Africa Responds to Burkina Faso’s Coup
Regional organizations like the African Union and ECOWAS suspended the country’s ruling junta. But do they have double standards when it comes to democracy?
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Burkina Faso’s military junta restores its constitution, Sudanese military authorities reject U.N.-backed talks, and the Biden administration cancels military aid to Egypt amid ongoing arms sales.
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Regional Bodies Suspend Burkina Faso
On Jan. 31, Burkinabe coup leader Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba restored the country’s constitution and named himself president. Damiba’s self-promotion came hours after the African Union (AU) joined the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in suspending the country, following last week’s military takeover.
Burkina Faso’s new junta, named the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration, urged Burkinabes to support the army’s continuing fight against Islamist militants. Since 2015, insurgencies led by the Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked armed groups have killed more than 2,000 people and driven 1.5 million Burkinabes from their homes, a number representing 6 in 10 of all displaced people in the Sahel region.
Burkinabes had been frustrated with the government’s inability to stem the violence. Having ignored calls to resign, ousted President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré reshuffled the army and his cabinet, hired a new prime minister, and appointed himself defense minister. Since seizing power after what he described as Kaboré’s failure to properly equip soldiers to deal with the Islamist insurgency, Damiba, who has extensive U.S. military training, has vowed to recapture rural areas from armed groups.
Experts believe poverty rather than religious ideology is feeding recruitment by armed groups—a problem that is more difficult to resolve quickly. Jihadis control large swaths of the rural north. Fighting in Burkina Faso could reverberate further into the Ivory Coast, security experts fear. The tri-border area—where Mali, the Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso meet—has already witnessed jihadi attacks.
The situation mirrors that in neighboring Mali, where the military took over last year and where anti-French discontent is growing. Mali expelled the French ambassador on Monday, after recruiting Russian military advisors and forcing out Danish troops. Russia has been expanding its African footprint in embattled but mineral-rich countries. On Jan. 25, Alexander Ivanov, the official representative of Russian military trainers in the Central African Republic, issued a statement offering Russian help in Burkina Faso.
An ECOWAS delegation headed by Ghanaian Foreign Minister Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, along with Mahamat Saleh Annadif, the United Nations representative for West Africa and the Sahel, arrived in Burkina Faso on Monday to meet with mutinous soldiers and Kaboré, who is under house arrest.
Sanctions have not yet been imposed on the military junta given that punitive measures have been ineffective in neighboring countries. Burkina Faso’s putsch is West Africa’s fourth coup in two years, with a possible fifth attempt in Guinea-Bissau on Tuesday. The AU and ECOWAS suspended Guinea and Mali after power grabs last year. The military takeovers will be the focus of the AU leaders’ summit taking place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this month. It “represents a threat to peace, security, and stability in West Africa,” Ghanaian President and ECOWAS chair Nana Akufo-Addo said last Friday. U.N. chief António Guterres called it an “epidemic.”
But several observers have accused regional bodies like the AU of being a club of hypocritical despots who fail to act when elected leaders change constitutions to stay in power. People on the street often support the juntas because the governments they overthrew were far from democratic.
As author Adem Abebe wrote in Foreign Policy last year, the AU and ECOWAS must prioritize early warning systems and call out incumbent leaders who abuse their power. Otherwise, their acceptance of so-called constitutional coups while denouncing military ones could continue to feed “a sense across the region that hypocrisy is rampant in organizations that tolerate and protect incumbents no matter how much they bend the rules.”
The Week Ahead
Thursday, Feb. 3: The United Nations Human Rights Council adopts recommendations made to South Sudan and Sudan following a review of their human rights records.
West African leaders hold a meeting in Accra, Ghana, to discuss the Burkina Faso coup and decide on possible sanctions.
Saturday, Feb. 5, to Sunday, Feb. 6: African heads of state and government convene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the African Union leaders’ summit.
What We’re Watching
Another coup in the Sahel. On Tuesday, ECOWAS denounced what it called an “attempted coup” in Guinea-Bissau and urged soldiers to return to their barracks in a bid to prevent yet another successful coup within a member nation. Gunfire was heard around the presidential palace, as President Umaro Sissoco Embaló and Prime Minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam met with cabinet.
The country has witnessed grievances linked to its diverse ethnic population and a recent cabinet reshuffle by Embaló, who took office in 2020 following an election outcome recognized by ECOWAS but disputed as fraudulent by losing opponent Domingos Simões Pereira.
Guinea-Bissau has a history of military power grabs. The country has seen nine coups or attempted coups since independence from Portugal in 1974. As journalist Ricci Shryock explored in a profile of Pereira for Foreign Policy, political figures have argued that imported forms of Western democracy “simply do not fit the reality of Guinea-Bissau.”
Congo sentences. A military court in the Democratic Republic of the Congo condemned 51 people to death, several in absentia, for the deaths of United Nations experts Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán in a trial lasting nearly five years.
Sharp, an American, and Catalán, a Swedish Chilean, were killed in 2017 while investigating mass graves after fighting broke out between government troops and militia group Kamwina Nsapu, whom the government blames for the deaths. Catalán’s body was found beheaded. The most senior person on trial was Col. Jean de Dieu Mambweni of Congo’s security forces, who was sentenced to 10 years. He denied the charges, which his lawyer described as “a set up.”
The death sentences handed down on Saturday are likely to be appealed and reduced to life imprisonment because Congo has a moratorium on executions. Court trials have not fully uncovered whether senior officials played a “critical role” in the murders, according to Human Rights Watch. The U.S. ambassador to the country, Mike Hammer, urged Congolese authorities to continue investigating “all possible leads.”
Sudan’s military rejects talks. Analysts suspected the impact of U.N.-brokered talks in Sudan could be negligible well before they even began. On Saturday, Sudan’s military-led government said Volker Perthes, the U.N. special envoy to the country, should be working as a “facilitator and not a mediator.” Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan had previously welcomed the initiative put forward by the United Nations mission in Sudan despite key protest groups having rejected it.
However, in a statement, the military regime’s second-in-command, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemeti), said the country’s military-led sovereign council “rejects interference in domestic affairs.” On Sunday, crackdowns by Sudanese security forces against anti-coup demonstrations in the capital, Khartoum, saw the number of people killed since the October 2021 coup rise to 79.
Ethiopian hunger crisis. The world’s worst famine disaster in a decade is escalating as almost 40 percent of the people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region face starvation, the United Nations World Food Programme said in an assessment released on Friday. Tigray, home to 6 million people, has been under a government blockade, and no aid convoy has entered the region since mid-December 2021, the United Nations said.
In Tigray and the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, more than 9 million people need food aid. Meanwhile, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, on Saturday during a state visit to the United Arab Emirates. The pair discussed regional cooperation.
Experts believe drones bought from the UAE, China, and Turkey helped dramatically shift the balance of Ethiopia’s 15-month war toward Ethiopian government forces against Tigrayan rebels. Ethiopian lawmakers have committed to establishing a commission for national dialogue, but it remains unclear if key actors like the leaders of Tigrayan and Oromo armed forces will be part of it.
“A national dialogue that commences by excluding critical actors or is stage-managed by the ruling elites cannot lead to sustainable peace, Keele University lecturer Awol Allo warned in Foreign Policy last week.
Egypt arms deal. Citing human rights concerns, the Biden administration said it is canceling $130 million in military aid to Egypt that has been put on hold since September 2021. The announcement made no mention of the $2.5 billion worth of U.S. arms sales to Egypt approved just a few days earlier.
U.S. officials have insisted that military aid and the arms sale, which includes 12 C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft and air defense radar systems, are unrelated—arguing that the weapons deal supports national security by helping a “strategic partner in the Middle East.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his government has been accused of jailing thousands of people, blocking access to independent media, and carrying out extrajudicial killings and torture in a counterterrorism campaign against Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula. German authorities announced the country’s arms exports topped record levels in 2021, helped in part by $4.8 billion worth of weapons sales to Egypt.
This Week in Sports
AFCON semifinals. Gambia’s Scorpions debuted this year’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) as the lowest FIFA-ranked team in the tournament (at 150th in the world), yet the team managed to reach the quarterfinals of the tournament.
Few imagined such a moment, not least 20-year-old Roma midfielder and Scorpions player Ebrima Darboe, who at age 14 undertook a perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to make it to Italy as an unaccompanied minor. He was spotted by a Roma scout in 2017. “We are underdogs from a small country, but we are a good team and deserve to be treated better,” he told the Guardian last month.
They were beaten by hosts Cameroon, ending a dream run that inspired many back home in the continent’s smallest mainland country. The Africa Cup of Nations has not been without controversy, including a stadium stampede that left at least eight people dead and Cameroon’s ongoing civil war with Anglophone separatists. But an underrated team such as Gambia beating heavily favored Tunisia is what makes AFCON unique.
“Players deemed to be world class can find their match in local players earning $2,000 a year,” Hugo Zoff, chief editor at African Insider, told Foreign Policy. Today, Burkina Faso faces Senegal in the semifinals, and on Thursday, Cameroon takes on Egypt, as Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah seeks to help his country win an eighth AFCON title.
Chart of the Week
Economic and political grievances in Burkina Faso have fueled Islamist violence in the country’s north. The worst attack in the last year happened in June 2021, when armed men killed at least 160 people during a three-hour massacre in the northern village of Solhan.
What We’re Reading
Fracking threatens Tunisia. Anglo-French oil and gas company Perenco has been criticized for a lack of transparency in Tunisia, in which 4 out of 6 of the company’s Tunisian subsidiaries are registered in tax havens, including in the U.S. state of Delaware. Perenco said it operates conventional gas extraction methods at its El Franig site in southern Tunisia. But satellite images show the existence of at least eight instances of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, at the site, reports Tunisian investigative platform Inkyfada.
Fracking involves drilling into the earth before a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals is injected to release the gas in the rocks. Environmentalists say toxic chemicals used during the process could escape and contaminate groundwater. Perenco’s El Franig site encroaches on Chott el Djerid, a salt lake of international importance that’s vying for UNESCO World Heritage recognition.
Coup leaders, made in the U.S.A. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, Burkina Faso’s new coup leader, received substantial training from the U.S. military, which has a long record of training soldiers in Africa who go on to lead coups in their home countries. Damiba attended at least four separate U.S. special forces training programs between 2010 and 2020, reports the Intercept. Since 2008, U.S. trained officers have attempted at least nine coups and succeeded eight times across five West African countries.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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