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Over the past two years, the West African nation of Burkina Faso has been undergoing a tense political situation. Back in 2020, citizens began to criticize their then-Prime Minister, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, for his poor management of the nation’s finances and security crisis throughout his 5-year service. In early 2022, Kaboré was removed from power after a military coup d’etat. This coup, the nation’s fifth since 1960, saw army officer Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba take over to solve these issues. Despite this attempt, insecurity and domestic conditions worsened, leading to another coup led by fellow army officer Ibrahim Traoré in September of 2022.
While these coups received brief media coverage, the underreported international connections to these events make them highly relevant for present-day global politics. For example, Traoré’s decision to expel French military forces by the end of February of 2023 highlights the growing anti-French thought within Burkina Faso and the greater West African region. This spread of anti-French views also reflects France’s colonial history in the region, which often did more harm than good for Burkinabès.
Meanwhile, Burkina Faso might be changing its allegiances from the red, white and blue of France to Russia, especially with the recent entrance of Russian mercenaries. Some people flew Russian flags during civilian protests amidst news of Traoré’s links to the Wagner Group, a Putin-affiliated private military group. With this in mind, only after considering the history of French involvement and current Russian influence can we better understand what is really happening in Burkina Faso.
Françafrique – French Influence in Post-Independence West Africa
It may be surprising to learn that Burkina Faso and other countries in West Africa have become a new front for international political gain. After all, Burkina Faso has been formally independent from France since 1960. So, what has been happening, then, to create distrust and hostility toward the French presence in the area?
Having formerly colonized much of West Africa, France has maintained an active role in West African affairs by forming an overly controlling, hands-on relationship with its former colonies. This foreign policy, known as ‘Françafrique’, set out to continue French socio-economic interests within the region without outright colonizing West African nations. They have accomplished this policy through a cycle of underdevelopment, military presence, and political control over both policy and political candidates within the region.
One way that France achieves ongoing control over West Africa is through its management of monetary policy. The currency of many West African nations, the CFA franc, is tied directly to the Euro. As a result, countries like Burkina Faso are given no choice but to keep at least 50 percent of their wealth within French reserves. While France argues that this is to keep inflation to a minimum in these post-independence countries, it also conveniently guarantees a minimum level of French control over West African affairs.
A more contested instance of Françafrique policy in Burkina Faso’s past came during the rule of Thomas Sankara. As former President of Burkina Faso, Sankara enacted many progressive policies, including ambitious environmental programs and women’s empowerment initiatives that ended up causing tensions with France. However, in 1987, Sankara was killed during a coup d’etat led by his deputy minister Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré proceeded to run the country for 27 years with lots of French support, leaving many domestic and international observers to question whether France played a role in Sankara’s death. Although this accusation remains a conspiracy, Compaoré was found guilty of Sankara’s murder through a recent trial led by Ibrahim Traoré’s new regime. Despite critics’ objections to the trial’s validity, Compaoré’s actions that sought to recultivate close ties with France and create a pro-foreign investment government provide solid evidence for at least foul play by France.
Even though France has had a great deal of influence until recently, some people have questioned just how much control France continues to hold over West Africa, especially under the current Macron administration. Although France made some efforts to make amends for its continual wrongs in the region, not acknowledging the actual grievances against its military presence in the area would be to ignore the realities of the current situation. These times, then, ultimately show Burkina Faso trying to break away from the harmful legacy of Françafrique.
Russian Influence in West Africa – Concerning or Overly-Exaggerated?
Recently, Russia’s influence in many African regions has been steadily increasing. The Wagner Group, which attempts to globally establish Russian political influence, has assisted Burkina Faso in fighting the ongoing armed conflict along its northern borders in exchange for a closer relationship with the new government. While this Russian influence has not been nearly as harmful as France’s, there are still concerns about Russia’s intentions since Russia has been showing signs of exploiting the region’s natural resources and gaining political power.
The general sentiment toward Russia’s involvement in many African countries’ domestic struggles, however, has thus been positive. This support, which Western countries have historically provided with one-sided conditions, has become an effective strategy for Russia to combat its negative global image. As a result, many African governments have been slow to publicly criticize Russia’s war on Ukraine. Through its positive reputation and historical support for independence movements across the continent, Russia is compelling many African countries to support them instead. However, the reality of Russia’s ongoing colonial war in Ukraine highlights its hypocrisy, which shows us that we should still be critical of their growing involvement in Africa.
Problematic Foreign Involvement Beyond France and Russia
Although the concerns around the growing Russian influence in Burkina Faso are justified, the current media narrative about this relationship is somewhat incomplete. For example, the general lack of acknowledgement of French involvement in the region shows how the mainstream media privileges discussion of certain countries involved in global politics while ignoring others. Many countries, such as Canada, China, and the United States, have interests in West Africa that can be seen as problematic. The varying nature of these interests, however, means that directly comparing their interventions is not worthwhile. How foreign interests interact with West African countries must be viewed individually and placed within a historical context.
Moreover, foreign powers alone are not to blame for Burkina Faso’s trouble. The ongoing jihadist revolt unfolding throughout West Africa is another complicated issue contributing to the political turmoils of these regions. The problem is not that foreign powers are attempting to help, but that they are doing so under exploitative conditions and for political gain.
As events continue to unfold in Burkina Faso, it is hard to say how Ibrahim Traoré’s government will fare with its recent alignment with Russia. This new alliance and the broader shift in its relations with Western nations are unlikely to solve the country’s problems. What is certain is that this entire situation only further underscores just how necessary it is for foreign policy aims to be cooperative and transparent to avoid provoking hostility and distrust.
Edited by Light Naing