By Armel Baily and Amaury Hauchard
Several dozen protestors waving Russian flags rallied in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou on Tuesday, as West African envoys wrapped up a fact-finding mission following the country’s second coup in less than nine months.
The impoverished Sahel state plunged into turmoil at the weekend when Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba — who had seized power in January — was toppled by a newly emerged rival, 34-year-old Captain Ibrahim Traore.
The dramatic takeover, which ended with Damiba fleeing to neighbouring Togo, coincided with violent anti-French protests and the sudden emergence of Russian flags among demonstrators.
Demonstrators Thursday chanted support for Russia, called on France to exit the country and warned ECOWAS — the Economic Community of West African States — against “meddling”, an AFP journalist saw.
The ECOWAS delegates arrived Tuesday morning, headed by Guinea-Bissau Foreign Minister Suzi Carla Barbosa, whose country currently chairs the bloc.
The same day they concluded their mission after “two important meetings… first with traditional and religious leaders, and the main meeting with Captain Ibrahim Traore”, said former Niger president Mahamadou Issoufou, the mediator for Burkina Faso at ECOWAS.
Issoufou said the country had been “on the brink of collapse” over the weekend.
Speculation has risen that Traore may follow other fragile regimes in French-speaking Africa and forge close ties with Moscow at the expense of France, the region’s former colonial power and traditional ally.
On the streets, demonstrators’ slogans included “France get out”, “No to ECOWAS interference”, and “Long live Russia-Burkina cooperation”.
On Tuesday evening, Traore thanked the demonstrators for their “mobilisation” but told them to free up any occupied public spaces and told them their “different messages have been heard”.
In Russia, Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the controversial Wagner paramilitary group whose operatives have been documented in the Central African Republic and Mali, congratulated Traore, hailing him “a genuinely brave son… of his homeland”.
“I salute and give my support to Captain Ibrahim Traore,” the usually secretive 61-year-old businessman said on the social media outlets of his company Concord.
Traore and his men “have done what was necessary and they did it simply for the good of their people”, he said.
The United States warned the junta of the risks of allying with Russia, saying they condemned “any attempt to exacerbate the current situation in Burkina Faso”.
“Countries where the (Wagner paramilitary group) has been deployed find themselves weaker and less secure, and we’ve seen that in a number of cases in Africa alone,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters.
ECOWAS — designed to promote democracy in one of the world’s most volatile regions — has witnessed five coups among three of its 15 members in little more than two years.
Its approach has been to urge junta leaders to set a relatively short timetable for restoring civilian rule — and to impose sanctions against those deemed to be ignoring the demand or sidestepping their pledges.
But it has also taken flak, with some critics accusing it of supporting Western, or specifically French, interests.
Traore said in a statement the ECOWAS visit was to “make contact with the new transition authorities” as part of the support that Burkina Faso derived from the region.
He said he had learned “with astonishment and regret” that messages had circulated on social media “calling for this mission to be hampered” and urged calm and restraint.
“Any person who commits acts aimed at disturbing the smooth course of the ECOWAS mission will face the force of the law,” Traore said.
Landlocked and deeply poor, Burkina Faso has experienced little political stability since gaining independence from France in 1960.
The latest turmoil takes place against the backdrop of a jihadist insurgency that swept in from neighbouring Mali in 2015.
Thousands of civilians, troops and police officers have been killed and nearly two million people have fled their homes.
Swelling anger within the armed forces prompted Damiba’s coup against the elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, on January 24.
Appointing himself transitional head of state, Damiba vowed to make security the country’s top priority but after a brief lull the attacks revived, claiming hundreds of lives.
Traore emerged on Friday at the head of a faction of disgruntled junior officers that proclaimed that Damiba had been deposed — also for failing to roll back the insurgency.
Damiba fled following a two-day standoff that was defused by religious and community leaders.
Traore has said he would stand by a pledge that Damiba gave ECOWAS for restoring civilian rule by July 2024.