Burkina Faso

Charting the Rise of Anti-French Sentiment Across Northern Africa

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In November 2021, a French military convoy was making its way to Mali while passing through Burkina Faso and Niger. It did not get very far. It was stopped in Téra, Niger, and before that at several points in Burkina Faso (in Bobo-Dioulasso and Kaya as well as in Ouagadougou, the country’s capital). Two civilians were killed as a result of clashes between the French convoy and protestors who were “angry at the failure of French forces to reign in terrorism in the region.” When the convoy crossed into Mali, it was attacked near the city of Gao.

Colonel Pascal Ianni, French Chief of Defense Staff spokesperson, told Julien Fanciulli of France 24 that there was a lot of “false information circulating” about the French convoy. Blame for the attacks was placed on “terrorists,” namely Islamic groups that continue to hold large parts of Mali and Burkina Faso. These groups have been emboldened and hardened by the 2011 war on Libya, prosecuted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and egged on by France. What Colonel Ianni would not admit is that the protests that followed the convoy revealed the depth of anti-French sentiment across North Africa and the Sahel region.

Coups d’états in the region have been taking place for more than two years—from the coup in Mali in August 2020 to the coup in Burkina Faso in September 2022. The coups in the region, including the coup in Guinea in September 2021 as well and the two other coups in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), and another coup in Burkina Faso (January 2022), were driven in large part due to the anti-French sentiment in the Sahel. In May 2022, the military leaders in Mali ejected the French military bases set up in 2014, while France’s political project—G5 Sahel—flounders in this atmosphere of animosity. Protests against the French in Morocco and Algeria have only added weight to the anti-French sentiment spreading across the African continent, with French President Emmanuel Macron showered with insults as he tried to walk the streets of Oran in Algeria in August 2022.

Animosities

“The situation in the former French colonies (Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, and Mali) is different from the situation in northern Africa,” Abdallah El Harif of the Workers’ Democratic Way Party of Morocco told me. “The bad relations between the regime in Morocco and France is due to the fact that the Moroccan regime has developed important economic, political, and security relations with the regimes of West Africa at the expense of the French,” he said. About the former French colonies along the Sahel in particular, El Harif said that “many popular insurrections” had taken place against the continued French colonial presence in these countries. With Morocco distancing itself from France, Paris is angered by its growing ties with the United States, while in the Sahel region people want to eject France from their lives.

Morocco’s monarchy has reacted quietly to the coups in the Sahel, not willing to associate itself with the kind of anti-French sentiment in the region. Such an association would call attention to Morocco’s close relationship with the United States. This U.S.-Morocco relationship has provided the monarchy with dividends: military equipment from the United States and permission for Morocco to continue with its occupation of Western Sahara, including the mining of the region’s precious phosphates (in exchange for Morocco opening ties with Israel). Each year, since 2004, Morocco has hosted a U.S. military exercise, the African Lion. In June 2022, 10 African countries participated in the African Lion 2022, with observers from Israel (for the first time) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Morocco, El Harif told me, “has enormously developed its military relations with the United States.” France has been sidelined by these maneuvers, which has annoyed Paris. As he left behind the jeering crowds in Oran, Algeria, President Macron said that he would visit Morocco in late October.

In the Sahel region, unlike in Morocco, there is a growing popular sentiment against the French colonial interference (called Françafrique). Chad’s former President Idriss Déby Itno, who died in 2021, told Jeune Afrique in 2019 that “Françafrique is over. Sovereignty is indisputable, we must stop sticking this label of French backyard to our countries.” “The French control the currency of these states,” El Harif told me. “They have many military bases [in the Sahel region], and their corporations plunder the natural resources of these countries, while pretending to combat terrorism.” When political challenges arise, the French have colluded in assassinating leaders who challenge their authority (such as Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara in 1987) or have had them arrested and jailed (such as Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo in 2011).

Why Is Françafrique Over?

In a recent interview with Atalayar, France’s former ambassador to Mali Nicolas Normand blamed the rising anti-French sentiment on “the repeated anti-French accusations of Mali’s prime minister and the virulent media campaign carried out by Russia on social media, accusing France of looting Mali and actually supporting the jihadists by pretending to fight them, with fake videos.” Indeed, Mali’s prime minister before August 22, 2022, Choguel Maïga, made strong statements against French military intervention in his country. In February 2022, Maïga told France 24 that the French government “have tried to divide his country by fueling autonomy claims in the north.” Malian singer Salif Keïta posted a video in which he said, “Aren’t you aware that France is financing our enemies against our children?” accusing France of collaborating with the jihadis.

Meanwhile, about the accusation that the Russian Wagner Group was operating in Mali, Maïga responded in his interview with France 24 and said that “The word Wagner. It’s the French who say that. We don’t know any Wagner.” However, Mali, he said in February, is working “with Russia cooperators.” Following an investigation by Facebook in 2020, it removed several social media accounts that were traced back to France and Russia and were “going head to head in the Central African Republic.”

In an important article in Le Monde in December 2021, senior researcher at Leiden University’s African Studies Center Rahmane Idrissa pointed out three reasons for the rise in anti-French sentiment in the Sahel. First, France, he said, “is paying the bill in the Sahel for half a century of military interventions in sub-Saharan Africa,” including France’s protection of regimes “generally odious to the population.” Second, the failure of the war against the jihadists has disillusioned the public regarding the utility of the French project. Third, and this is key, Idrissa argued that the inability of the military rulers in the region “to mobilize the population against an enemy (jihadist),” against whom they have no real strategy, has led to this anger being turned toward the French. The departure of the French, welcome as it is, “will certainly not resolve the jihadist crisis, ” Idrissa noted. The people will feel “sovereign,” he wrote, “even if part of the territory remains in the hands of terrorist gangs.”

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

When Will the Stars Shine Again in Burkina Faso?

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On 30 September 2022, Captain Ibrahim Traoré led a section of the Burkina Faso military to depose Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who had seized power in a coup d’état in January. The second coup was swift, with brief clashes in Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou at the president’s residence, Kosyam Palace, and at Camp Baba Sy, the military administration’s headquarters. Captain Kiswendsida Farouk Azaria Sorgho declared on Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina (RTB), the national broadcast, that his fellow captain, Traoré, was now the head of state and the armed forces. ‘Things are gradually returning to order’, he said as Damiba went into exile in Togo.

This coup is not a coup against the ruling order, a military platform called the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration (Mouvement patriotique pour la sauvegarde et la restauration or MPSR); instead, it stems from young captains within the MPSR. During Damiba’s brief tenure in power, armed violence increased by 23%, and he failed to fulfil any of the promises that the military made when it overthrew former President Roch Kaboré, an ex-banker who had ruled the country since 2015. L’Unité d’Action Syndicale (UAS), a platform of six trade unions in Burkina Faso, is warning about the ‘decay of the national army’, its ideological disarray manifested by the high salaries drawn by the coup leaders.

Kaboré was the beneficiary of a mass insurrection that began in October 2014 against Blaise Compaoré, who had been in power since the assassination of Thomas Sankara in 1987. It is worth noting that in April, while exiled in Côte d’Ivoire, Compaoré was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia for his role in that murder. Many of the social forces in the mass uprisings arrived on the streets bearing pictures of Sankara, holding fast to his socialist dream. The promise of that mass movement was suffocated by Kaboré’s limited agenda, stifled by the International Monetary Fund and hindered by the seven-year jihadist insurgency in northern Burkina Faso that has displaced close to two million people. While the MPSR coup has a muddled outlook, it responds to the deep social crisis afflicting the fourth-largest producer of gold on the African continent.

In August 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Algeria. As Macron walked through the streets of Oran, he experienced the anger of the Algerian public, with people yelling insults – va te faire foutre! (‘go f**k yourself’) – forcing him to hurriedly depart. France’s decision to reduce the number of visas provided to Moroccans and Tunisians fuelled a protest by human rights organisations in Rabat (Morocco), and France was forced to dismiss its ambassador to Morocco.

Anti-French feeling is deepening across North Africa and the Sahel, the region south of the Sahara Desert. It was this sentiment that provoked the coups in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), and then in Burkina Faso (January 2022 and September 2022). In February 2022, Mali’s government ejected the French military, accusing French forces of committing atrocities against civilians and colluding with jihadi insurgents.

Over the past decade, North Africa and the Sahel have been grappling with the detritus produced by NATO’s war on Libya, driven by France and the United States. NATO emboldened the jihadi forces, who were disoriented by their defeat in the Algerian Civil War (1991–2002) and by the anti-Islamist policies of Muammar Qaddafi’s administration in Libya. Indeed, the US brought hardened jihadi fighters, including Libyan Islamic Fighting Group veterans, from the Syria-Turkey border to bolster the anti-Qaddafi war. This so-called ‘rat line’ moved in both directions, as jihadis and weapons went from post-Qaddafi Libya back into Syria.

Groups such as al-Qaeda (in the Islamic Maghreb) as well as al-Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine, and Katibat Macina – which merged into Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (‘Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims’) in 2017 – swept from southern Algeria to Côte d’Ivoire, from western Mali to eastern Niger. These jihadis, many of them Afghanistan War veterans, are joined by common cause with local bandits and smugglers. This ‘banditisation of jihad’, as it is called, is one explanation for how these forces have become so deeply rooted in the region. Another is that the jihadis used older social tensions between the Fulani (a largely Muslim ethnic group) and other communities, now massed into militia groups called the Koglweogo (‘bush guardians’). Drawing various contradictions into the jihadi-military conflict has effectively militarised political life in large parts of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. France’s involvement through Operation Barkhane, a military intervention into Mali in 2014, and its establishment of military bases has not only failed to contain or root out the insurgencies and conflicts; it has exacerbated them.
The Union d’Action Syndicale has released a ten-point plan that includes immediate relief for the areas facing starvation (such as Djibo), an independent commission to study violence in specific areas (such as Gaskindé), the creation of a plan to deal with the cost of living crisis, and an end to the alliance with France, which would include the ‘departure of foreign bases and troops, especially French ones, from national territory’.
A recent United Nations report shows that 18 million people in the Sahel are on ‘the brink of starvation’. The World Bank notes that 40% of Burkinabé live below the poverty line. Neither civilian nor military governments in Burkina Faso, nor those in other Sahel countries, have articulated a project to transcend this crisis. Burkina Faso, for instance, is not a poor country. With a minimum of $2 billion per year in gold sales, it is extraordinary that this country of 22 million people remains mired in such poverty. If this revenue were divided equally amongst the population, each Burkinabé citizen would receive $90 million per year.

Instead, the bulk of the revenue is siphoned off by mining firms from Canada and Australia – Barrick Gold, Goldrush Resources, Semafo, and Gryphon Minerals – as well as their counterparts in Europe. These firms transfer the profits into their own bank accounts and some, such as Randgold Resources, into the tax haven of the Channel Islands. Local control over gold has not been established, nor has the country been able to exert any sovereignty over its currency. Both Burkina Faso and Mali use the West African CFA franc, a colonial currency whose reserves are held in the Bank of France, which also manages their monetary policy.

The coups in the Sahel are coups against the conditions of life afflicting most people in the region, conditions created by the theft of sovereignty by multinational corporations and the old colonial ruler. Rather than acknowledge this as the central problem, Western governments deflect and insist that the real cause of political unrest is the intervention of Russian mercenaries, the Wagner Group, fighting against the jihadi insurgency (Macron, for instance, described their presence in the region as ‘predatory’). Yevgeny Prigozhin, a founder of the Wagner Group, said that Traoré ‘did what was necessary… for the good of their people’. Meanwhile, the US State Department warned the new Burkina Faso government not to make alliances with the Wagner Group. However, it appears that Traoré is seeking any means to defeat the insurgency, which has absorbed 40% of Burkina Faso’s territory. Despite an agreement with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) made by Damiba and continued by Traoré that Burkina Faso will return to civilian rule by July 2024, the necessary conditions for this transfer seem to be the defeat of the insurgency.

In 1984, President Thomas Sankara went to the UN. When he took power in his country the previous year, its colonial name was Upper Volta, solely defined by its geographical status as the land north of the Volta River. Sankara and his political movement changed that name to Burkina Faso, which means the ‘Land of Upright People’. No longer would the Burkinabé hunch their shoulders and look at the ground as they walked. With national liberation, the ‘stars first began to shine in the heavens of our homeland’, Sankara said at the UN, as they realised the need for ‘revolution, the eternal struggle against all domination’. ‘We want to democratise our society’, he continued, ‘to open up our minds to a universe of collective responsibility, so that we may be bold enough to invent the future’. Sankara was killed in October 1987. His dreams have held fast in the hearts of many, but they have not yet influenced a sufficiently powerful political project.

In the spirit of Sankara, the Malian singer Oumou Sangaré released a wonderful song, Kêlê Magni (‘War Is a Plague’), in February 2022, which speaks for the entire Sahel:

War is a plague! My country might disappear!
I tell you: war is not a solution!
War has no friends nor allies, and there are no real enemies.
All people suffer from this war: Burkina, Côte d’Ivoire… everyone!

Other instruments are needed: new stars in the sky, new revolutions that build on hopes and not on hatred.

Newsletter issued by Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Click here to read the original