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How can Burkina Faso’s Traoré rule shift the politics in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Updated: Feb 7

The future of Burkina Faso is still unclear, but indeed the state is in grave need of a strong leader who can avert further escalations and contain the security threats before it is too late.

Nancy Dakroury

Geopolitics Reporter at Gravity 4.0

Despite his young age, 34-year-old Ibrahim Traoré managed to seize power in Burkina Faso, France’s former colony, after his successful military coup in September 2022. Incidentally, he even managed to overthrow Paul-Henri Sandaogo Dambia who led the previous coup d’état in January of the same year. This makes it the ninth coup d’état to take place in Burkina Faso since its independence from its long colonial power, France, in 1960.

Burkina Faso has been suffering due to the proliferation of Islamist militia and jihadists, as is the case in different states in the region.

The Islamist insurgency broke out in Burkina Faso in 2015 and since then, it left thousands of people dead and forced two million people to be displaced. Dambia was the head Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration- a military junta and pledged to enhance the security of the state by defeating the Jihadists. However, it was all in vain after the rebels and the jihadists managed to intensify their operations and control parts of the country. Consequently, this led to him being ousted by the dissatisfied members of the movement who were led by Traoré.

Grand scheme of politics

What is important to be highlighted here is Traoré’s intentions towards international players, as the ripple effect always takes place in politics. While other western powers condemned it, Russia did express its support for the new coup. Traoré intends to prove his efficiency and to do so he would have to act quickly since the country only controls 60% of its territory and Jihadist violence is worsening the situation. Traoré perceives Russian help would make the process convenient and swift, given the Russian government's outright willingness to help in normalising the situation in the country as soon as possible. Furthermore, he “accused” Damiba of being an ally to France while he continued to express his willingness to work with a “new” partner in order to combat terrorism.

Establishing new ties with Russia will indeed increase further tension and strains with France. This is due to Russia’s precarious position in the international system due to the Russian-Ukrainian war in recent times. Russia is looking forward to extending its influence in other hostile regions as well, including Africa. The Russian para-military organisation, Wagner, which is a network of mercenaries or a de facto “private army” entered Mali, a neighbouring country of Burkina Faso. Eventually, it ended France’s decade-long mission that aimed to end the presence of Islamists in the country. And unarguably, France did fail to do so, as the jihadists’ presence persisted to succeed and expanded to Burkina Faso. Although Traoré was vague regarding his aims to strengthen his ties with Russia, it does not deny the fact that he may be aiming for a prospective ally hence Russia’s aim to expand its influence in the region can smoothen the process. This makes Burkina Faso embroiled in the new cold war rivalry, however, Traoré's comments can suggest that he could follow the steps of his neighbouring country, Mali, which brought Wagner to replace the French.

Weak friends, strong foe

If Traoré admitted his support for the involvement of Russia, it could set a precedent for others in the region.

He may not be the first but indeed an effective factor that will accelerate the Russian presence in Africa, and thus, weakening the ties with the western bloc and consequently, the western influence on the African continent. Russian security and military deals are currently being reinforced and intensified, with not just Mali but also Cameroon, which signed five-year military cooperation with Russia. These events can reflect why anti-western tendencies are taking place in Africa, which was also evident when African countries held back from criticising Putin’s actions. For instance, Senegal opted not to support the UN General Assembly motion calling for a stop to the Russian war in Ukraine while Cameroon’s Ambassador deliberately missed its vote by flying back home. This can reflect the nature of the African shift towards the Eastern power, Russia, and away from the western bloc, most notably, France. The anti-west/French sentiment has spread across West Africa and Burkina Faso does not seem to be an exception. The Russian praise for Traoré’s existence does help in the enforcement of Russian presence in the country. As a matter of fact, Yevgeny Prigozhin who is the founder of the Wagner Group which fought with the armies of Mali and the Central African Republic (not to mention the claims of fighting for Russia in Ukraine), expressed his commendation for Traoré’s power grab.

Power Transition theory can buttress such a course of events; as its version, can explain how the east is trying to take over the power on the global scale from the west. This takes place when the “power diffusion” makes a state distant from all others whether east or west and closer to non-state actors, such as the Jihadists and Islamists in the African continent. Joseph Nye reflects on this as the “recovery” of Asia in which an Eastern power experiences a gradual ascent, after a period of decline that occurred due to the rise of the west politically and thus, economically as a result of industrialisation. According to Nye, power can be practiced in three different ways, two of which are the “stick and carrot” principle (in other words, coercion, and payments) and the third lies in the ability to get others to want what you want, i.e. soft power. Self-explanatory as is, therefore, Russia using its soft power to succeed in establishing its presence in Africa. Especially, Russia, in one way or another, promotes its own story and narrative among the African states against the common enemy, the west.

History repeats itself

Traoré’s story is also strikingly similar to the famous Burkinabé military officer, pan-Africanist, and the iconic figure of a “Marxist” revolution, Thomas Sankara. Similar to Traoré power grab, Sankara took leadership after his coup in 1983 and both of them were thirty-four years old captains at the time. The only difference would lie in Traoré’s new and potential alliance with Russia as a sign of rejection of the former colonial presence and its legacy as opposed to Sankara's preference for the non-alignment movement. The future of Burkina Faso is still unclear, but indeed the state is in grave need of a strong leader who can avert further escalations and contain the security threats before it is too late. However, will Traoré’s intentions lead to his end just like Sankara’s?

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