Burkina Faso’s military takeover: A necessary evil?
By LOUIS SAMARASINGHE
Ever since the removal of long-time autocrat President Blaise Compaoré in 2014, Burkina Faso has made marked progress along the path to democracy. Free elections in 2015, a growing civil society and the enshrining of political rights within a constitution all demonstrate the commitment that the West African nation has made to democracy. However, in 2022, there has been not one, but two separate, successful military coups. With the constitution now suspended and Russian flags being waved in the streets of Ouagadougou, it may appear that the democratic project has failed. Nevertheless, spirits amongst the Burkinabè remain high; and they are right to have faith in their new leader.
Captain Ibrahim Traore took over on the 30th of September in a relatively peaceful military coup, replacing President Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who too had taken power through a coup earlier in the year. Both leaders, utilising their military background, promised to tackle the growing security threats in the country; currently, the government controls just 60% of land within the state’s borders, with radical Islamist groups constituting a real threat to civilians in exterior regions.
These issues are not distinct to Burkina Faso. Across the Sahel region of West Africa, radical Islamist groups - most notoriously Boko Haram in Nigeria - have been terrorising populations and damaging democratic gains in the region. Mirroring the situation in Burkina Faso, Nigeria was on a trajectory out of autocracy after free elections brought about a new leader in 2015; only for civil rights to once again decline in the name of security. The fact that Nigeria, the largest nation in terms of both population and economy in Africa, is unable to combat the threat of terrorism, gives little hope to the far smaller Burkina Faso.
Western politics has made democracy the unequivocal choice of regime. Only through free elections can developing states hope to gain the trust and support of Europe and North America. The international reaction to Traore’s coup speaks volumes to this. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs Catherine Colonna expressed her concerns about citizens' safety, while the US called for de-escalation and a return to ‘constitutional order’. Of course, we cannot dismiss the threat that reduced rights will have on the citizens of Burkina Faso. But given the current situation, perhaps a strong military-led government is the solution to the growing instability. It is also worth noting that the prevalence of Russian flags during the coup would have certainly troubled Western politicians, despite the actual level of Russian involvement being next to nothing.
Although democratic progress had been strong in recent years, a sudden switch from a long-time autocratic leader in 2014 to a constitutional democracy left the state far weaker than it had been before, giving space for militants to make further ground. Yet the negative impact of radical groups cannot be understated. Along with controlling 40% of Burkinan land, they prevent stability, threaten lives, destroy infrastructure and agriculture, and ultimately prove detrimental to democracy. Yet whilst a strong constitution supported by civil society and stable government is essential for developing countries to form greater connections with the West, such transitions are not as simple as Western politics would make out. Britain’s attempts to force democracy on Iraq in 2003 is an obvious example of this. The democratic government Burkina Faso had in 2015 simply lacked the political control to deal with threats. The military had long been tied to the state throughout its autocratic period and their removal from the power structures reduced their compliance with the state. Divisions within the military only furthering the issue.
For now, a certain amount of trust should be granted to President Traore. Not only was the coup relatively peaceful and without civilian casualties, but he agreed to grant Demiba and his allies protection, and promised to restore the constitution within 2 years in power. Of course, trusting what is now essentially a military dictator to return power to a civilian government is a dangerous game. But given the fluctuating leadership anyway, and Traore’s legitimacy resting almost entirely on his ability to deliver security and safety to citizens, perhaps now is the time for the West to put their trust in Traore and allow Burkina Faso a chance to discover democracy along its own path.
Image: Flickr / Epjt Tours