Archive for October, 2022

This time it’s worse

October 3, 2022

I don’t want to make this too long but here’s why I think we should be very very very concerned about what’s happening in Burkina Faso.

We thought we’d seen the last of them: armed men in uniform sitting in a television studio reading a one page declaration, which usually contains the following points:

1. We have deposed the government in the higher interest of the country

2. The government, parliament have been dissolved

3. Complaints about the regime/government: inept, corrupt, ineffective

4. Complaints about institutions being undermined, security targets not met

5. We promise to do better in the areas we just complained about

6. We promise not to stay in power forever

7. There will now begin a period of transition, which will last 12-24-36-won’t say months

8. The borders are closed and a curfew is in force until further notice

9. Done in (capital city name) on (date)

Music or innocuous film about mongoose, birds, insects, reindeers or unicorns

Africa carries the distinction of being home to the most countries of any continent and the most coups: well over one hundred at last count, although it must be said that these are only the ones that were successful. If we include all the attempts, including the ones that failed, the list would be almost twice as long. Burkina Faso tops that list with 15, the Central African Republic and Sudan are runners-up, clocking up 13 and 11 respectively.

What makes Burkina Faso also stand out is that on at least three occasions the coups came with popular movements against the government in place (this was certainly the case in 1966 and 2014 and arguably this time around), while in 2015 the people thwarted an attempted coup by former president Blaise Compaoré’s personal guards, known as the RSP – Régiment de sécurité présidentielle. I commented on this failed coup briefly here.

But what is it about this time?

Not the best pic from the net but it will do for now. The new leader of Burkina Faso. Pic:

On the last day of September shots rang out in one of Ouagadougou’s military camps. They have a bunch of them but the one in question is called Baba Sy and it’s close to the large interchange that connects the newish suburb of Ouaga 2000 with the rest of the city. Initially nobody had any idea what on earth was going on. People tend to get fairly weirdly blasé about uniformed men going around town shooting at things, people or each other, if it happens often enough.

This turned out to be a nasty dispute between factions of the MPSR…sorry, I should have included this in my original point-for-point television declaration rendition: the name of the new body now running the country. It can range from Committee To Save (insert name of country here) to People’s Salvation Council or National Commission for Development (aka “We wanted what they had and so we’ve just come in to grab it & we’ll be out of here sharpish, promise…”). The latest Burkinabè iteration is called Mouvement patriotique pour la sauvegarde et la restauration, which looks a bit odd because they seem to want to save and restore something at the same time but I digress.

So MPSR it is; the French acronym. Within the MPSR then, differences of opinion were emerging about what to do about the gangs of criminals that have taken possession of almost half the country, ruthlessly killing, raping, maiming, plundering, looting, stealing, burning and pillaging rural communities across the north, the east and also the south and the northwest of the country, rendering two million people homeless as a result. There is absolutely nothing good to say about these marauding gangs but they exist because they feed on feelings of profound marginalization that have bred resentment in vast areas across the Sahel region (and indeed elsewhere). They have laid out what one Mauritanian general once memorably called “A Boulevard of Crime” using Islam as an extremely thin cover. Many of the lads partaking in these criminal activities are illiterate and would not be able to tell you the passage in the Holy Qur’an authorizing what they are doing (hint: there aren’t any).

The aftermath of the Gaskindé attack. Pic:

This is the event that in all probability triggered the latest coup. A cowardly attack on a convoy, on its way to the besieged town of Djibo, in the northern Soum province. This happened at a village called Gaskindé and the road here is as poor as anywhere else. Eleven soldiers died, maybe more. The contents of the lorries, mostly food, was burnt. Can’t have people eating in the land you are terrorizing.

The attack happened eight months after Lt-Col Paul-Henri Sameogo Damiba had read out his paper on national television, following a grave incident at Inata, in the same province, that had left 57 people dead, 53 of them gendarmes. This was obviously not supposed to happen, so Damiba, who until 2011 was a member of the aforementioned RSP, now disbanded, chased the elected president away on January 23. Eight months and a week later Captain Ibrahim Traoré said the same things about Lt-Col Damiba that Damiba had said about the president he had deposed: inept, incapable to stem the insurgency, and so on. After Gaskindé, demonstrations erupted in various towns and cities around the country, demanding Damiba’s resignation. Fundamentally though, nothing has changed. The humanitarian situation in Burkina Faso is bad (perhaps even worse than in neighbouring Mali or Niger) and there’s no end in sight.

A screenshot of the latest alarming figures by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

And this is why the splitting of the MPSR is so troubling. First, there are factions within this particular part of the army, an army that at first declared to be on the side of Damiba but then changed its mind. The gun battles that had begun at 4h30 on Saturday continued throughout the weekend. Capt Traoré tried to consolidate and Lt-Col Damiba was organizing what can be termed a counter-offensive, with the streets of Ouagadougou as a décor. Shots continued to be fired as negotiations were taking place, very possibly involving religious leaders and very likely the one person the Burkinabè soldiers and politicians always turn to when they have created yet another problem they cannot solve: the Mogho Naba, proud inheritor of the royal Mossi dynasty that goes back more than a millennium.

The confusion threatened to go into a third day but then on Sunday news broke that somehow a deal had been reached and Capt Traoré was the new master of the land with the consent of the army top brass. Col Damiba has resigned but has also written up seven conditions that need to be fulfilled to guarantee he goes and stay away, including his personal safety. But by far the most worrying among those conditions is his written admission that the Burkina Faso Army is a hot mess. Army cohesion must be “reinforced,” he writes and those within the army that took his side in the confrontation with Capt Traoré should not be prosecuted. And that’s before we begin to talk about what other factions may exist within the army and how the old RSP, more than one thousand strong, fits into all of this – if at all.

Here’s the new man being driven around Ouagadougou amidst adulation. Still from a little vid recorded on a cellphone.

But if this lack of cohesion in the Army isn’t enough, we have predators hovering over the stricken country and its barely functioning army. They have failed to dislodge Islamist insurgents in northern Mozambique, they have failed to help Russian ally General Khalifa Haftar take the Libyan capital, they have failed to keep the gangster Omar al-Bashir in power in Sudan by helping to violently repress pro-democracy demonstrations. Apart from defending the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui from rebels led by a former president they have also failed to bring stability to that country. And in Mali – besides killing hundreds of civilians in the centre and the north and the east – they are failing to have any discernible impact, even when they are supposed to be paid at least ten million dollars a month for their murderous labour. In short, then, the Kremlin-linked Wagner mercenary outfit – because that’s who we’re talking about here – is a catastrophically bad business proposition. And yet it seems that under pressure from ill-informed or perhaps even downright malicious voices egged on by another one of Wagner’s social media propaganda offensives Capt Traoré may be prepared to take the plunge. Should he do so, he risks the very future of his country and he also forfeits forever the right to say or do anything in the name of the legendary Capt Thomas Sankara, whose memory he also seems to want to invoke.

On the road, between Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, one of the few remaining main routes still relatively safe.

I may have been slightly flippant earlier on but make no mistake about the gravity of the situation we are now in. A heavily wounded country, a dangerously divided army, both preyed on by the most violent, venal, cynical, ruthless mercenary outfit in existence backed by an out-of-control rogue state that is receiving a bloody nose in the country it invaded (Ukraine, and Russia’s aggression there has been aided and abetted by the same lawless Wagner freelancers since 2014) and seeking to increase its bloody footprint on a continent that has seen far more than its fair share of similar bloodstained operators in the past – from France, from Belgium, from the UK, from Portugal, from Germany…

If this looks like an exercise in handwringing, then you are partly correct. After all, the recipes are known: the full restoration of a professional army with a clear command-and-control structure that can then take on the armed self-styled jihadist gangs and remove them. The creation of economic opportunities in the zones affected by these gangs, so that people actually have an alternative and do not feel the need to get involved with fake religious zealots waving the flags of criminals. And none of this is happening.

It is extremely urgent to ensure that the Boulevard of Crime comes to an end. Burkina Faso must be made safe and so must its four coastal neighbours. Attacks have been recorded in three of them. If Burkina Faso goes, the roads are open to the fattest piles of loot in the region: the cities of Cotonou, Lomé, Accra and Abidjan and everything in between. Preventing this means reinforcing borders, smoking the armed gangs out of their hideaways in the cross-border wildlife reserves where they are lurking and massively increasing the existing joint efforts of Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire: intelligence sharing, military operations, law and order initiatives, campaigns of gentle persuasion telling the people living in the border areas that getting involved with self-appointed ‘jihadist’ gangsters is not a very good idea.

And please, foreign busybodies, doubtlessly itching to get involved: follow, don’t lead. All of these things are already happening and your previous engagements have so far been less than helpful, be they French, European or American. Wagner/Russia is an absolute disaster, we do not need to dwell on that and it may even be the case that things go so badly in Ukraine that they have to abandon their African land grab. But in order to succeed where you also failed before you must listen before you talk, study before you act and adapt instead of command. This is extremely hard for you to do but you must. You will also get rid of your colonial mindset in the process. Call it collateral advantage.

Good luck. We will all need it. Badly.