The Ouagadougou Coup: A Reaction to Insecurity
The Ouagadougou Coup: A Reaction to Insecurity
Demonstrators gathering in Ouagadougou to show support to the military hold a picture of Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba the leader of the mutiny and of the Patriotic Movement for the Protection and the Restauration (MPSR) on 25 January 2022 Olympia DE MAISMONT / AFP
Q&A / Africa 13 minutes

The Ouagadougou Coup: A Reaction to Insecurity

On 24 January, a military junta overthrew Burkina Faso’s president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Mathieu Pellerin and Rinaldo Depagne explain how this latest coup confirms the failure of democratically elected regimes in West Africa.

What do we know about this coup and its background?

On 22 January, violent demonstrations broke out in Ouagadougou and Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s two largest cities, as citizens protested against deteriorating security. After these protests, in the morning of 23 January, shots were fired in several barracks in Ouagadougou, particularly in the Sangoulé Lamizana and Baba Sy bases, as well as in two northern towns, Kaya and Ouahigouya. A group of angry soldiers based at the Sangoulé Lamizana camp then issued a list of six demands, including the replacement of the chief of staff and the director of the National Intelligence Agency (ANR), whom they accused of incompetence and corruption. Other demands on this list have come up repeatedly since 2018 but have never been properly met: the need for more troops and equipment to combat jihadist groups, and for better care for the wounded and support for families of soldiers killed in fighting.

Later on 23 January, the situation appeared to be under control. The authorities downplayed the crisis in a national television broadcast, announcing that the “army was not taking power” and describing the soldiers as simple mutineers. Simultaneously, however, hundreds of demonstrators took to the capital’s streets in support of the soldiers. The government began to negotiate with the rebel soldiers; some of these talks were conducted by the monarch of the Mossi (the country’s largest ethnic group), Mogho Naba, who often acts as mediator of last resort in times of serious crisis. Not only did these discussions fail, however, but some of the president’s negotiators, including a gendarmerie officer, also reportedly switched sides to join the putschists. More gendarmes who had until then been loyal to President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré defected, tilting the balance of power in the rebels’ favour. Soldiers attacked the president’s home to the south of Ouagadougou that night. The intense fighting with the president’s security detail left at least two people seriously injured.

In the evening of 24 January, the putschists forced President Kaboré to sign a handwritten resignation letter. Immediately afterward, the rebel soldiers appeared on national television to announce the president’s overthrow and the creation of the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR), the new junta’s executive body. In a televised statement, the MPSR took pains to reassure foreign partners of its intention to “respect pre-existing commitments”, notably relating to human rights, and to propose “within a reasonable timeframe” a roadmap for a return to constitutional order “accepted by everyone”. Such positive signals provide no guarantees, however. In Mali, the transitional regime made similar pledges after the August 2020 coup, yet it ended up taking a hard line and postponing the elections that had been scheduled for February 2022.

The MPSR’s president, Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, is a 41-year-old lieutenant colonel who trained at one of West Africa’s most prestigious military academies, the Prytanée Militaire du Kadiogo. He is also a graduate of the Ecole de Guerre in Paris, and recently wrote a 158-page book on West African armies and terrorism. Since 2015, Damiba has held various positions in the army and has been stationed in regions where jihadists are active. He was formerly a member of the presidential guard of Blaise Compaoré (1987-2014), Kaboré’s predecessor, and he skilfully kept his career on track despite the regime change in October 2014. In particular, he remained on good terms with senior officers of the Compaoré era without being sidelined by Kaboré, who took power in 2015. On 16 December 2021, Kaboré appointed him commander of one of the country’s most important military zones, the “third region” surrounding the capital.

What caused the coup?

The coup stemmed primarily from the security concerns of millions of Burkinabè.

The coup stemmed primarily from the security concerns of millions of Burkinabè affected by the violence of jihadist groups, community militias and sometimes regular soldiers. For many civilians and soldiers, the security situation reached a tipping point with the attack in Inata, in northern Burkina Faso, on 14 November 2021. Fifty-three gendarmes were killed in this vicious attack, which sealed President Kaboré’s fate. As one local newspaper described it, the government “symbolically collapsed” in the shock waves felt around the country after the incident, the single most lethal attack on soldiers in the country’s history. A few days afterward, local media revealed that the gendarmes killed, and their comrades, had been nearly starving, severely weakened by the lack of food, and that their appeals for help from their superiors, just days before the attack, had gone unheeded.

Inata was the latest in a series of massacres, including one that took place in Solhan in June 2021 when 160 villagers were killed. The population’s outrage at these tragedies gradually coalesced into protests, as people took to the streets demanding regime change. Some concluded that a military officer would be better equipped than an elected civilian president to address the urgent issue of insecurity. President Kaboré’s overthrow generated little counter-protest. On the contrary, on 25 January, a thousand-strong crowd gathered in Ouagadougou to applaud the MPSR’s power grab. The symbolic significance of Inata, combined with the groundswell of popular rejection of Kaboré’s regime, probably persuaded the soldiers that the time had come to act. A first coup attempt, organised by Lieutenant Colonel Emmanuel Zoungrana, had already taken place, but failed, on 10 January.

The MPSR’s coup d’état opens another chapter in a long history of military involvement in Burkina Faso’s politics since 1960. After independence, the army acted as the country’s ultimate arbiter or institution of last resort during severe political crises. It did so after the 2014 popular uprising, when Isaac Zida of the Presidential Security Regiment was appointed head of state and then prime minister of the transitional government. It did so again in 2015, when a section of the army consolidated the democratic transition by thwarting an attempted coup. Military regimes have held power for 48 of the 61 years since the country’s independence.

Why has the army failed to provide security?

On becoming president in 2015, Kaboré inherited a security apparatus that had become increasingly fractured over his predecessor Compaoré’s 27-year rule. Compaoré himself had to cope with the legacy of coups in the 1970s and 1980s. Two blocs had formed within the military: the president’s security regiment, which received special treatment under Compaoré (in terms of salaries, training, promotions and resources), and the rest of the army, which was largely neglected. Divisions also existed between the army’s senior and lower ranks, as became apparent during the violent rebellions of the first half of 2011. Soldiers levelled particular criticism at the highest-ranking officers for enjoying the ill-gotten gains of widespread corruption.

Furthermore, Kaboré entered office in 2015 to find an army that had barely seen active combat, apart from the short-lived wars with Mali in 1974 and 1985, a handful of undercover operations in the Mano river basin countries, and peacekeeping missions in Darfur and Mali. When local and regional jihadist groups gained strength after 2016, Burkina Faso’s inexperienced army suddenly found itself confronting a fierce, battle-hardened enemy.

Lacking a military background or experience of war, and distrusting an institution that he feared could destabilise his rule, Kaboré failed to correct his predecessor’s poisoned legacy. Instead of root-and-branch reform, in 2016 he began an endless round of promotions and dismissals of senior figures within his defence departments, changing defence ministers and chiefs of staff multiple times. The president appears to have based his appointments on criteria of loyalty rather than competence. He relied on the gendarmerie, which stoked mistrust in other parts of the army and deepened antagonisms. Many of the best-trained officers from the former regime who could have helped the army were sidelined, paying a price for their loyalty to Compaoré. Corruption among senior officers remains unchanged since Compaoré’s day, disrupting supplies to the anti-jihadist battle’s front lines and depriving those engaged in combat of the equipment they need.

During his six years in power, President Kaboré employed several strategies in attempting to contain the expansion of jihadist groups, but without success. Between 2016 and 2019, he focused on a military response. The use of force by the army and the gendarmerie led to many instances of abuse and even massacres of civilians that went unpunished. This violence against the population drove some civilians to join the jihadists’ ranks, thus strengthening these groups instead of pushing them back. The jihadist threat, at first confined to the Sahel, spread to the Centre-North, East, North and Boucle du Mouhoun regions. Since late 2019, in response to signs of exhaustion in the army and with more soldiers refusing to go to the front, but also in reaction to intensifying public demands for greater security, President Kaboré decided to mobilise civilians to fight terrorism. The Volunteers for the Defence of the Motherland (Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie), often comprising former Koglweogo – village-based militias initially tasked with fighting serious crime – became adjuncts to the army. These civilians, armed and trained by the state, scored occasional victories but failed to turn the tide. In some areas, they have even undermined social cohesion and worsened the security situation.

From September 2020 to March 2021, a ceasefire with one of the two jihadist groups operating in the country, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), almost completely halted clashes between this group and the army, producing genuine calm. Local agreements were reached with JNIM in various communes in the Soum, Loroum and Yatenga provinces, with the blessing of local government authorities and representatives. When the nationwide ceasefire ended, however, JNIM resumed a campaign of brutal violence, while the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara – which had never participated in the truce – continued its attacks on the army and volunteer groups. The jihadist groups had taken advantage of the ceasefire to strengthen their foothold in many territories and even to expand into areas farther south, particularly in the Cascades region. The resumption of large-scale attacks in June 2021 prompted Kaboré to embark on yet another program to restructure the armed forces, this time taking the helm of the defence ministry himself. This reshuffle failed to prevent the Inata attack, however, in the same way that December’s restructuring to avoid another such attack failed to avert the January coup.

The junta’s priority over the coming months will be unity within the armed forces.

The junta’s priority over the coming months will be unity within the armed forces in order to rapidly improve security for the country’s population. Among his first steps, Lieutenant Colonel Damiba held a round of meetings, on 25 January, with senior army officers and others drawn from the police, customs, and waterways and forest rangers. In his first televised speech on 27 January, he stated: “We have many priorities, but security clearly remains at the top of the list”. Damiba faces several urgent tasks in improving the armed forces’ cohesion, including carefully distributing appointments within the junta, striking a fair balance between the gendarmerie and the army, implementing a new anti-terrorism strategy and rooting out corruption. His decisions regarding how to treat army officers from Compaoré’s regime and how to assign them roles within a reformed security apparatus will be key. No information is yet available about which civilian and political figures the junta will choose to govern the country. In any event, without swift improvements in the security situation, Ouagadougou’s new rulers risk rapidly disappointing those who hope for a return to a more normal life – and thus losing popular support.

What are the regional and international ramifications of this coup?

The coup confirms the return of army officers to the front of West Africa’s political stage, pointing to the failure of its democratically elected governments. Three major states in the region – Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali – are now led by officers who came to power using force. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) seems incapable of curbing this seemingly deep-rooted trend. On 9 January, the regional organisation announced severe sanctions on Mali, placing it under embargo, in a bid to stem the epidemic of coups spreading through the region. But three weeks after these sanctions were rolled out, the officers in Burkina Faso took power, indicating that these measures have failed as deterrents and that the authority of ECOWAS has weakened. Worse, the junta that seized power in Ouagadougou could even create an axis of military regimes that might support one another in resisting pressure from the regional organisation and foreign partners. The fact that Lieutenant Colonel Mamadi Doumbouya’s Guinea has decided not to close its border with Mali, despite the ECOWAS embargo, is a first sign of such an alliance.

International partners, particularly France, the United States and the European Union (EU), dealing with a series of faits accomplis and having little influence over events, are torn between positions of principle and pragmatism. On one hand, they must push for respect for the constitutional order, with some actors, such as the EU, traditionally taking their lead from ECOWAS, including in imposing sanctions after that order is violated. On the other, they need to maintain a constructive relationship with the new authorities in order to avoid jeopardising their own security strategy, which is often focused on cooperation between civilian and military officials in the country, as in Mali and Burkina Faso, where they have considerable commitments.

It will be difficult for international partners to take the same tough line against the 24 January coup in Burkina Faso that they took after the military takeover in Mali. The hardline approach, as adopted by major partners such as France, merely strengthened the transitional authorities’ relationships with alternative partners such as Russia, and turned many Malians against Paris and ECOWAS. The Malian population is hostile to international sanctions, first because it broadly supports the transitional authorities and, secondly, because ordinary people are often the first to suffer from the sanctions’ impact.

Burkina Faso’s international partners should avoid a head-on confrontation and seek to work as best as they can with this transition.

The situation in Burkina Faso calls for a less dogmatic, more nuanced response. While the coup should rightly be denounced as a backward step that offers little by way of lasting solutions, it is born of the Burkina Faso’s chronic insecurity and has significant public support in a country eager for change. Lacking leverage to sway the junta, Burkina Faso’s international partners should avoid a head-on confrontation and seek to work as best as they can with this transition in order to help stabilise the country. While constantly emphasising the importance of returning to constitutional order and calling on the new authorities to honour the country’s human rights commitments, ECOWAS must initiate a dialogue with the new authorities by sending, as soon as possible, a representative to Ouagadougou charged with taking stock of the new regime’s proposals and with exploring areas of potential future collaboration. The U.S. and EU, two important partners that enjoy a reputation for neutrality in Burkina Faso, should support this dialogue initiative and insist on a return to the constitutional order within a reasonable timeframe.


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