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Burkina Faso’s Activists Take A Wait-and-See Approach To The Junta

Clair MacDougall, World Politics Review, Monday March 28, 2022

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso—In 2014, Arouna Loure, a Burkinabe activist, anesthesiologist and leader of the grassroots political group Les Revoltes, took to the streets, risking his life in a popular uprising against the government of then-President Blaise Compaore. Having seized power in a military coup in 1987, Compaore ruled the country in a semi-authoritarian manner for 27 years, before being subsequently driven from power by the popular mobilization in which Loure participated.

After a transitional period, Roch Marc Christian Kabore was elected president, becoming the first person to hold the office who did not have ties to the military. He later won reelection in 2020 by a large majority.

Yet, in 2022, Loure once again participated in demonstrations, this time to overthrow Kabore’s democratically elected government. And when a military junta subsequently did so in late January, Loure ultimately supported it.

He wasn’t the only one. Many pan-African activists across the region have been questioning a version of democracy emphasized by the West, which places a premium on elections at the expense of social justice and goods, and which turns a blind eye to the culture of corruption and nepotism that often defines politics in West Africa.

“I’m republican, but the democracy we have in Africa, particularly in Burkina Faso, is not a democracy,” Loure told Word Politics Review. “Democracy needs to be founded on laws, the fight against corruption, the fight against theft and threats against liberty,” he added. “When a democracy doesn’t respect these values, it is no longer a democracy.”

With Burkina Faso buckling under the weight of terrorist attacks by groups affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State, many Burkinabe activists across the country appear to share Loure’s views. And they are willing to wait and see what the three-year transitional plan before the return of democratic elections announced last month by Burkina Faso’s latest military junta might bring.

The leader of the coup, Lt. Col. Paul-Henry Damiba, was sworn in as president on Feb. 17. His party, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration, or MPSR, has promised to reform the security sector, secure the nation’s borders from attacks by terrorist groups and tackle corruption.

The country’s leading human rights group, the Burkinabe Movement for Human Rights, or MDHP, has raised concerns about the military junta’s ongoing detention of Kabore, as did the Economic Community of West African State, or ECOWAS, which also called on the junta to finalize a transition plan back to democratic elections by April 25. And Daouda Diallo, a human rights activist who has been documenting abuses against civilians by the security forces, says the MPSR government must “act urgently for the protection of human rights” and bring perpetrators of extrajudicial killings within the military to justice.

However, other civil society organizations seem open to see whether the junta and the transitional government it recently installed will follow through on their promises.

Some analysts have noted that Burkina Faso’s coup, the third in 18 months in the region, points to a worrying trend in West Africa, a region once heralded for its fledgling democracies. But many are characterizing this coup as somewhat different.

Some Burkinabe civil society organizations seem open to see whether the junta and the transitional government it recently installed will follow through on their promises.

“Damiba is not playing the populism card,” said Michael Shurkin, an analyst with the risk consultancy firm 14 North Strategies, compared to neighboring Mali, for instance, where the junta has capitalized on widespread anti-French sentiment and recruited the help of Russian private security firm Wagner Group in its fight against extremist insurgents and terrorists.

“I think [Damiba] has an actual agenda for trying to reform the Burkinabe security forces and trying to deal with the conflict,” Shurkin said. Even so, he added that “winning some early victories” will be important for the MPSR in order to gain popular support in a county where 1 in 10 people is now displaced, and every province outside the capital has been rocked by violence.

Already, Damiba’s government has formed a Cabinet and has made appointments in key security positions. His administration is also in the process of setting up a new security body that will bring together security forces, members of volunteer militias known as Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland, and civilians, that will help with intelligence gathering.

The MPSR has also held consultations with different political and civil society stakeholders and established a transitional charter with the mission of establishing security, addressing the humanitarian crisis, fighting against corruption, reforming democracy and creating a movement toward national reconciliation. The charter also outlines the establishment of a transitional legislative assembly—which was sworn in earlier this week, with Loure as a member—that includes members from political parties across the political spectrum, as well as from civil society and the security forces.

While anti-French sentiment is present in Burkina Faso and has been seen in demonstrations against French military convoys traveling from Mali, activists like Loure don’t care who Burkina Faso partners with on security, so long as their country is treated with respect. Paul Koalaga, an analyst at the Institute for Strategy and International Relations in Ouagadougou, said Burkina Faso is unlikely take a confrontational posture toward the international community and military allies like the United States and France, as the military junta in Mali has done.

Several recent deadly attacks in Burkina Faso point to the formidable security challenges ahead for Damiba and his transitional government. This month alone, there have been at least three major attacks, all likely committed by jihadist groups. In the first, a passenger bus traveling along a major highway hit an improvised explosive device, with an unconfirmed number of causalities. The second hit a national police base in the north. And in a third, armed fighters killed eight people collecting water in the northern town of Arbinda.

The violence has forced more 1.5 million Burkinabe to flee their homes, often crowding into informal settlements around major cities, including the capital Ouagadougou. More than 100 displaced people from Arbinda have settled into one of them called Nioko II, unable to return home because of the ongoing attacks by jihadist groups.

A 20-year-old man who withheld his name out of fear for his safety said he cares little about the coup d’état. He just wants to return home, where he had steady work in an artisanal gold mine. “All we need is new leaders that will help us go back home,” he said, his silhouette lit by a torch as he sat outside of a mud home in which around 10 of his family members live. “I don’t want to live in Ouagadougou,” he added. “I want to go back to my village. We are suffering, and we have no work.”

His neighbor, Fanta Ouedraogo, an elderly woman who looks after five grandchildren, has watched the displaced people pouring into her community over the past few years. She said it pains her that she cannot do more to help them. “All we want is that our new authorities help us fight against the insecurity,” she said, adding that Burkinabe aren’t counting how many years the transition back to democracy will take.

While Loure other activists are willing to wait and see whether the new government lives up to its promises, in the long run, he does not think the country’s population will stand for military rule to be installed permanently. In this, he has history on his side.

“What is great about Burkina Faso, is that we have public opinion that is strong enough, and a population that has become more and more awakened,” he said. “There are many things we won’t let pass.”

Clair MacDougall is a Burkina Faso-based journalist and writer who is currently covering the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in the Sahel region.

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