Don’t Abandon Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso, a poor, landlocked former French colony in the heart of West Africa, is dying. It faces one if not two jihadist insurgencies that have seized hold over much of the countryside, accompanied by horrific violence and displacement. Its government, weak to begin with but further destabilized by two successive military coups, is largely incapable of surmounting the herculean tasks before it. Its security forces likewise are undersized, under-resourced, and ill-equipped to deal with an internal crisis of this magnitude. They are prone to lashing out against communities they regard as in bed with the insurgents. Because of Washington’s understandable hesitancy to provide security assistance to a country that it has deemed unimportant and that has a deplorable human rights record, U.S. aid even before the coups was always too small. Now it has been suspended. In effect, U.S. policy now is to let the country burn.
From the cold-blooded realpolitik perspective, the collapse of a West African country might seem inconsequential. But it isn’t. Burkina Faso’s approximately 22 million people matter in their own right. Moreover, the country’s demise places its southern neighbors, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo in serious jeopardy. These countries have already been the site of jihadist attacks, and jihadists are using Burkina Faso as a safe haven. As a result, the potential for jihadist insurgencies to take root in those countries is growing. Meanwhile, violence in Burkina Faso will displace more and more people into its neighbors and increase refugee pressure on Europe. So far, the United States and the rest of the international community appear focused on trying to shore up Burkina Faso’s neighbors in the hope of containing the threat posed by its decline. But this is unlikely to work.
In the face of this threat, policymakers should shelve their reticence to work with Burkina Faso’s military government and provide support both to it and its security services, however odious they might be. Burkina Faso is the linchpin of the region. The basic logic of economy of force argues for helping it rather than focusing on the so-called “littorals” to the south.
A Failing State
Burkina Faso was not always in such bad shape. In 2014, it was the scene of an inspiring grass-roots democratic movement that toppled a long-time dictator, Blaise Compaoré, and ushered in what promised to be a new era of constitutional and democratic rule. The Compaoré era, which lasted from 1987–2014, left a lot to be desired, but at least there were no insurgencies or terrorism. Not that Compaoré, contrary to some assessments, deserves the credit. Indeed, one can argue that it was precisely Compaoré’s lack of attention to development and governance that left his country as brittle as it proved to be. In 2016, sparks of jihadist terrorism crossed over from neighboring Mali, and set the country ablaze. Longstanding economic, ethnic, political and social divisions in the country’s under-developed periphery proved ideal kindling for jihadist insurrections led by affiliates of al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Violence now afflicts most of the country. More than 2 million out of an estimated total population of 22 million have been internally displaced. The political pressure generated by the violence, moreover, has derailed the country’s democratic experiment. In January 2022, an army colonel, Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, overthrew the country’s democratically elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, who was under fire for his apparent failure to respond effectively to the burgeoning insurgencies. Then, in October 2022, army captain Ibrahim Traoré overthrew Damiba, again motivated at least in part by frustrations over the incumbent’s handling of the security threat.
Relations between Burkina Faso’s leadership and France have also declined. This culminated in the January 2023 decision to expel France’s Operation Sabre, a roughly 600-strong special forces counter-terrorism operation that had been based in the country’s capital, Ouagadougou, since its establishment in 2009. Sabre, which had a regional focus, worked in close cooperation with American special forces, with which it shared intelligence. It was Sabre that came to the rescue of the American Green Berets who were ambushed in Tonga Tonga, Niger, in 2017. The ouster of the French reflected the rise of populist politics in the region, where many came to believe that France somehow was to blame for the country’s woes, perhaps even through arming jihadists. Whereas Damiba resisted calls to end French military assistance, Traoré, if he does not in fact share the common conspiracy theories regarding French help, could ill afford to disregard popular sentiment. His regime’s survival depends on its ability to demonstrate that it is taking concrete steps to address the security situation while also appealing to Burkinabè nationalism, which has a strong anti-French component, for solidarity in the face of the jihadists. Whatever one can say about Traoré, another coup almost certainly would weaken the country even more.
Prior to the first 2022 coup, the United States provided some security assistance as well as the usual panoply of development and humanitarian aid. The security assistance consisted generally of standing programs designed to improve the quality of foreign armies, such as the International Military Education & Training program, and programs developed after Sept. 11, 2001 and now run by U.S. Africa Command, including participation in annual Flintlock exercises, which draw participants from over a dozen African nations with the objective of enhancing their operational capabilities. At the same time, the U.S. government worked with specific Burkinabè units to cultivate counter-terrorism skills and provide for a quick response team in Ouagadougou.
The United States could have and probably should have done more, perhaps by scaling up its efforts and providing more comprehensive training and equipping to a broad portion of Burkina Faso’s security forces. Any interest in doing so, however, ran afoul of certain impediments. Perhaps the greatest was a real lack of interest in the country, and a poor application of the idea of “economy of force,” which American policy-makers tend to understand to mean doing very little until there is an actual crisis (when it probably is too late). This is pertinent in many places around the globe, but more so for Africa, where policy-makers struggle to see how African conflicts affect U.S. national interests and merit any place on their list of priorities. Africa has always come far behind Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and the Middle East in terms of U.S. strategic thinking and investment. Besides, to the extent that the United States was focused on counter-terrorism in that region of Africa, it was on assisting French counter-terrorism operations, which in turn were focused on Mali and Niger.
Another important reason for American hesitation has been Burkina Faso’s security services’ deplorable human rights record, as noted by a 2022 State Department report. There is a legitimate fear of being complicit in abuses against civilians at their hands. Indeed, throughout this entire period, from 2016 to the present, Burkina Faso’s security services, overwhelmed and arguably out of their depth, have often lashed out against above all ethnic Fulanis associated, in their eyes, with jihadists, resulting in numerous massacres and human rights abuses.
It has been well documented that the security services’ abuses have fueled radicalization. This past April, for example, Burkinabè forces allegedly executed at least 156 residents of a village known as Karma. Most of the victims are said to be Fulanis. Also implicated in human rights abuses is the paramilitary force known as the Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland. Kaboré had called for the creation of the force in late 2019, and Burkina Faso’s National Assembly formally established it in January 2020. Burkinabè officers I’ve spoken with make clear that from their point of view, concern about human rights is misplaced, given the gravity of the situation. As for the volunteer force, it is, in their view, a wholly legitimate tool established by an entirely legitimate, elected government. Not surprisingly, they also reject criticism that it targets certain ethnic communities.
In the aftermath of the country’s first coup in January 2022, the United States suspended security assistance, in accordance with a law referred to as Section 7008. As of December 2022, Congress has granted the president the ability to waive Section 7008. But there has been no prominent discussion of obtaining a waiver for Burkina Faso, in part because of the conviction that Section 7008 is important for deterring future coups. Since then, U.S. support, aside from development and humanitarian aid, has amounted to little more than the proverbial thoughts and prayers. Calling up citizens to take arms against jihadists appeals to Burkinabè nationalism while also providing a potentially critical manpower supplement to the county’s undersized security services. The Burkinabè government regards the volunteer force as the keystone of its security strategy — without auxiliaries, Burkina Faso’s armed forces, numbering roughly 12,000 with the Gendarmerie National, are too small to fight a successful counter-insurgency. However, the United States, along with the French government, refuses to touch the Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland. In addition to Section 7008, Washington and Paris alike are suspicious of paramilitaries, which often function as vigilante groups or drivers of inter-ethnic violence. Meanwhile, Ouagadougou has reached out to other international partners, most notably purchasing several TB-2 Bayraktar drones from Turkey. Video feeds of TB-2 strikes now feature prominently on pro-regime social media.
Rumors about Burkina Faso inviting the Wagner Group to enter the country have become commonplace. Although they thus far have been proven false, Burkinabè officials have met with Russians as well as voiced their support for the Malian military junta’s own pro-Russian tilt. In early May, Traoré proclaimed Russia to be a “strategic ally.” Today, stepped-up Russian security assistance, with or without Wagner, would not come as a surprise. As Burkinabè military officers have explained the situation to me, “our Western partners say they want to help but don’t; we have little choice but to look elsewhere to get the assistance we need.” On 30 May, Burkina Faso’s prime minister, Apollinaire Joachimson Kyélem de Tambèla, complained in an address to the National Assembly that the country’s Western partners refuse to sell it arms. In this case, he asked, “what is the value of friendship” if “so-called friends” stay aloof in the country’s hour of need? Notably, he pointed to the enormous military aid the West was providing to Ukraine, commenting that in contrast Western partners are content to let Burkina Faso fall. So, he concluded, Burkina Faso is looking for other partners, including Russia, but also China, Iran, Turkey, North Korea, and Venezuela.
Tambèla is not wrong: Washington, it seems, is content to let Burkina Faso fall. Meanwhile, the United States is acting, admittedly still on a small scale, to strengthen the capabilities of the so-called “littoral” states to Burkina Faso’s south: Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo. Thanks to what’s going on in Burkina Faso, all of these states are now afflicted with jihadist violence. Naturally, the worse things get in Burkina Faso — and they will get worse — the greater the risk to those countries, and the more difficult it will be to mitigate that risk. While it would be absurd to speak of dominos — metastasis is a better analogy — the reality is that Burkina Faso’s decline will do serious damage to its neighbors.
Why is it in Washington’s interests to get involved, and what can U.S. support do? On a regional level, Burkina Faso’s demise has significant down-stream negative effects on its neighbors, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo, not to mention Niger and Nigeria. Already we have seen Burkina Faso’s use as a safe haven by jihadists who conduct attacks in Benin and Togo. The worse the situation gets in Burkina Faso, the worse the effects on its neighbors, both because of the cross-border nature of jihadism and because of the displacement of populations afflicted by the violence, which will add to the neighbors’ burdens. These neighbors will matter more for U.S. interests than Burkina Faso itself because of their larger populations and economies, and because of the vast investment opportunities they represent. In other words, if Washington is not willing to act for Burkina Faso’s sake, there is even more reason to do so for the sake of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria.
Geopolitics also cannot be ignored: Mali’s turn to Russia, Burkina Faso’s potential turn to Russia, and the region’s growing embrace of China represent net losses to Washington. Does it matter if Russia “wins” Burkina Faso? Maybe not so much, but it does translate into increased international support for Russia, as well as one more small way for Russia to skirt sanctions and generate revenue, not to mention stick a finger in France’s eye and perhaps even encourage migration. Moreover, the growth of Russian influence in a few countries puts pressure on other countries to follow Mali’s lead. Russia now plays an increasingly important role in the minds of many West Africans, who see it as a credible alternative to Western countries that they perceive to be neo-colonialist and self-interested. Being anti-West, specifically anti-France, and pro-Russia is an increasingly prominent feature of African populism. Regional governments should, of course, be free to chart their own political course. Indeed, partnering with China may well bring real, if mixed, benefits. But there is little reason to believe this about partnering with Russia and especially Wagner.
Burkina Faso itself is a linchpin because of its geography. The United States and other Western countries should view helping it to survive as a more economical way of helping the region than having to shore up its many neighbors. That might just mean taking the risk of getting more, rather than less involved.
Washington can help Burkina Faso to manage its crisis by bringing the Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland to heel and ensuring it does more good than harm. Burkina Faso’s blunt instruments can be honed and made more precise. The concept of protecting civilians as part of population-centric operations has proven to be difficult to promote, especially as Burkina Faso’s security forces feel ever greater pressure to demonstrate counter-insurgency progress to an increasingly alarmed public. Washington can also do more to help Ouagadougou engage with local communities who find themselves tempted by jihadist movements. This in large part is the objective of a number of programs backed by the United States and others in the “littoral” countries. At the very least, helping the Burkinabè government deal with the crushing humanitarian crisis represented by its 2 million displaced persons — who, among other things, can no longer work their fields — might go a long way.
Michael Shurkin is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the director of global programs at 14 North Strategies. He was a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and also served as a political analyst at the CIA. He has a Ph.D. in modern European history from Yale University.