On September 30, a military coup took place in Burkina Faso, the second in eight months, following a coup in early January of this year. The coup leaders accused France of supporting the leader of the previous coup, Paul-Henri Damiba, and demonstrations were staged calling for the expulsion of French forces from the country. This raises questions about the future of France’s military presence in Burkina Faso post-coup, especially after demonstrators set fire to the French embassy and raised pro-Russia flags in support of Moscow’s policy in the region.
Different factors will affect France’s future presence in Burkina Faso, most importantly:
1. Increasing terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso: Although France maintains a military presence through the SABER force—a special force of about 400 French soldiers that trains the army at barracks near Ouagadougou—Burkina Faso has recorded the largest number of deaths at the hands of armed groups in the region. In April of 2022 alone, at least 240 people were killed, including 108 civilians. The most violent of these terrorist operations, which have hastened Ibrahim Traore’s coup, gunmen killed 11 police officers in an attack on the town of Sitenga (east).
2. Demonstrations against the French presence in Burkina Faso: About 24 hours after the start of the coup against Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who himself took power through a coup last January, coup leaders accused France of supporting Damiba to remain in power. The situation was complicated by Paris’s categorical denial of that charge, while anti-French demonstrators threw rocks at the French Cultural Center in the southern town of Bobo-Dioulasso and French companies were vandalized.
3. Propagation of anti-French media in Burkina Faso: A recent report issued by the French Ministry of Defense’s Institute for Strategic Research highlighted "the spread of misleading content on the internet, mostly aimed at distorting the French presence and justifying the Russian presence," adding that "Burkina Faso today is one of the African nations targeted by the Wagner Group." The report also noted a large increase in the number of readers of the French versions of two Russian media sites, RT and Sputnik.
4. Emergence of Moscow-supportive movements: The most important of these movements—which calls itself "Burkina – Russia" and includes intellectuals, politicians, human rights activists, and journalists—organizes pro-Russian activities and calls for a "geostrategic" partnership with Moscow. The movement presents itself as opposed to French policies and demands the elimination of secret agreements with Paris. The "Burkina – Russia" movement has gained strength in recent days, with its activists leading the pro-coup demonstrations, wearing shirts bearing the Burkinabe and Russian flags, and carrying signs opposing the French and Western presence in their country. Some of these activists even took aim at a billboard in a street in Ouagadougou bearing the logo of a French company.
5. Russian military incentives for Burkina Faso: In its war against terrorism, Burkina Faso suffers most from a lack of equipment and weapons, which is the pretext the coup leaders used to justify the overthrow of President Paul-Henri Damiba. Russia is ready to shore up this deficiency through deals similar to those made with military coup leaders in neighboring Mali two years ago. In 2018, Russia and Burkina Faso signed an agreement paving the way for the Burkinabe army and security forces to receive "technical support" from Russia, and they also launched a military and strategic training program overseen by the Russian military.
The agreement, signed more than four years ago, touched on the possibility of Burkina Faso obtaining Russian "military equipment and weapons," but it had no teeth until last January’s coup, when voices inside the army began to call for the activation of the agreement and stronger cooperation with Russia. This push comes in the framework of so-called "diversification of partnerships" in order to find effective counter-terrorism solutions. However, Lt. Col. Damiba appeared unenthused by this rapid shift.
6. Burkinabe military anticipates cooperation with Moscow: From Burkinabe officials’ statements in recent months, it is clear that there is a new strategy based on a search for new partners in the war on terrorism. Following growing popular resentment against the French, Russia was ready to be this new partner. At the end of last August, the prime minister of the transitional Burkinabe government, Albert Ouédraogo, declared that Burkina Faso maintains its right to diversify its partners, even if that upsets its historical partners—a reference to the former colonial power, France, which is the country’s biggest military and security partner. Ouédraogo was even more explicit when he said, "There are question marks over the partnership that binds us with France."
There are two scenarios for France’s future presence in Burkina Faso:
1. French withdrawal: The military coup leaders quickly announced their enthusiasm for an alliance with Moscow and clearly expressed their strong desire to move toward other partners, namely, Russia and its security arm, the Wagner Group. This indicates secret cooperation with Russia, which means a repeat of the scenario that took place in neighboring Mali, where two coups in 2020 swept an anti-France military to power, leading President Emmanuel Macron to announce the withdrawal of French troops and their redeployment to other countries in the region.
2. French forces remain: Under this scenario, France may exploit divisions within the military institution and support the camp loyal to the leader of the previous coup, Paul-Henri Damiba, who is known as one of France’s supporters in the region. France may support him if some military units side with him. The leaders of the current coup may opportunistically exploit the French-Russian polarization to mobilize support for their political projects without cutting ties with France. Maintaining those ties could mean avoiding harsh sanctions from ECOWAS, which imposed no sanctions on the former military council, because Paris has strong influence over several members of the organization.
In conclusion, it is too soon to choose one of the two scenarios over the other, given several considerations. First, Russia continues to face challenges in resolving the war in Ukraine and may not want to escalate a regional confrontation with France at the moment. Likewise, the Wagner Group has not proven capable of coordinating with Malian troops in confronting terrorism. Rather, the relationship between the two sides has shifted from cooperation to armed clashes and confrontations in the streets of Bamako. Furthermore, the leader of the new coup in Burkina Faso, Ibrahim Traore, still faces the challenge of imposing his control over a conflicted military and possible coup attempts against his power. Consequently, the future of French military presence depends on the new leadership’s ability to impose its control over the military and its reckoning of the benefit that can be obtained from a relationship with Paris or Moscow.