The military coup of January 24 in Burkina Faso was not entirely unexpected, as rumors of anger and displeasure with the government within military ranks had been growing for months, notably catalyzed by the November 12 attack on a military base in Inata, which killed over 50 soldiers. Additionally, the Burkinabé government has since then replaced a number of high ranking military officials with those loyal to it, in order to counter the threat of a coup. The possibility of a coup in Burkina Faso had progressively become a question of “when” rather than “if”.
Burkina Faso is now the third Sahel country since August 2020 to experience a putsch, while another possible attempt was thwarted in Niger in March 2021. It is also the fourth coup in northern Africa in less than a year after Chad, Guinea, and Sudan. This suggests that the deterrents the international community uses to stop this trend are failing and that military officials in the region see little impediment to seizing power.
For international actors, their interests and engagement in Africa, the ramifications of the coup are significant. Just how European and North American countries are now willing to work with military governments in the region? Will they reluctantly accept the new government as a fait accompli and try to work with it, while hoping for the return of a civilian government “within a reasonable time frame”? Could the expansion of terrorism and the further growing insecurity in West Africa dictate a Realpolitik approach to the international missions in the Sahel now that military personnel rule most of the region? And if Europeans and Americans choose to sanction Burkina Faso after the coup, will this further open the door to other actors, such as Russia or China, as Malian and Burkinabé authorities look for more accommodating partners?
More importantly, should the new regime in Burkina Faso benefit from significant popular support, as was the case in Mali, could the new coup then force a short-term resetting of the norms surrounding the legitimacy of a government? Should the legitimacy be structural (elections) or defined by popular support, even if illegal?
DOUBLE STANDARDS AND THE SANCTIONS TRAP
In May 2021, France applied a double standard for military regimes in recognizing Chad’s rulers as legitimate but in condemning and pressuring Mali’s. Similarly, Germany chastises the government in Mali but stays relatively quiet about the military rule in Chad, Guinea and Sudan, while the USA seems ambivalent in its position, simultaneously condemning and supporting authorities in these countries. The ECOWAS displayed the same dichotomy in its approach towards military governments, slapping hard sanctions on Mali but none or limited ones on Chad and Guinea.
As the sanctions are justified by norms for rule of law, good governance, and human rights and are theoretically applicable to all, an à la carte approach to norms only weakens them. As such, the coup in Burkina Faso becomes a test: Will the standards applied to Mali also be imposed on Burkina Faso, or will the latter benefit from an exemption like Chad? European policy would likely further lose more of its already weak credibility if it continues to only sanction Mali, but not Chad and Burkina Faso, or if only Chad remains exempt. Therefore, how the situation in Burkina Faso is managed by the EU and the USA will either be perceived as enforcing current norms or creating new ones. Choosing the former could lead to a reassessment of Chad’s exception and potentially mitigate the current coup trend in West Africa, while choosing the latter would make Mali an unjustified exception and de facto normalize military takeovers of power.
Unfortunately, geostrategic considerations impact the use of sanctions on Burkina Faso, should western powers or the ECOWAS choose this path. Additional sanctions on a Sahel state would likely create more incentives to turn to Russia and China for “no strings attached” support. And more importantly, sanctioning Burkina Faso, either at the EU or ECOWAS level, would further damage the fragile economies of one of the world’s poorest regions. Hoping to put pressure on rulers of one country through economic isolation already has severe consequences for local populations. However, it becomes devastating if applied regionally. In this case, only the local populations would suffer, while those profiting from informal structures and insecurity like terrorists would be the ones benefiting from such policies.
DEALING WITH THE FAIT ACCOMPLI
Following the coup in Burkina Faso, it could be argued that there is now a “Sudan model” when it comes to military takeover. Although it was not planned as such, suggesting a transition from military rule to a return to civilian rule “within reasonable time frames” now appears to be the norm, as international institutions like the UN also use the formula when denouncing a coup. Unsurprisingly, the same format or formula was used following the coups in Mali, Chad, and now Burkina Faso. And as the recent developments in Sudan and Mali suggest, the use of this formula is more about appeasing international actors than an actual goal.
While the opposition in Sudan has been fierce, the military takeovers in northern Africa over the last 18 months have benefited from a degree of popular support. Under these conditions, it is not only fair to consider the local legitimacy of military governments, but also to assume that the ones currently in place will not seek any real transition to civilian rule. This forces the international community to deal with these governments to pursue its various policies in Africa, regardless of governments’ conformity to rule of law, good governance practices or human rights.
THE RUSSIAN AND CHINESE VARIABLES
The policy issues related to the Sahel are compounded by the shifting power dynamics in Africa, as Russia, China, and many other countries seek closer cooperation with African states. In order to deal with conflicts, to reduce political pressure or to gain leverage in their political relations with western actors, African states like Mali, the Central African Republic, and others responded positively to this courtship. This could also be the case with Burkina Faso, as the previous government allegedly already held talks with the Russian PMC group “Wagner” about a possible deployment in the country, in order to support the military and fight terrorism.
As Germany’s Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht made very clear in an interview on January 22, western powers do not want Russia to move in on West Africa, and Germany should maintain its missions in the Sahel as part of the MINUSMA and the EUTM to counter Russian influence. Previously, France had already reacted to Russia’s interest in Mali by reversing its decision to withdraw from the country, despite an earlier announcement to do so, while the USA simultaneously increased its support to French operations in the Sahel. Hence, the very idea that Russia is encroaching on one of Europe’s “spheres of influence” is enough to change the policy dynamics for international presence and cooperation in the Sahel, even if it’s a shortsighted and misguided approach. Invariably, such a change could cut some of the many strings that usually come with western intervention and support, while providing significant political leverage to military rulers.
BURKINA FASO IS THE NEW CENTRIFUGE OF TERRORISM EXPANSION IN WEST AFRICA
Although the counter-terrorism policy focus is largely on Mali, it is Burkina Faso that has seen the biggest growth in terrorist activities over the last year. Since 2016, terrorist activities in Burkina Faso, from small scale attacks to communal blockades, have expanded from the northern part of the country to its eastern, western, and southern regions. Furthermore, since 2018, terrorism has slowly but effectively progressed out of southern Burkina Faso into its coastal state neighbors Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Bénin, with the Ivory Coast and now Bénin experiencing the bulk of the attacks. Consequently, Burkina Faso is the country that requires the most help and with whom improved cooperation on counter-terrorism is urgently needed.
This situation adds to the conundrum of how to deal with the coup in Burkina Faso. If countering terrorism in Africa remains a priority, or becomes a higher one, wouldn’t sanctions or limited military cooperation be counter-productive? Can security and counter-terrorism policies for the Sahel and West Africa be effective if cooperation with both Mali and Burkina Faso is constrained? As the growing tensions between international partners and Mali suggest, poor relationships impact military missions and humanitarian initiatives, and it’s likely that international actors don’t want the scenario to repeat itself in Burkina Faso.
Finally, a military government in Mali has not led to improved security. Quite the contrary, terrorist and criminal activities have continued to increase and spread throughout the country and the region since the coup of August 2020. With Burkina Faso facing exponentially growing insecurity and having very limited means, it is very difficult to foresee the regime in Ouagadougou having more success than its counterpart in Bamako. Hence, improving security conditions in Burkina Faso is linked to foreign support. The EU, its member states, and the US must now decide if they are the ones who will provide it or perhaps open the door to rivals.
WHAT SHOULD BE THE POLICY FOCUS?
Rather than threatening and sanctioning, international actors should make local economic and security dynamics the most important factors in their policy setting and framing. The common denominators for the Malian and Burkinabé coups are disgruntled militaries that view themselves as the canon fodder of the fight against terrorism and insecurity in the Sahel, and both, the military and the civilian populations, feel abandoned and neglected by governments that are in no position to improve their conditions. This creates an environment conducive to the support of a military takeover, especially in the short term.
Therefore, the policy approach should focus on the mid and long term and on improving socioeconomic conditions rather than on the nature of the government. The focus should be on mitigating and preventing the development of the conditions that foster popular support for military takeovers rather than sanctioning regimes. The goal should be to make civilian rule credible and effective, where the institutions and systems embody the local dynamics and needs, and where a military-led government is not a viable option.
In the short term, policies for West Africa and the Sahel should not be dictated by geopolitical rivalries, even though such an approach can rapidly consolidate political support for foreign policy initiatives. The priority should now be to accelerate development programs in states where the relationship between the state and the military remains fragile, like Niger. Finally, policies for the Sahel should be understood as part of the broader west and central African sociopolitical dynamics, rather than focusing on a specific country, such as Mali.
Following the coup in Burkina Faso, reluctant actors like Germany are now forced to provide clearer answers to their Africa policy questions than they’ve hitherto been willing to find. It also forces a reappraisal of geostrategic priorities for northern Africa and how those new priorities fit in broader policy issues, such as “strategic autonomy”, rivalries with Russia and China, and European security. With some countries currently debating an extension of their participation in international missions in Africa, these answers will need to come fast and go beyond short-term imperatives.