A heavy legacy: Coups in Mali and Burkina Faso II

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 8 Aug 2023

The West African states of Mali and Burkina Faso share a heavy legacy of military coups in their fight against terrorism and political instability.

A heavy legacy: Coups in Mali  and Burkina Faso II
Burkina Faso coup leader Traor in a ceremony in Ouagadougou (photo: AP)


The recent military coup in the West African state of Niger does not stand in isolation but follows similar upheavals in the neighbouring countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea.

These nations, joined by Nigeria, have also resisted the military intervention in Niger endorsed during a meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) group.

Mali and Burkina Faso, while having distinct histories compared to the broader African continent and its coastal nations, share certain commonalities. These encompass features such as a shared history of military coups and varying degrees of civil conflict, alongside severe famines.

They are also grappling with shared challenges intrinsic to the Sahel region and bear the weight of an ongoing wave of terrorism and the detrimental consequences of climate change.

These cannot be attributed to the African nations since they have historically emitted only a tiny and insignificant proportion of the greenhouse gases believed to be warming the world’s atmosphere.

Burkina Faso has a history intertwined with leftist political struggles, while Mali carries the legacy of an empire that has been transformed into separatist movements and poses a threat to the unity of the contemporary Republic of Mali, a remnant of a once-glorious past.

Mali has a rich legacy that dates back to the introduction of Islam along the West African coast. Its inhabitants embraced the new faith, and the country evolved into an imperial hub stretching from Darfur in the east to Guinea in the west and from the Niger Delta in the south to the Saharan Desert oases in the north.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, much of this vast empire fell under French colonial rule, resulting in the emergence of some eight Francophone and Anglophone nations. Mali managed to preserve the historic city of Timbuktu intact as testimony to the remarkable contributions the African peoples have made to Islamic culture and human civilisation.

Following its independence from France in 1960 spearheaded by former president Modibo Keita, Mali embarked on ambitious development efforts. Despite its bold decision to withdraw from the French Community in West Africa, an organisation of former French colonies, signalling a desire for genuine independence from its former coloniser, the country faced challenges and encountered limited success in its pursuit of development.

Keita’s one-party rule did not yield the desired outcomes, and this led to a coup in 1968 that brought General Moussa Traoré to power who later became the most influential ruler in Mali’s post-independence history.

Traoré’s rule lasted until 1991, when a popular uprising ushered in an “era of democracy.” Alpha Oumar Konaré, a history professor at the University of Bamako in  Mali’s capital, assumed the presidency in the 1992 elections.

Throughout Mali’s history, national, ethnic, and tribal conflicts have persisted. The Tuareg people in the north have advocated for their own state independent from the rest of the country, and in 2012 some Tuareg factions even declared independence. The Arab communities in Mali have also been engaged in clashes with neighbouring Kunta tribes over scarce water resources.

Former general Amadou Toumani Touré, who supported the popular uprising against Traoré in 1991, won the 2002 elections, though their fairness was contested by the opposition.

Touré went on to face further challenges, including a devastating locust plague in 2004 that resulted in the loss of approximately half the country’s grain harvest and plunging Mali into possible famine.

The following year, the UN World Food Programme launched an international appeal for aid to Mali due to severe food shortages caused by locusts, drought, and inflation.

The country then endured difficult years marked by tribal conflicts over resources exacerbated by drought and skyrocketing food prices during the 2008 world financial crisis.

In 2010, Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania joined forces to establish a joint initiative aimed at combating the escalating terrorism threat that had been exploited by various factions.

However, in 2012, with the assistance of terrorist groups, some of the Tuareg declared a separate state in northern Mali, plunging the country into a series of successive coups in 2012, 2020, and 2021.

In 2013, new elections were held in Mali, resulting in the victory of Ibrahim Abu Bakr Keita, who, despite receiving aid from France in the form of the military Operation Barkhane, was unable to effectively quell terrorism in the country.

Keita was re-elected in 2018, but due to ongoing security failures and a lack of progress, a group of colonels staged a coup in 2020. They were compelled to share power with dissenting political forces, but eventually orchestrated another coup the following year resulting in Colonel Assimi Goïta assuming power.

Although the military rule in Mali with the assistance of Russia has achieved some success in countering the violent Islamist groups, the country’s economic situation has remained stagnant.

Despite promises made by Russian President Vladimir Putin during the recent Russian-African Summit in St Petersburg to provide Mali and its neighbour Burkina Faso with free grain, tangible progress has yet to be realised.

Burkina Faso also gained independence from France in 1960, this time under the name of Upper Volta after the Great Volta River that flows through the country. President Maurice Yaméogo led the country until 1966, when General Sangoulé Lamizana overthrew him and went on to rule until 1980.

The 1980 coup marked a significant departure for Burkina Faso, carrying revolutionary undertones that were absent from previous coups. Subsequent coups followed in 1981, 1982, and 1983, ultimately bringing Major Thomas Sankara, widely known as the “Che Guevara of Africa,” to power.

Sankara embarked on a transformative path and embraced socialist principles and sought closer ties with the former Soviet Union. His former comrade Blaise Compaoré turned against him in 1987, leading to his tragic demise and Compaoré becoming the country’s president.

Following a popular uprising, Compaoré was ousted from power in 2014 in an event that marked the beginning of “electoral democracy” in Burkina Faso.

However, the democratic system faced significant challenges in the face of the relentless terrorist onslaught that commenced in 2015. Despite the support extended by France and other nations, including Mali and Niger, the confrontation with the terrorist groups did not yield victory.

A series of coups took place in 2022, with Colonel Paul-Henry Sandaogo Damiba seizing power on 24 January followed by Ibrahim Traoré on 30 September. Traoré has aligned himself with Russia in opposition to France, yet the efforts exerted by Moscow have thus far yielded only limited successes in the fight against terrorism.

It appears that enhanced coordination between military leaders from Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea in the Sahel region could potentially lead to greater achievements in countering the wave of terrorism in the region.

According to Ahmed Abdel-Fattah, an African Studies professor at Cairo University, “defeating terrorism in the region requires coordination with Algeria, Libya, Chad, and Nigeria.”

“All the West African coastal nations bear the responsibility for confronting terrorist groups and must work towards creating conditions that prevent the recruitment of young people into their ranks.”

Terrorist organisations often exploit poverty, tribal conflicts, and ethnic marginalisation to recruit vulnerable individuals. Abdel-Fattah said that “we must not continue to follow the European policies that prioritise preventing illegal immigration to Europe and safeguarding the flow of raw materials without being concerned about development.”

“Seeking assistance from Russia for food and weapons may provide temporary relief, but it will not address the root causes that drive some young people towards the terrorist groups,” he added.

Instead, there must be a balanced approach, one that deals with terrorism while simultaneously pursuing inclusive and sustainable development throughout the region.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: