Thu. May 30th, 2024

•Military rule will exacerbate the problems that have allowed extremism to thrive

By The Economist

ALL COUPS begin with confusion. In Burkina Faso the first sign was thunderous gunfire echoing out from army bases in Ouagadougou, the capital, on January 23rd. Mutinous soldiers soon emerged demanding the resignation of the top brass and better equipment for their fight against jihadists swarming across the Sahel. By daybreak bullet-riddled and blood-spattered presidential vehicles were visible in the streets and soldiers surrounded the main television station. The president, Roch Kaboré, was thought to be under arrest, his only communications a tweet congratulating the national football team on winning a match against Gabon, and then another calling for dialogue in these “difficult times”. Some wondered whether his account had been taken over.

Then, suddenly, came clarity and cliché: men in berets armed with guns and a clunky label, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration, announced they had taken over. The government had been dissolved, the constitution suspended and the borders closed, they said. Mr Kaboré has resigned, according to the main broadcaster. In his place is a new strongman, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba.

The coup, which follows two since 2020 in neighbouring Mali, threatens to undermine the West’s campaign against jihadists in the region—its biggest such operation in the world now that Western forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan. France has deployed about 5,100 soldiers on counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel, a band of scrubby bush along the southern edge of the Sahara. The French troops are backed by small numbers of commandos from America and other European countries. The UN, meanwhile, has a force of about 15,000 peacekeepers in Mali. All are battling alongside government forces from the region to hold back groups of insurgents loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda and Islamic State, who in the past few years have tormented three of the poorest and most poorly governed countries of the Sahel: Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

The fight is going badly for the region’s governments, and for the West. In Burkina Faso more than 1.5m people out of a population of 21m have been pushed from their homes in the past three years. Almost 7,000 have been killed.

A growing part of the West’s strategy has been an effort to build functioning and accountable democracies. Corruption and bad government, after all, have spread disaffection and anger across the region, fueling the insurgencies. France, which in the past was only too happy to prop up friendly autocrats, now emphasises the “return of the state”, and is planning to reduce the number of troops it has fighting in the region.

America has focused on training and equipping the region’s armies. It has tried to instil Western notions of civil-military relations—whereby the army is subservient to civilian leaders—and respect for human rights, in the hope that this will reduce the brutality that often drives young men to join the rebels.

Yet the recent spate of coups has vastly complicated these efforts. Mali’s junta has postponed elections and a handover to civilians until 2025, prompting its neighbours to impose financial sanctions and close their borders with it. It has also hired Russian mercenaries accused of human-rights abuses to protect its officials and train its soldiers, which has prompted several Western countries to threaten to withdraw their forces. Even if Burkina Faso’s putschists do not fall out so spectacularly with the West, relations are bound to become more fraught.

In the meantime, the region’s long-suffering citizens seem to be losing faith in democracy. In Burkina Faso people rose up in protest in 2014 to kick out Blaise Compaoré, a former army officer who had first taken power in a coup 27 years earlier. Shortly before this just 24% told pollsters from Afrobarometer that they approved of the army running the country. Yet by 2018 sentiment has swung sharply: almost 50% of Burkinabés told pollsters they supported military rule. On January 24th, as the coup was confirmed, people took to the streets of Ouagadougou to cheer. The new lot can’t be worse than the ousted president, said Aliou Ouedraogo, one of those celebrating. Having the army in charge, one common argument holds, will help in the fight against jihadists because money intended to equip soliders is less likely to be stolen.

Mr Kaboré seems to have been well aware of the risk of a coup. Burkina Faso has suffered eight successful putsches and many more attempted ones since independence from France in 1960. In December he reshuffled his cabinet and put a general in charge of the defence ministry, replacing a civilian. On January 11th the government arrested eight soldiers for allegedly plotting against the government. Tensions between Mr Kaboré’s government and the armed forces had been increasing for some time, in part because he tried to force out some of the army officers most closely aligned with Mr Compaoré.

But it is insecurity that underpins the latest putsch. In June last year jihadists slaughtered more than 100 people in Solhan, a village in the north (see map). In November they killed 49 officers and four civilians near Inata, another northern town. The soldiers there had run out of food and had been forced to commandeer livestock, according to a memo they sent their superiors. Mr Kaboré boasted of having bumped up the security budget but little extra gear seemed to make it to the frontlines. After the slaughter in Inata angry protesters rallied in the capital.

The main beneficiaries of the coup could well be the jihadists. The new junta will have its hands full consolidating power in the capital and seeing off the possibility of a counter-coup (some troops loyal to Mr Kaboré have put up a fight). That may leave a vacuum in the countryside for the jihadists to fill.

In Mali, at least, soldiers have not done a better job than civilians at maintaining security when they are running the government. In fact, the army’s withdrawal from embattled towns and bases has accelerated since the coups there, says Héni Nsaibia of Menastream, a consultancy.

The African Union and ECOWAS, a regional bloc, have condemned the coup in Burkina Faso and demanded the release of Mr Kaboré, whose whereabouts are unknown. Some may see irony in its demand: three of the bloc’s 15 members—Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso—are now run by men with guns. In any case many may be more worried about the spread of insurgents than about democratic niceties. Jihadists are steadily moving south from Burkina Faso into Ivory Coast and Benin, where the number of attacks is increasing. Stopping them will require not just better governance but also more co-operation between countries in the region, their armed forces and politicians, and between local armies and their foreign backers. That has never looked more elusive.

Credit | The Economist

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