U.S. Security Assistance to Burkina Faso Laid the Groundwork for a Coup

Since 2009, the United States has supported the country’s military with funding, weapons, and training.

By , an anthropologist and co-director of the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
Uniformed soldiers wearing surgical face masks and holding weapons stand at attention.
Uniformed soldiers wearing surgical face masks and holding weapons stand at attention.
An honor guard stands at attention as Col. Maj. Gilbert Ouédraogo takes command as army chief of staff in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on Oct. 12, 2021. OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images

Burkina Faso’s military seized power last week, claiming President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s democratically elected government was not adequately dealing with the country’s unrest. This is the same military that, in the name of fighting supposed jihadism, has been implicated in widespread human rights abuses and targeted killings of ethnic Fulani people, a minority group that made up about 6.3 percent of Burkina Faso’s population in 2019 (though some estimates put it at 8.4 percent as of 2010). The Fulani traditionally are Muslim pastoralists who live across West Africa and herd cattle semi-nomadically.

Since 2009, the United States has been supporting Burkina Faso’s military with funding, weapons, and training as part of Washington’s post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts. That support, while not directly responsible for last week’s coup, helped lay the groundwork for the country’s increased militarism—and, ultimately, the coup it produced.

Most Burkinabe explain the violence tearing apart their country in terms of local dynamics and intimate, person-to-person interactions. When asked, very few see the United States as having any role at all in the current conflict in the tri-border region of the Sahel between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Violent actors include military and police forces, militants such as the al Qaeda-affiliated Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin coalition and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and other armed militias. France, the region’s former colonial power, has been the primary Western nation involved through its Operation Barkhane, targeting Islamist militants and backing regional governments in the fight.

Burkina Faso’s military seized power last week, claiming President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s democratically elected government was not adequately dealing with the country’s unrest. This is the same military that, in the name of fighting supposed jihadism, has been implicated in widespread human rights abuses and targeted killings of ethnic Fulani people, a minority group that made up about 6.3 percent of Burkina Faso’s population in 2019 (though some estimates put it at 8.4 percent as of 2010). The Fulani traditionally are Muslim pastoralists who live across West Africa and herd cattle semi-nomadically.

Since 2009, the United States has been supporting Burkina Faso’s military with funding, weapons, and training as part of Washington’s post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts. That support, while not directly responsible for last week’s coup, helped lay the groundwork for the country’s increased militarism—and, ultimately, the coup it produced.

Most Burkinabe explain the violence tearing apart their country in terms of local dynamics and intimate, person-to-person interactions. When asked, very few see the United States as having any role at all in the current conflict in the tri-border region of the Sahel between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Violent actors include military and police forces, militants such as the al Qaeda-affiliated Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin coalition and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and other armed militias. France, the region’s former colonial power, has been the primary Western nation involved through its Operation Barkhane, targeting Islamist militants and backing regional governments in the fight.

Among the many complexities wrapped up in the conflict are clashes between different livelihood groups such as farmers and herders; environmental changes wrought by climate change and desertification; historical race relations between ethnic groups that date back to colonial and pre-colonial times; widespread poverty; and frustration with a corrupt government that does little to provide opportunities or even basic infrastructure for the majority of its people.

Nonetheless, closer examination reveals the U.S. role in promoting the idea that terrorism in Burkina Faso required a military response—even though the local dynamics were far too complicated to align neatly with the U.S. view that “good” government forces battle “evil” terrorists.

“It’s not that all Fulani are terrorists, it’s that most terrorists are Fulani,” a Burkinabe army communications officer, speaking in an unofficial capacity, told me over a lunch of chicken and rice in a bustling outdoor eatery in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, in January 2019. As an anthropologist and co-director of the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute, I was in the capital to conduct research on the growing conflict in the West African Sahel and the United States’ involvement. This piece draws heavily from that research, which I’ve also written about elsewhere.

In Burkina Faso alone, the violence has had an enormous human toll, leaving over 7,000 people dead, over 1.4 million displaced, and more than 3.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance. In 2021, data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project suggests that Burkina Faso’s state forces were responsible for over 1,100 fatalities—close to half of the people killed in the conflict that year by all parties to the violence.

The officer’s comment revealed more about his own prejudice than about the true makeup of militant groups: Research has shown that people from several different ethnic groups are involved. Yet state forces, along with government-backed citizen militia groups, have systematically targeted the Fulani.

Not long after U.S. President George W. Bush launched what he called the “global war on terror” in Afghanistan in 2001, the Defense and State departments began to extend this war to Africa. Officials followed a preemptive logic that suggested that the smallest possibility of an attack warranted preventative action, and they focused particularly on “undergoverned” areas in “weak” or “fragile” states. The U.S. military started to build a network of bases and training activities across Africa, boosting what had been a limited presence across the continent since World War II.

Though U.S. strategists did not identify a significant threat of terrorism from Sahelian West Africa, the United States nevertheless created the Pan Sahel Initiative in 2003. At first training military units from Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, in 2005 the Pan Sahel Initiative became the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership and was expanded to include Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia. Though the United States saw Burkina Faso as peaceful and stable, the country was added to the counterterrorism partnership in 2009.

Only seven years later, around 2016, did Burkina Faso begin to see a surge in militant attacks. The violence spilled over from neighboring Mali in the wake of the 2011 U.S.- and NATO-backed revolution in Libya that toppled longtime Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi and contributed to the 2012 political destabilization of Mali.

According to data from the Security Assistance Monitor, U.S. security funding for Burkina Faso skyrocketed from annual rates that were in the $200,000 range before 2009 to $1.8 million in 2010 and more than $16 million by 2018. This is only an accounting of publicly disclosed funding, and investigative work suggests the total amount of U.S. security cooperation aid to Burkina Faso in 2018 and 2019 was as high as $100 million. Most of this funding has supported military operations and equipment, including vehicles, weapons, and generators.

Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows a parallel spike in Burkina Faso’s military expenditures since 2009. That year the country’s military spent $110 million; 10 years later, in 2019, it spent $358 million.

The United States has also provided extensive counterterrorism training, both in West Africa and in America, to Burkinabe military and police forces. The leader of Burkina Faso’s current coup, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, has an extensive history of participating in U.S.-sponsored military training. Among others, he participated in the United States’ Exercise Flintlock in West Africa in 2010 and 2020, a U.S.-sponsored Military Intelligence Basic Officer Course in Senegal in 2013 and 2014, and a Department of Defense Civil Military Support Element in Burkina Faso in 2018 and 2019. A prior coup in Burkina Faso in 2014 was led by a military official, Lt. Col. Isaac Zida, who had also attended U.S. counterterrorism and military intelligence training courses.

Through all this activity, the United States established the ideological framework and military supports that ensured Burkina Faso would respond to the problem of violent militant attacks, when this problem arose, with its own so-called war on terror. The state’s chosen enemy? The Fulani.

I heard stories from Fulani people about government forces arresting and disappearing Fulani men from their homes, marketplaces, and roadside checkpoints. Victims are often found shot in the head or chest. One man told me how soldiers put his brother in a military prison and prohibited visits from family members, so they could not bring him food. They heard he was tortured, starved, and even without water. After a month, he died. In July 2020, Human Rights Watch reported on mass graves found near the northern town of Djibo that held the remains of at least 180 people, most of them Fulani. Evidence suggested that state security forces were the killers.

Meanwhile, the government is arming citizen militia groups, known as the Koglweogo, who also target and kill the Fulani. Fulani people live in daily fear of being attacked. Human rights watchdogs and foreign governments have called for Burkina Faso to investigate security force abuses, and the United States has warned the country that military aid could be at risk, but so far Burkina Faso’s government has enjoyed impunity.

Beyond causing widespread death, suffering, and fear, the result of this government violence has been to fuel militancy. My interviews in 2019 and additional sources suggest the state’s targeting of the Fulani has led many people to join militant groups out of their desire to retaliate and their desperation to protect themselves and their communities. According to Diallo Souaibou, who works with Fulani religious leaders through his nonprofit organization to promote peace, “About 80 percent of those who join terrorist groups told us that it isn’t because they support jihadism, it is because their father or mother or brother was killed by the security forces. So many people have been killed—assassinated—but there has been no justice.”

At the same time, Burkina Faso’s war on jihadis obscures the government’s failure to alleviate poverty or fix state corruption, which are the deepest drivers of the militant movement.

The incessant violence and enormous suffering have led to many Burkinabes’ frustration with Kaboré’s government—a feeling that coup leaders capitalized on to justify their takeover, with the claim that they are best suited to get a handle on the violence. Yet their record suggests that their leadership will open the door to further state violence against Fulani people and an ever-worsening conflict.

Stephanie Savell is an anthropologist and co-director of the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Twitter: @stephsavell

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