Burkinabe internet skyrocketed. Many pages highly critical of France and calling for Russian intervention appeared. During the second putsch, demonstrators stormed the gates of the French embassy in Ouagadougou and, although they were prevented from entering, they set fire to its premises. The crowd, in which many Russian flags were visible, also attacked the French cultural centre in Bobo-Dioulasso.

Colonels and mercenaries

Roch Kabore, who won the presidential election in 2015 and then a second time in 2020, was unable to deal with the Islamist insurgency in the northern and eastern regions of the country. Under his rule, almost 2 million people - 10 per cent of Burkina Faso's population - have been forced from their homes. Violence has affected 10 out of the country's 13 administrative regions.

In December 2021, after another bloody attack by jihadists in which 49 military personnel and four civilians were killed, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba is promoted to commander of a military district that includes Ouagadougou. This is a grave mistake by Kabore, who had been warned that this officer had close contacts with the heads of military juntas in Guinea and Mali.

Guinea was ruled by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya from September 2021, following the overthrow of President Alpha Conde. The junta in Mali, on the other hand, had been headed by Colonel Assimi Goita since May 2021. What do Damiba (41), Doumbouya (41) and Goita (39) have in common, apart from their similar military rank and age? They got to know each other well in elite French military academies.

Goita revealed himself to the wider public on 18 August 2020, when he joined a putsch organised against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita by two colonels with training in Russia, Malick Diaw and Sadio Camara. A transitional government was first formed, also with civilian participation, but by May 2021 Goita had already reached full power with a second coup. It was probably he who convinced Damiba that it was worth reaching out to the Wagnerians.

Ousted President Kabore claims that the Russians may have been involved in the January coup because, at the end of his rule, he refused to bow to pressure from the army to hire the Wagner Group to fight the jihadists. It was Lt Col Damiba who twice tried to convince the president to hire the Wagnerians. Kabore firmly rejected the possibility, pointing out that Western governments had already condemned the authorities in neighbouring Mali for bringing in Russian mercenaries.

The second such conversation was Damiba's last personal contact with the president. A few weeks later, the coup took place. The very next day after the putsch, Aleksandr Ivanov, the official representative of the Russian military training mission in the Central African Republic, issued a statement offering the training services of the Burkan army...

The twist is that Damiba, who initially promised to establish close cooperation with the Russians, eventually changed his mind. He wanted to continue to cooperate with the French. This prejudged his fate - in fact, as early as July, US intelligence warned that the Wagnerians and their allies had no intention of giving up on Burkina Faso.

Immediately after Damba's overthrow, Wagner Group founder and sponsor Yevgeny Prigozhin offered warm congratulations to the new junta chief. And the well-known pro-Kremlin 'political technologist' Sergei Markov openly admitted that the Kremlin had helped stage the coup.

On 30 September, a few hours after Captain Ibrahim Traore and his men staged a coup, an Il-76 landed on the airfield in Ouagadougou. It was due to arrive from Baku in Azerbaijan. Soldiers unloaded a dozen pallets and crates. Most likely with Kalashnikovs and ammunition. This was repeated the next day, even though the putschists had officially closed the airspace and land borders.

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A third aircraft landed at Bobo-Dioulasso on 5 October. On 13 October, an Il-76 arrived again in Ouagadougou. This time the cargo was much more substantial: Mi-8 and Mi-35 helicopters, plus 20 service men. Contracts for the purchase of these armaments had still been signed by the previous junta, headed by Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. The successors accepted the weapons with open hands.

Russia conquers former French colonies

Mali. First military coup in August 2020, with another, strengthening junta rule, in May/June 2021. Burkina Faso. First coup in January 2022, another in September/October 2022. Plus coups in Chad and Guinea in 2021.

Before that, the civil war in the Central African Republic and the dependence of the president there on Wagnerian and Russian aid. To this we can also add the military putsch in Sudan in October 2021, in which the army put an end to interim joint rule with civilians after the overthrow of the regime of Omar Bashir.

What do all these events have in common?

Firstly, there are bloody domestic conflicts in each of these countries.

Secondly, the military takes over (Central African Republic is an exception).

Thirdly, the new authorities are beginning to cooperate (or are open to doing so) with the Russians.

Fourthly, in all these former colonies of its, France is losing influence (Sudan being the exception).

Fifthly, the change of ally from Paris to Moscow is due more to the fact that the Russians do not care about the brutality of the regime and do not demand a return to democracy than to the fact that they are doing better against the enemies of the regime than the French.

Captain Traore justified his putsch on the grounds that Damiba's policy of relying on French military aid had not worked in the war against the jihadists. Although it is difficult to blame Paris for the increasingly dangerous insurgency of these groups, which have entered from neighbouring Mali and now control up to 40 per cent of Burkina Faso's territory, Traore's supporters make France responsible. This is in line with the geopolitical interests of Moscow, which is already active in the Central African Republic and Mali in an attempt to remove these countries from the French sphere of influence. Moreover, the crisis in Burkina Faso could worsen security in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire, France's most important ally in West Africa. We can also already see an increase in violence on the northern borders of Togo and Benin. For almost a decade, France has tried to help armies in the Sahel region - a strip of semi-arid land south of the Sahara desert that includes Burkina Faso - in the fight against jihadists. However, Emmanuel Macron has decided to curtail the very costly Operation Barkhane.

France has even recently withdrawn from Mali, after a breakdown in relations with the military junta there. In the case of previous coups, Russia tried to take advantage of the new situation. As far as Burkina Faso is concerned, there are many indications that it put its own hand to the coup.

Perhaps Putin sees Traore as a new ally after Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who came to power in January, failed to live up to Moscow's expectations, unlike the military regime in neighbouring Mali. The Kremlin has been pushing for military cooperation with Burkina Faso for some time. The country also interests Russia from an economic point of view: Burkina Faso is the fourth largest producer of gold on the continent.

The example of Sudan, the Central African Republic and, to a lesser extent, Mali, shows that the Russians are happy to offer military assistance in exchange for mining concessions. And of course Prigozhin plays a key role in this. His companies extract gold, diamonds and other minerals on extremely favourable terms, while the Vagnerians protect this business and at the same time provide services to the local regimes. At least part of the military government is sympathetic to Russia, and the new government will not be able to ignore the pro-Russian sentiment that has been building for years.
Captain Traore has already announced that he is ready to work with 'new partners' in the fight against the jihadists. But he is more cautious than his colleagues in Mali. He has not burned all his bridges with the West. He knows that a too open and radical turn towards Russia could lead to his isolation and the problems that the ruling junta in Mali's Bamako has today.

Nor does he seem to want to repeat the fate of the president of the Central African Republic. Faustine-Archange Toudaera has become the de facto hostage of the Wagnerians.

And then there is the most important thing: the priority for Traore is to fight the jihadists. And here again, the experience of Mali bows out. The junta there has pushed out the French and brought in the Wagnerians. Only that these completely fail to deal with the jihadists. Instead, they are hated in certain regions of Mali for the atrocious crimes committed against civilians - under the pretext of their alleged support for the rebels.

So for the time being, the Russians have not gained much more after the Traore putsch than they did after the earlier Damiba coup. Up to three times apiece?

– Grzegorz Kuczyński
-Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Supporters of Bukina Faso coup leader Captain Ibrahim Traore celebrate his success with flags of their country and Russia, among others. Photo by VINCENT BADO / Reuters / Forum
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