PSC Interview: What Burkina Faso's latest coup means for democracy

Fewer than eight months after Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba overthrew Burkina Faso's elected president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré on 24 January 2022, he was overthrown in a countercoup. This handed the presidency to his challenger Captain Ibrahim Traoré on 1 October 2022.

PSC Report spoke to Dr Issaka K Souaré about these events and their implications. Souaré is an independent senior governance and mediation adviser and adviser to the ISS regional office for West Africa, the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. He is also the author of several publications on unconstitutional changes of government (UCGs). We asked him about the implications of this ‘coup on a coup’ for the country's return to democratic rule?

The new military ruler’s statements and undertakings indicate that the change may not have negative implications on timelines for the return of constitutional order in the country. He has solemnly undertaken to respect the accord that his predecessor had reached with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

In fact, this was one of the seven terms of the surrender of Damiba. All the socio-political actors in Burkina Faso also seem to have called for this. The regional organisation has also insisted on it and appears to have obtained guarantees to this effect from Traoré and his collaborators.

This coup is the fifth in the Sahel region in just two years. How will the rise in coups influence the region's future peace and security?

Be it in the Sahel region or elsewhere in Africa, military coups constitute a break in the constitutional governance trajectory of a country. Repeated recurrence in a country, such as recently in Mali and Burkina Faso, is likely to scare off serious and long-term investors. These parties might worry about their investments and contracts if they have to renegotiate the latter with every new regime.

Burkina Faso’s ‘coup on a coup’ may not delay the return of constitutional order in the country

If the trend continues, it would undermine democracies and make military intervention a ready recourse to correct any mistakes made by elected or other military leaders. This would come at the expense of peaceful mechanisms provided in national constitutions/legal texts and regional instruments. This would open a Pandora’s box of instability. It obviously calls for sitting leaders to abide by such mechanisms and for African regional organisations to be firm and consistent in disallowing their blatant violation by incumbent leaders.

Burkina Faso’s new leader may seek Russian mercenaries' help in the waning fight against Islamist militants. Do you foresee this happening and how would it affect the Sahel’s peace and security trajectory?

We seem to be witnessing in the Sahel the effects of international geopolitical dynamics and rivalries pitching Western countries and Russia against one another. As in Mali, calls in Burkina Faso for Russian military intervention, official or through security companies such as Wagner, appear to be the manifestation of such dynamics. They also reflect the thought by some segments of Sahelian populations that Russians might be able to help them better than the West, particularly France, has been able to.

This geopolitical rivalry is played out in the media, with each side portraying the others in a bad light, including by tweaking facts. I don’t think the solution lies in either Paris or Moscow, or West or East, but in the reinforcement of African governments’ capacities to deal with their security and development challenges.

Repeated coups in the Sahel would open a Pandora’s box of instability in the region

This would be done through good political, socio-economic and security sector governance. The African Union (AU) and regional economic communities have an important role here in regional cooperation, as the challenges in question often have transnational implications.

With the AU calling for the restoration of constitutional order by mid-2024, and it and ECOWAS labelling Damiba's removal ‘unconstitutional’, how do you view the frameworks to address the growing threat of UCGs?

The AU and regional communities, particularly ECOWAS, have good frameworks for handling UCGs, especially military coups. The Lomé Declaration (July 2000), the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (2007) and the 2001 ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Governance provide solid UCG frameworks. However, their stances on sitting leaders need to be strengthened, particularly in their respect of democratic principles, for it's not enough to come to power democratically; one has to maintain power democratically.

Presidential term limits could help if sitting leaders whose countries’ constitutions have this disposition respected this systematically or were made to do so. This is where lies the importance of the envisaged reforms of the ECOWAS supplementary protocol, which seeks to include a clear ban on more than two consecutive terms in the region. This is not a call for constitutions never to be amended.

Though civilians celebrate coups at first, surveys show most West African countries prefer constitutional rule

Reference is to specific provisions, as this is common already in some constitutions where issues such as the state’s republican and secular nature are exempted from amendments. African institutions should be consistent in the application of these normative frameworks, as exceptions are likely to undermine them in the long run. But firm actions against faulty sitting leaders are likely to strengthen the authorities of African institutions on military leaders, as popular sentiments will be with them.

While the AU, ECOWAS and the international community have condemned the coup, many civilians celebrate it. Is this an endorsement of military rule, a rebuke of neo-colonialism or the pursuit for an alternative?

Military coups often occur in situations of great hardship for populations. This creates conditions conducive to change. Civilian celebrations in the early hours of military coups are manifestations of general joy at the change and the departure of the former leader, not necessarily a welcome to the new rulers. That civilians later turn against military rulers who do not live up to their expectations corroborates this.

Several surveys carried out by credible institutions such as Afrobarometer show that most West African populations prefer constitutional rule. Thus, one could argue that people can be – and often are – disappointed by civilian rule. However, with military intervention, their assumption is that the military will ‘save them’ from disappointing civilian rulers by rerailing the train and returning to the barracks, not establishing themselves in power. Enlightened military leaders also understand this and, therefore, organise short transitions to restore constitutional order.

What new strategies ought the AU use to respond authoritatively and enduringly to coups and other UCGs in Burkina Faso and elsewhere on the continent?

These should be anchored around, first, consistency in applying existing instruments and secondly, more clarity in areas shown to need this. These include what constitutes restoration of constitutional order and when a ‘democratically elected’ leader who ceases to rule democratically can be told so peacefully. Thirdly, more clarity and firmness are needed to deal with misbehaviour of sitting leaders who manipulate constitutions to remain in power.

Fourthly, democratic rule should be enhanced in member states, including promoting good economic governance that is likely to result in better services for African citizens. Lastly,  the financial autonomy of African institutions must be strengthened to give them enough carrot-and-stick powers against both faulty sitting leaders and would-be coup-makers. The envisaged UCGs sanctions framework of the Peace and Security Council will be a welcome development provided it deals with both sides of the coin.

Image: © Olympia de Maismont/AFP

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