On one level, the ousting of Paul-Henri Damiba just eight months after he led the ousting of President Roch-Marc Christian Kaboré on 31 January of this year, is a simple story. Damiba staked his legitimacy on ending Burkina Faso’s Jihadist tragedy. At the beginning of April, he announced there would be a stocktaking of his ‘reconquest mission’ in five months’ time, billed as an ‘appointment with the nation’. The underlying pledge was that by that point, Burkina would be liberated from ‘the forces of evil’ – the Islamic-State and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jihadists plaguing the so-called ‘three-border area’ of the Sahel (the other countries concerned are Mali and Niger). But when the appointment finally came in early September, it took the form of an uninspiring, somewhat deflated speech, parts of which now sound prophetic. Our ‘grave problem’, Damiba explained, was the result of multiple failures, ‘first of all from us, defence and security forces in charge of defending our territory and protecting our populations. Internal divisions have weakened us.’ His account of the progress achieved so far was essentially that this was only the beginning of the beginning – not even, à la Churchill, ‘the end of the beginning’.
The studied humility was sensible: 24 hours after Damiba’s address to the nation, Jihadists remotely detonated a bomb on the road to Djibo, the largest town in the country’s northern Sahel Region and a symbol of the Burkinabe state’s resistance against the forces of evil. It became a symbol of Damiba’s failure. The bomb destroyed a heavily guarded convoy bringing food and other supplies to the besieged town, killing 35 and wounding 37, all civilians. Dijbo was once the largest cattle market in the three-border area, with traders travelling from as far as Senegal to attend its weekly fairs. It is also the birthplace of Burkina’s first Jihadist armed group, Ansarul Islam, now merged into the Al-Qaeda franchise Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). In recent years, JNIM has occupied all the rural districts around Djibo and established a sadistic version of Sharia that sent many fleeing to the town, now the last state sanctuary in what has become Al-Qaeda country. Djibo thus became a refuge of over 200,000 people – nearly four times its official population – living under a JNIM blockade that has stoked the joint scourges of famine and hyperinflation.
The coup against Damiba was set in motion in Gaskindé, a small town just south of Djibo, where another supply convoy fell to a Jihadist attack on 26 September. This time, at least 11 soldiers were killed along with dozens of civilians, while the convoy trucks were capsized and burned. Details suggested that the sloppy military strategy associated with Kaboré’s tenure remained unreformed, and anger among the troops reached the same perilous levels as before the January coup. Two days after the attack, Damiba flew to Djibo and told the soldiers stationed there that he ‘felt for them’. But to no avail. One widely-circulated WhatsApp message I received in the days before the coup correctly read the temperature: ‘Be careful with your comings and goings, it would seem things aren’t smelling right with the troops, possible temper [grogne] with uncertain outcomes. Letting you know just in case. You never know. Thanks.’
The troops at Djibo did not believe that Damiba ‘felt for them.’ When he spoke of ‘internal divisions’ in his stocktaking speech, he may have been thinking of the effective military caste system found in many armies in the region. This is the division between ‘special forces’, trained to protect the powers that be, and the common soldier. The two other coup-makers in the region, Assimi Goïta of Mali and Mamady Doumbouya of Guinea – who came to power in May and October 2021 respectively – were both commanders of their countries’ special forces, and Damiba was a member of Burkina’s, the Forces Spéciales, established by Kaboré in June 2021. These élite corps enjoy superior treatment and status. In mid-September, Burkina’s regular troops heard that Damibo was granting the special forces a bonus – each was allegedly promised six million francs (about 9,000 USD) and a villa – in spite of the fact they were not fighting on the frontline.
A further aggravating factor was that most officers of the special forces – including Damiba – were once members of the infamous Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP in the French acronym), former despot Blaise Compaoré’s own special forces. Compaoré, the man who toppled charismatic revolutionary Thomas Sankara in 1987, was chased out of the country by insurrectionists in October 2014. The RSP survived his fall and predictably staged a coup to restore him a year later. The attempt, labelled ‘the stupidest coup in history’, failed after a week and the RSP was disbanded. It became clear to the public that Damiba was still an RSP man to the core when he tried to engineer the return of the exiled Compaoré to the political stage in July, under the pretence of ‘national reconciliation’, just four months after a court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment for ordering Sankara’s murder. Compaoré flew to Ouagadougou and stayed a few days in a state villa, arousing such anger that air traffic controllers at the capital’s airport reportedly considered preventing his plane from departing so that he could be arrested.
Damiba’s actions rekindled the major conflict in Burkinabe politics, between revolution and rectification. The latter is the name that Compoaré gave to his policy agenda some years after he took power in 1987, and is viewed by partisans of the revolution as irredeemably reactionary. Damiba appeared as a rectification man in a country where the more acceptable attitude among opinion leaders is revolution. The name he gave to his governing outfit, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration, soon became suspicious; ‘what exactly did he wish to restore?’ ‘Restoration’, according to a democracy activist I interviewed in August in Ouagadougou, ‘sounds like the opposite of revolution’. (Shades of Charles II and Louis XVIII, the latter better known in Burkina). Damiba meant to ‘restore’ the integrity of the national territory, but it was a poor choice of words, especially since he also refused to use the rousing Sankarist call, ‘the fatherland or death, we will vanquish!’, replacing it with a watered-down ‘for the fatherland, we will vanquish’, which imprudently reminded people of the real thing.
In January, the Burkinabe broadly approved of Damiba’s coup – some of them boisterously, others cautiously – because they were tired of Kaboré’s incompetence in the fight against Jihadists who had embraced mass murder as a war tactic. This meant that Damiba could stay in power only if he succeeded where Kaboré had failed. But since he had so clearly failed by the deadline he set, and there was no democratic means to remove him, a coup was preordained. In May, facing off with protesters at Bobo Dioulasso, the country’s second largest city, he told them, ‘If you are so strong, then make your own coup d’état and rule the country as you see fit.’ Speaking to angry but unarmed civilians, the jibe sounded like easy derision, but others were listening.
Those others, the military rank-and-file, were already feeling betrayed – but apparently they did not want to act violently at first. In late September, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the new coup leader, was sent by the disgruntled soldiers to meet and talk with Damiba. He spent a week in Ouagadougou, but his requests for an audience were ignored. Frustration played a visceral role in the coup, which at first sight looks like the revenge of the lower-caste on the battlefield against the upper-caste who are not. Even members of the auxiliary civilian-staffed force VDP (French acronym for Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland) took part. But there may be more to it than this. In the initial phase of the coup, Traoré, faced with the resistance of Damiba – who controlled much of the capital and the security services in it – went on national television and announced that his adversary had found refuge at the French military base of Kamboinsin, on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. ‘He could plan a counter-offensive’, he warned, against ‘our firm commitment to reach out to other partners willing to help us in our fight against terrorism’ – in this context, an ostensible allusion to Russia.
This was an intervention in a debate of sorts (I say ‘of sorts’ because only one side is actually heard) on the ‘diversification of partners’, a euphemistic phrase for ditching the French and finding another patron, preferably Russia. But it was also a ploy: Traoré knew that, although Damiba was not actually in Kamboinsin, this rumour would detonate a public-opinion bomb given Burkina’s rampant Francophobia, and thereby force the incumbent to negotiate. It was a risky move – the French Institute and the French embassy, both located in the city centre, were attacked by angry mobs and had to be defended by the coup-makers. But it worked. Damiba negotiated his resignation, while Traoré insisted that France had not interfered, explaining that his phrase ‘other partners’ did not necessarily mean Russia (the US was thrown in). His first interview was given to Radio France Internationale – an outlet reviled by the militant Francophobes of Ouagadougou – not to Sputnik or Russia Today, whose audience in the Francophone world is highest in Burkina.
At the time of writing, many issues remain unresolved. The coup aims to be a form of rectification, to use a word perhaps unpalatable in Ouagadougou. Damiba had deviated from his mandate, and now the army intends to return to it. ‘We must do in three months what needed to be done in twelve months,’ Captain Traoré asserted, a statement that indicated the continuity of objective, only now with significantly less time to fulfil it. But it is not yet clear who would lead this process. Traoré, a thirty-something low-ranking officer who claims to be uninterested in power, may not be the most suitable candidate. But who might be? Abdoulaye Diallo, a political activist keen on revolutionary figures – he is working on a documentary about the life of Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings – told me in August that only a Promethean figure of the calibre of Sankara could pull Burkina out of its quagmire, not uncharismatic soldiers like Damiba (or Traoré?). This is a bit like hoping for a Shakespeare or two in every generation. But one may wonder how such an intensely national and ideological leader as Sankara would have fared in a regional conflict and in the current geopolitical fog of war.
Damiba made the point that he was trying everything: the stick and the carrot. He beefed up military control of the territory (maillage territorial) as well as engaging in talks with the Jihadists. What he did not do was to increase support from foreign powers or regional cooperation, in particular with Niger and Mali, two measures without which it is impossible for Burkina – and indeed Niger and Mali – to win the war. Damiba preferred French help, which was provided only in emergencies on the ground and without fanfare, for fear of antagonizing the more active sections of public opinion. But Niger, France’s ally in the region, and Mali, which is in the Russian camp, are opposites. Damiba sent feelers to Bamako and visited Niamey, in an awkward dance that did not get him very far. A new leader, whoever he is, must have the skills for carrying on with Damiba’s stick-and-carrot approach, navigating the treacherous shoals of Burkina’s volatile public opinion – where Yevgeny Prigozhin, the now in-the-open master of the Wagner mercenary enterprise, has started his manipulations – and working with neighbouring states. A tall order, but an imperative.
Read on: Rahmane Idrissa, ‘Mapping the Sahel’, NLR 132.