Burkina Faso’s Self-Proclaimed Leader Tries to Reassure Country

DAKAR, Senegal — Burkina Faso’s self-proclaimed military leader said on Sunday that the uncertain situation affecting the West African nation since mutinying soldiers announced a coup on Friday was “under control,” but stopped short of announcing that the ousted leader had resigned.

The statement read on national television by the self-proclaimed leader, Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, was the latest development in the unrest that has rocked Burkina Faso, a country of 21 million that has endured two coups in eight months. Protests erupted on Saturday against the deposed leader, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who refused to relinquish power and warned of a “fratricidal war” if Captain Traoré did not back down.

In his statement, Captain Traoré also urged protesters in Ouagadougou, the capital, to stop acts of vandalism against the French Embassy, which was attacked on Saturday and again on Sunday morning.

Captain Traoré had accused France, the country’s former colonial power, of helping Colonel Damiba stage a comeback. The French Foreign Ministry denied any involvement, and Captain Traoré later walked back his comments.

But an hour after Captain Traoré called for calm on Sunday, dozens of protesters showed no will of stopping and took down some razor wire from the walls of the French Embassy, according to videos shared on social media. No security forces from Burkina Faso could be seen around the embassy.

In fact, as Captain Traoré left national television headquarters around midday Sunday in a black pickup, shouts of “Merci” and “Our President” could be heard, putting forth a message: France — which has special forces at a camp on the outskirts the capital — had to leave.

“Traoré should issue a note ordering France to quit Burkina Faso now,” said Seydou Zongo, a protester who said he was unemployed.

It felt as if history were repeating itself: After Colonel Damiba took power in January, Russian flags were unfurled in Ouagadougou and protesters called for the new military leader to reject a long-lasting French influence.

Even as Colonel Damiba said over his eight-month tenure that he was seeking new partners and met with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, last month at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, factions of the military saw him as too close to France. Across Western African countries, an anti-French sentiment has emerged in recent years, and Burkina Faso now seems to epitomize that frustration.

But France has no heightened presence in Burkina Faso — unlike in Mali, where in August it ended a nine-year military operation that failed to stop an Islamist insurgency — and there was no reinforced partnership under Colonel Damiba’s leadership.

Still, Roland Ouedraogo, a protester who was demonstrating on Sunday in front of the French Embassy, said: “We want to change partners. No to France, and Traoré should travel to Russia soon.”

Confusion began in Burkina Faso early Friday morning, when gunfire rang out around the presidential palace. By the end of the day, a group of officers had announced on national television that Captain Traoré was the country’s new leader, accusing Colonel Damiba of failing to crush extremists who have blockaded towns in the country’s north and east, attacked security forces, and killed scores of civilians.

Just eight months earlier, Colonel Damiba had taken power and ousted the civilian, democratically elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, for similar reasons.

Colonel Damiba argued that a military leader would be better positioned to lead a war against Islamist insurgents, but during his tenure, the security situation worsened on many fronts, analysts say.

In the short term, the coup is likely to worsen a dire security and humanitarian situation in Burkina Faso, where nearly 10 percent of the population has been displaced because of violence carried out by extremists, many of them linked to Islamist groups.

All humanitarian operations had been suspended as of Saturday, and humanitarian aircraft immobilized, according to Tom Peyre-Costa, a spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council in West and Central Africa.

The coup was almost unanimously condemned by regional and international organizations like the United Nations, the African Union and the European Union, as well as countries like France and the United States.

As of Sunday, Russia had not commented on the coup.

But Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, an associate of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and founder of the Wagner Group, a shadowy private military company that has fought on Russia’s side in the war in Ukraine and with the armies of Mali and the Central African Republic, on Saturday praised the power grab by Captain Traoré.

And a pro-Kremlin analyst who appears frequently on state television said that “our people helped the new leader.” The analyst, Sergei Markov, could not be reached for comment.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/02/world/africa/burkina-faso-coup-france-russia.html