On Monday 24 January 2022, a group of military officers toppled President Roch Kabore-led government in Burkina Faso. The junta, which is named the “Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR)” and led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, has suspended the constitution and the National Assembly. It has also placed President Kabore in detention. No doubt, this development marks a new turn in the revolutionary process which began nine years ago when a two-day mass uprising toppled the 27-year-old dictatorship of Blaise Campaore.
Roch Kabore was elected president in a general election which was held in 2015 following the ouster of Blaise Campaore in a mass uprising. Campaore had taken power in 1987 following a coup and the assassination of Burkina Faso’s Pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist leader, Thomas Sankara. He went on to rule for nearly three decades through brute force, massive electoral rigging and manipulation of the constitution. It was his attempt, a year to the end of his last tenure, to extend his rule once again by manipulating the constitution that triggered the spontaneous uprising of Burkinabes in 2014.
That uprising, alongside others like the 2011 Arab spring and Nigeria’s January 2012 protest, initially raised hope that the African working masses and youth were on course to chart a new future for themselves and the continent. But as we have seen in similar movements and revolutions, a combination of the political inexperience of the masses, lack of a revolutionary programme and the weakness of their mass organizations, especially the trade unions, meant that as Campaore fled the country there was no force available to fill the void. This opened the way for the army, elements of the old regime, the opposition and regional bodies, like ECOWAS, to step in to midwife a transitional programme that led to elections in 2015.
Is Africa’s ‘democratisation process’ stalling?
The latest development brings to at least five the number of coups that have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa since August 2020. Successful military coups have taken place in Sudan, Mali and Guinea. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres puts it, Africa appears gripped by an “epidemic of coups”. Imperialism fears that this may mean the ‘democratization project’ in Africa is nearing its end. There may be some truth in this fear. Imperialism’s position is not based on a love of democratic rights, but on the likelihood that repressive regimes installed by coups can eventually lead to revolution. As one study shows, nothing less than 80 successful and 108 unsuccessful coups took place in sub-Saharan Africa between 1956 and 2001 – an average of four coups a year. But this figure halved in the decade up to 2019 before coups began to become more frequent again.
Successive coups which have taken place on the continent share a common pattern. On the one hand, they occur against a background of a continent locked in frightful levels of multi-dimensional poverty, destitution, unemployment, wars, disease outbreak, human displacement and barbaric violence. The Covid-10 pandemic, in turn, accelerated the contradictions and plunged African economies into their worst recession in decades. On the other hand, they show how a combination of failure of the weak, unstable and corrupt neo-colonial capitalist regimes propped up by imperialism to deal with these issues, and the weakness of independent working masses’ struggle to chart a way out is opening floodgates for new forms of dictatorship.
The Burkina Faso coup unfolded as a culmination of popular discontent and mass opposition to the regime of Kabore over its mishandling of the Islamist insurgency and failure to tackle other social and economic issues. According to UN estimates, the Islamist Insurgency which crossed over from neighbouring Mali has claimed that since 2015 more than 2000 lives and forced 1.5 million people from their homes in a population of 21 million. Also over 300,000 children have been unable to go to school because schools are closed in many parts of the country due to the security crisis. Months before the coup, mass protests had broken out on the street demanding Kabore’s resignation. On the eve of the coup itself, soldiers demanding the resignation of the top brass of the army and better equipment for their fight against jihadists mutinied at the barracks in the country’s capital, Ouagadougou, and the Northern towns of kaya and Ouahigouya.
The coup leaders apparently saw the beginnings of the masses’ revolt and mutiny in the army as an opportunity to seize power and restore order. But unlike the 2015 seven-day coup by the Presidential guard which was opposed by the mass of the population because it was rightly seen as an attempt to restore Blaise Campaore or the power clique around him to power by proxy, this coup has been popularly welcomed by Burkinabes. Celebrations and revelry were reported in the country’s capital following the coup.
This development introduces a dilemma into the dynamics of the crises in Africa and is an ominous sign for countries like Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad etc. which face similar Islamist insurgency alongside other explosive social, economic and political contradictions. The regimes in countries in this region are weak, unpopular and are facing mounting domestic unrest. Some of them are failing states with vast ungoverned spaces where other forces operate at will. Niger, for instance, suffered a failed coup attempt in early 2021 while Chadian dictator Idriss Deby died of injury sustained in the clashes with rebels in April 2021.
But suffice to warn that the celebration in Ouagadougou, and by extension Bamako, will not last. The masses will soon learn through bitter experience that no one can liberate them and that true change will only come by relying on their own independent struggles, mass organizations and the development of a revolutionary socialist programme. The army is a repressive apparatus of class oppression and its officer caste often reflects and defends the interest of the capitalist elite and landowners whose wealth and lifestyle it envies and aspires to have when in power. But a movement with a revolutionary programme can appeal to the military ranks to come over and support the mass struggle.
These latest coups are not “radical coups” in the mould of Thomas Sankara’s assumption of power in Burkina Faso in 1984 or Jerry Rawlings’ first coup in Ghana in 1979. So far, nothing suggests that either the junta in Mali or Burkina Faso is going to pursue economic and social programmes that are fundamentally different from the pro-capitalist and anti-poor policies of the regimes they have deposed. But even in the case where a combination of events, including imperialist sanctions, attacks and pressure, pushes a military junta in the direction of taking radical steps that are economically and politically beneficial to the masses, only the independent mobilization and struggle of the working people can ensure that such is sustained and that a revolutionary movement is built which takes the struggle forward.
The coup has also fueled an anti-French and anti-ECOWAS nationalist sentiment, with protesters calling on Russia to come in to help with the Islamist insurgency. This brings Burkina Faso into the orbit of the situation in Mali. Here, the Assimi Goita military junta, using nationalist and populist rhetoric, has managed to rally the population behind it. The imperialist rivalry between France and Russia now seems afoot in the region which could have wide-ranging implications.
Quite frankly, the anti-French nationalist sentiment is a product of the brutal legacy of French imperialism in the region which is historically responsible for the colonial pillage of the people and their resources. Since independence, France has backed brutal capitalist dictators and regimes in the region as long as they support France’s imperial interests. In Burkina Faso, in particular, a country rich in gold, cotton and other resources, France is seen as responsible for many crimes, including the 1987 assassination of the country’s anti-imperialist president Thomas Sankara. France also supported the hated 27-year dictatorship of Blaise Campaore and the regime of Roch Kabore. Under Operation Barkhane, France has 5,100 troops deployed in the region to fight Islamist insurgents.
At the same time, historically ECOWAS has been hypocritical in its interventions not only in Mali, Burkina Faso but also in several other political crises in the region thereby losing the trust and confidence of the people. For instance, the same ECOWAS that condemned the current Burkina Faso coup and imposed sanctions on the Malian junta was quite soft and conciliatory towards the 2015 coup leaders who were linked to Blaise Campaore. In its mediation in 2015, ECOWAS recommended that candidates linked to Blaise Campaore be allowed to take part in the general elections even though this was opposed by the bulk of the population.
But it is necessary to warn that a turn to Russia, as we have already seen in Mali and potentially in Burkina Faso, will be akin to jumping from frying pan to fire. Russia, also an imperial power, is bloodied in Ukraine and the Middle East where it has been involved in conflicts. Like all imperial powers, the major aim of the intervention of Russia in any country is its economic and geopolitical interests, and not the interest of the mass of the people.
Mass struggle and class independence are necessary
The Malian junta is whipping up nationalist sentiment in order to ingratiate itself with the masses and block ECOWAS sanctions. The new junta in Burkina Faso may follow the same direction. While it is correct for the labour movement and civil society to call for actions to oppose the ECOWAS sanctions because they are hypocritical and a way of punishing an entire country for the “sin” of a few, this should not mean a declaration of support for the junta.
In fact, at this stage, and despite the prevailing mass illusion and nationalist sentiment, what trade unionists and activists in Burkina Faso and Mali should be preoccupied with is drawing up a charter of demands that address the most pressing issues affecting workers, poor, farmers, women, youth and other layers of the oppressed masses. This can be the basis for building a movement that both fights for these demands and for the establishment of a government based upon the popular organization of working people and the poor. The absolute independence of the working class and its mass organisations is the only way the economic interests of the masses and democratic rights can be defended under the junta and beyond.
In addition, Africa’s experience shows that once they come to power, coup leaders seldom respect their promise to hand over power within a short period of time. At present, the Malian junta has seized on the security crisis to shift the ‘transition date’ to 2025. This is why it is also necessary for the labour movement and civil society to begin to demand democratic rule while commencing the necessary preparation to build a mass workers’ political alternative that the working class and oppressed masses can rally around.
The ultimate solution to the crisis plaguing Burkina Faso, Mali and Africa, as a whole, is for the working class and oppressed masses to struggle to end capitalism and landlordism and establish workers’ and poor people’s government, armed with socialist policies. This would mean the public ownership of the wealth of these countries and their democratic management in the interest of the majority. To achieve this requires the building of democratic mass movements to fight on the day to day issues affecting the masses and a political alternative armed with a revolutionary socialist programme to fight for political power.