In January 2022, protesters took to the streets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in the midst of a military coup against the incumbent Burkinabe government. Troops toppled Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Burkinabe’s democratically-elected President since 2015, who has now been placed under military detention. The coup was provoked by the government’s failure to tackle violence with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State affiliates in the Sahel region. The military takeover of Burkina Faso is set against the backdrop of an increasingly troublesome Islamist insurgency, which has only grown worse following the Libyan Civil War and the NATO intervention in 2011. ISIS and JNIM (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin) are at the forefront of this violence which has seen the deaths of 2000 and displacement of 1.5 million Burkinians.

The presence of Russian flags in the crowd was unexpected. The Burkinabe people have been continuously caught in a wave of popular and military discontent against the geopolitical interests of France, whose role in West Africa has not waned since the wave of decolonisation in the mid to late 20th Century. Along with the dismantling of de jure democratic rule, West Africa has seen this sudden pivot towards Moscow over Paris.

France has played a very active, interventionist role in West Africa even post-Independence; the region saw France intervening militarily in Africa nineteen times between 1962 and 1995. In the early post-colonial area, France held an extensive web of connections with often autocratic allies who held little regard for human rights and civil rule.

France’s relationship is exemplified by the term Françafrique, literally meaning “France in Africa”, referring to France’s inseparable political, economic and military union with its former colonies in Africa.

CFA — Colonies française d’Afrique, the French acronym for the “French colonies of Africa”, later French Community,  is the epitome of such a neocolonial institution that placed West Africa under the economic supervision of France. Fourteen newly independent French African colonies were placed within a regional currency which is now pegged to the Euro. Membership in the CFA “legally obliged them to put 50% of their foreign currency reserves into the French treasury and another 20% for backing financial liabilities”. During the 2008 Financial Crisis, France granted credit to CFA members using their own reserves as these members could not access credit held within the French treasury. 

Since the 1990s, there has been a gradual shift away from bilateralism and multilateralism given a changing strategic climate and deductions in military expenditure. However, France’s active intervention within West Africa has only increased with the election of President Emmanuel Macron in 2017. The French military have continuously stationed 5100 troops in the region to combat Islamist militants in Operation Barkhan. However, these counter-terrorism efforts proved ineffectual as attacks on local communities and security forces continue. Macron’s recent calls for popular reform have been dimmed by these historical grievances and the lack of success in stabilising the situation.

Built-up anger against the neo-colonial patronisation of France has accelerated due to the failures to manage growing Islamist violence. Over the past three years, indiscriminate attacks have spread rapidly southwards from the remote border regions to impact communities closer to the capital Ouagadougou. Crucial infrastructure, such as the main Eastern highway to the city of Fada N’gourma, together with the border with Niger, is also in an insecure position. A series of attacks in Solhan and Tadaryat in Yagha province last June left at least 174 people dead, with a more recent attack on the Inata gendarmerie garrison in the North killing a further 53 last November. These attacks further dampened public opinion of the government’s handling of the security crisis. Residents of Kaya last December blocked a French military convoy delivering supplies to the Burkinabe army.

All this has culminated in a greater regional shift away from France for military and economic support and towards Russia in an attempt to assert national independence. Mali for instance has covertly cut deals with the Kremlin-backed Wagner PMC Group, going behind Paris’s back. Russian intervention in Central African Republic saw Russian mercenaries successfully combat an Islamist insurgency. Concurrent struggles for France within the Sahel have provided Russia with ample opportunity to expand its geopolitical influence. These countries, desperate for military resources, are sidelined by Western powers whilst Russia is able to fill the vacuum with mercenaries, advisers, weapons or mining concessions for gold, diamonds and other resources.

The Burkinabe military considers Moscow to be a necessary and key alternative to a faltering West, given Russia’s regional track record. In fact, the new military ruler Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba had asked the ex-President Kabore to hire the Wagner Group earlier this month, just prior to the coup.

With the West’s preoccupation with domestic affairs and Russia on its European borders, Moscow has been able to exploit this turbulent security situation Military strongmen have increasingly supplanted constitutional civilian rule in Mali, Chad, Guinea and now Burkina Faso.

Successful coups across West Africa have seen the fall of civilian governments to military rule. In Mali, army officers deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020; in Guinea the army removed president Alpha Conde last September, and in Chad President Idriss Deby was killed during a military operation in April 2021. Military officers across West Africa have grabbed power four times in the past 18 months – the highest number of coups in four decades.

West Africa had progressively become a region where “constitutional multi-party civilian politics” trumped the rule of military strongmen. These countries, though oftentimes riddled with corruption and democratic backsliding, were still nominally democratic. However, military rule open to reform is increasingly seen as more popular for young West Africans than incompetent and ossified nominally democratic governments who are supported by archaic establishment institutions. In the case of Burkina Faso, the experience of army leaders such as Damiba as chief of the country’s counterterrorism unit put forward an image of military competence in putting security issues first. In the end, Russia is able to supply the necessary military resources without the pre-condition of constitutional civilian governance that France, the EU and its supported regional allies in The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) demand. Russia, desperate for strategic international allies and economic opportunities, is willing to provide any necessary assistance to a neglected region to contract Western global influence. It is no good for West Africans and Africans in general; Russia’s continued involvement over the next decade will see further corruption, more unaccountable institutions, gross human rights abuses and of course governmental instability.