Security priorities for Burkina Faso’s new transition

After the second coup in nine months, divisions in the army and security forces must be urgently resolved.

On 30 September, disgruntled army officers staged a coup that toppled Burkina Faso’s transitional military leader Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba. Eight months earlier, Damiba had himself taken over after deposing civilian president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré.

The latest revolt was reportedly sparked by anger over extra payments to special forces linked to Damiba. The situation highlights deep divisions in Burkina Faso’s security apparatus that complicate the transition to constitutional rule. The coup also compounds insecurity due to rising violent extremism in the country.    

Captain Ibrahim Traoré led the recent coup and took over as interim leader. He accused Damiba of failing to restore security in the country and deviating from the vision of the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration – the junta in place since January. Damiba’s conciliatory posture towards former president Blaise Compaoré and those allied to him was deemed as undermining the junta.

Divisions stem from privileges given to Compaoré’s Presidential Security Regiment over other military units

Damiba’s removal and the tensions that have simmered since then raise the possibility of clashes between officers loyal to him and those of Traoré. Conflict has so far been stalled by the intervention of traditional, religious and community leaders, but tensions remain between officers from rival camps.

The divisions stem from Compaoré’s establishment of the Presidential Security Regiment in the army and the longstanding privileges given its officers over other military units. His policy of favouritism and clientelism made regiment officers better trained and equipped than their colleagues. The security and survival of Compaoré’s regime was the ultimate goal, which meant military policy and practice weren’t merit based. This led to deep-seated resentment among various ranks and insubordination and division in most units.

In October 2017, the government’s national security forum, comprised of security forces, civil society and political parties, highlighted these divisions and called for comprehensive security sector reform. This wasn’t wholly supported by Kaboré, who was wary of an army politicised by his predecessor. Reform efforts tended to be hasty and inconsistent and did little to restructure the security sector.

Kaboré’s administration passed the military programming law in 2017 and legalised self-defence groups such as the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland. In 2020 it formed ‘cobra’ units dedicated to combating terrorist groups. The following year, a national strategy to prevent violent extremism and a national security policy were adopted. However, these piecemeal measures lacked coherence and failed to unite the country’s security forces against armed groups.

When Damiba took power in January, no attempts were made to improve past policies and practices. Despite announcing a governance audit of the armed forces to improve their functioning, there was no follow-up. And the investigation into the Inata attack of November 2021, during which 53 gendarmes died, was never completed.

When Damiba took power in January, no attempts were made to improve on past policies and practices

There was almost no progress on security sector reform, and violent extremism in northern Burkina Faso continued. In Djibo in the Sahel region, violent extremists imposed a seven-month blockade and carried out attacks. A 26 September assault destroyed a convoy carrying supplies to the city, highlighting the government’s inability to deal with the security and humanitarian situation.

Decisions about the general reorganisation of the armed forces and their employment also deepened tensions and undermined the army’s chain of command. For example, in February, a national theatre operations command centre was created without sufficient clarity about its reporting lines to the army’s chief of staff. This led to conflict in the mobilisation of troops against terrorist groups.

Relations between the army and the gendarmerie are strained following the latter’s refusal to submit to the army chief of staff. Not only are the national police and paramilitary bodies marginalised, but special forces have been confined to protecting state officials instead of working on counter-terrorism. Recent promotions to the rank of general, which were perceived as ‘gifts’ to officers allied with Damiba, also heightened tensions.

Adding to the situation are persistent rumours in the military due to the lack of transparency around the choice of strategic partners, collaboration with neighboring countries, and the strategy for dialogue with terrorist groups.

The absence of a cohesive security sector has seriously undermined Burkina Faso’s capacity to deal with the urgent problem of violent extremism. The country’s new authorities must break from past practices that have fueled tensions and divisions in the army, police and other security structures. Comprehensive security sector reform is vital to instil trust and confidence among the various units, boost morale and restore unity.

The absence of a cohesive security sector has seriously undermined capacity to deal with terrorism

The management of the army should be transparent and accountable, with specific attention to addressing injustices and perceptions of favouritism. The new leadership also needs to strengthen social ties among soldiers and revive morale, which are essential for bringing units together to tackle violent extremism.

The strategic and operational structure of the army also needs improving, and the chain of command should be clarified. Coordination between units and their particular missions is vital and requires a coherent institutional framework.

The forthcoming national consultation to adopt a new transition charter is an opportunity to insert security sector reform into the transition priorities. This should facilitate the adoption of the draft national security strategy and national security legislation.

Finally, the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States, United Nations and European Union to resolve the Burkina Faso crisis should include substantial and appropriate support for security sector reform.

Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné, Senior Researcher and Hassane Koné, Senior Researcher, Sahel Programme, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

Image : © Radio Télévision du Burkina

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This article was produced with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The ISS is also grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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