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a departure “without diplomatic rupture, unlike Mali”

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The government of Burkina Faso confirmed on Monday that it had requested the departure of French troops based in the country within a month. The authorities are counting on a “patriotic burst” from the Burkinabe to fight jihadism, while calling for material support from their allies. Decryption.

French troops on their way to Burkina Faso. Four months after the arrival of putschist captain Ibrahim Traoré at the head of the country, the transitional authorities confirmed, on Monday January 23, that they wanted to end the military agreement with France, allowing its troops to be stationed in Ouagadougou.

Forced to proceed with an accelerated departure from Mali during the summer, France is now being asked to further reduce its footprint in the Sahel by withdrawing its special forces from Burkina Faso within a month.

However, while anti-French sentiment is gaining ground in the region, Ouagadougou has so far refrained from any overt criticism of Paris.

“The denunciation of the agreement is in the normal order of things” explained on Monday the spokesman for the Burkinabè government. “The vision of the transition today is that it is the Burkinabè themselves who will make the sacrifice for the liberation of our territory”.

To analyze the strategy of the military authorities, France 24 spoke with Abba Seidik, expert in security issues and author of the book “Mali-Sahel, Our Afghanistan to us?” (Impact Editions).

Burkina Faso explains that it has asked for the withdrawal of French troops because it is up to Burkinabè to settle the question of terrorism. This argument, which could be described as sovereigntist, is reminiscent of that put forward by the Malian authorities. Is France facing the same scenario?

Abba Seidik: There are of course commonalities, starting with the contestation of the French presence by part of the population, as we were able to observe during the demonstrations in Bamako and Ouagadougou. There is a form of disappointment vis-à-vis France, whose presence has not made it possible to contain the jihadist threat. We also see that in Burkina Faso, as in Mali, the withdrawal of French forces is taking place in a context of political tension. The two countries notably suspended RFI radio and had a dispute with their French ambassador.

But the Burkinabè and Malian contexts also present major differences. The Saber forces stationed in Ouagadougou have the role of supporting specific operations in the Sahel and not of actively assisting the national forces, unlike Barkhane in Mali. Also, the withdrawal of the 400 French special forces has much less impact for the Burkinabè authorities than the withdrawal of Barkhane for the Malian authorities, who at the time accused France of “abandonment in full flight”.

By asking for the withdrawal of troops, Ouagadougou can satisfy part of its public opinion without taking too many risks in terms of security. Especially since Saber is not intended to participate on a daily basis in the fight against terrorism alongside the Burkinabe defense and security forces. At the same time, Burkina Faso said it was maintaining cooperation with France, particularly on the supply of equipment. This departure is therefore without diplomatic rupture, unlike Mali which had turned the page on its relationship with Paris.

Burkina Faso has experienced two coups in one year, which have brought to light major dissension between the former president and his army, but also within the military institution itself. Have the new leaders managed to resolve this issue?

In November 2021, the fate of the gendarmes of Inata, in the north of the country, left without supplies and massacred by jihadists, had caused a real scandal and revealed to the public the problems of governance in the security sector attributable to the government of Roch Marc Christian Kabore. Lieutenant-Colonel Damiba had taken power in January 2022 on the promise to quickly restore security in Burkina Faso. Failing to do so, he was overthrown eight months later.

The arrival of Captain Ibrahim Traoré, during this second putsch, seems to have changed the game on the ground. The fact that the president is a junior officer brought the hierarchy of combatants closer together and instilled cohesion. He gave pledges of support to the troops deployed on the ground. His New Year’s speech from Solenzo, a city in the northeast taken over from the jihadists, was particularly commented on. He also carried out a reorganization of the army by increasing the number of military zones from three to six and recorded some successes in the field.

Despite everything, these advances are not very visible as the situation on the ground is serious. It is estimated that more than 40% of the country is controlled by the jihadist groups that are the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM), affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS).

To win the war against terrorism, the government relies heavily on the volunteer fighters for the defense of the homeland (VDP) recruited in large numbers in recent months. However, some of these auxiliaries have recently been accused by two local NGOs of having committed a massacre in the northwest of the country. Is this strategy risky?

The use of these auxiliaries, which is not a new phenomenon in Burkina Faso, could prove to be very useful provided that their training is thought out over the long term and that a component on human rights is integrated into it. However, these VDPs are currently not aware of the law of war.

Next, it is essential to precisely define their scope of action. Their role may be to provide local security by preventing cattle rustling attacks, but in the face of large-scale jihadist attacks, that’s another story. In addition to coordination with the army, the relationship of these auxiliaries with the communities is also a crucial parameter.

The danger is that one community becomes the majority within these VDPs, fueling ethnic conflicts leading to cycles of reprisals; an ideal situation for jihadist groups.

>> To read also: Recruitment of civilians in Burkina Faso: “A great classic of regular armies in difficulty”

In recent months, Burkina Faso has multiplied international meetings with Russia, France, Turkey and even China to obtain military equipment for its army and its auxiliaries. Are the multiplication of these partnerships likely to change the situation on the ground?

Arms deliveries, whether through donations or purchasing facilities, can effectively reverse the balance of power. It must be understood that the armed forces of Burkina Faso and the jihadist groups have roughly equivalent weapons.

This is why the air component is today a crucial aspect for Burkina Faso. The army needs combat helicopters but also troop transport helicopters to progress on these difficult terrains. Air transport makes it possible to circumvent the problems of road infrastructure but also the question of mines and improvised explosive devices (IED) which require constant checks by deminers and considerably slow down the movement of troops. Recently, the army has equipped itself with Turkish armed drones, which in this context could prove effective.

Finally, Burkina Faso has no other choice than to multiply the requests to reinforce its transnational military cooperation, in particular with its Malian and Nigerien neighbors as well as the other countries of the G5-Sahel (Mauritania, Chad).

The absolute emergency situation in the country obliges it to mobilize all available aid. This is why the military power in Ouagadougou addresses its Western partners but also other States, which do not necessarily condition the delivery of arms and military equipment on human rights. This inevitably makes the delivery process simpler and faster.

France 24-Trans

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