Coups d’état as Instrument of France Non-grata in Africa: The Cases of Mali and Burkina Faso


Bola A. Akinterinwa 

Very few African countries had an independent status before 1960. These countries included Ethiopia in East Africa, Liberia and Ghana in West Africa. When many of the dependent countries began to accede to both national and international sovereignty in the 1960s, coup-making was generally presented as an instrument to achieve better governance and not necessarily for good governance. Coup makers often accused incumbent governments of bad governance, societal indiscipline, especially institutional corruption, political marginalisation, economic poverty and social injustice. In this regard, the immediate post-independence era witnessed people’s support for coups d’état in some countries, even though they were anti-democracy.

Democracy, not only as a desideratum in global governance, but especially also as a conditionality for the granting of development aid in international economic relations, was adopted at the Sixteenth Franco-African Summit held from 19th to 21st June, 1990 in La Baule, France. The theme of the summit was ‘Debt and Political Evolution in Africa.’ 35 delegations attended the summit and 22 of the delegations were led by Heads of State. French President, François Mitterrand made it clear at the summit that development assistance to any African country would henceforth be conditioned by acceptance of democratisation. The Western world swiftly endorsed this new policy in promotion of Western values and in consonance with their foreign policy interests. 

And true enough, African leaders were compelled to adapt to this new reality as Africa was truly playing host to many unconstitutional changes of government, but without accepting to address unconstitutional practices in the continent, which partly informed coup-making. For instance, at the Lomé Declaration of July 2000 on “Framework for an OAU Response to Unconstitutional Change of Government” (vide AU Doc.AHG/Decl.5 (XXXVI), attempt was made to outlaw unconstitutional changes of government. The African Union (AU) Committee on Unconstitutional Changes of Government differentiated between three types of unconstitutional change of government but all of which are still defined by democracy: replacing an elected government by mercenaries; replacement of a democratically-elected government by a dissident or rebel group; and refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to a winning party following a free and fair election. Thus, military coups are not the only manifestations of unconstitutional change of government, the AU has not been much concerned about unconstitutional practices which are part of the root causes of the resurgence of coups d’état particularly in Francophone Africa.

The Mali-Burkinabé Coups d’État

The renewed and increasing coups d’état in some Francophone African countries are essentially about unending jihadist terrorism and perceived France’s inability to contain it. The perception of deepening French colonialism is another rationale for the calls on France to allow a breathing space in her former colonies. Mali and Burkina Faso are asking France to withdraw her troops in their countries, especially in light of France’s inability to checkmate Jihadist terrorism which was the main reason for welcoming French troops in the first instance. Without doubt, Mali has had five military coups while Burkina Faso has recorded eight coups including the most recent. The first coup in Mali took place on 19 November, 1968 in Bamako, the political capital. President Modibo Keïta, who was considered as the father of Malian independence, was ousted by Lieutenant Moussa Traoré. One major rationale for the coup was the alleged suspension of the Constitution and the Parliament and their replacement with a Comité National de Défense de la Révolution in 1966 by Modibo Keïta. This angered the military. The coup was much of a surprise to many because it did not enjoy any foreign support. In fact, majority of Malians were reported to have supported the coup because of the financial and economic challenges with which the people had been faced. Most unfortunately, Modibo Keita died in captivity in Bamako in 1977.

Lieutenant Moussa Traoré was himself ousted under the barrel of gun in 1991 in a second coup led by Amadou Toumani Touré (alias ATT) who was considered the ‘Soldier of Democracy’ for quickly handing over to a transitional government which enabled the election of Alpha Oumar Konaré in 1992. 

But true again, alias ATT suffered the same fate in March 2012, just before the scheduled April 2012 elections. Captain Amadou Sanogo removed ATT allegedly to put an end to the advancement of violent extremist groups in the country. Mali’s immediate neighbours vehemently opposed the coup and took strong sanctions against the Sanogo junta, thus compelling him to hand over to the President of the National Assembly, Idioncounda Traoré who became the Interim President. The interim government paved the way for the election of IBK in September 2013 after the July and August 2013 elections. 

And perhaps more disturbingly, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) was forced to resign by a military junta led by Colonel Assimi Goïta on 18 August 2020, allegedly because IBK could not contain the terrorist insurrection ravaging the country. The insurrection was in spite of the Franco-American counter-insurgency policy efforts and despite the EU Training Mission in Mali that had been working with Malian armed forces since 2013. The United States is on record to have also provided commandos to assist the Malian army and to have cut its assistance following the coup. And apparently because of the public support for the coup, Assimi Goïta, who had participated in many US Army programmes, was appointed the Vice President while Bah N’daw, former Defence Minister, was made the President of the Transition Government. The ECOWAS reached an understanding with the Transition Government to return to civil rule in 2022.

But, perhaps more disturbingly, the M5-RFP, a coalition of civil society, religious, and opposition, organised protests against IBK allegedly because of corruption, nepotism and particularly because of the worsening jihadist terrorism in Northern and Central Mali. In fact, the Malian National Trade Union (UNTM) also organised a 5-day-long general strike, asking for increase in salaries.

The 2021 coup in Mali, which began on the night of 24 May, was again not only led by the same Assimi Goïta in his capacity as Vice President, but also abruptly put an end to the transition agenda. Before the 2020 coup took place, the Malian people wanted IBK out of office but France and the United States, in particular, helped to maintain him in power. The public protests by the June 5 Movement, which lasted for weeks and the mishandling of parliamentary elections prompted the people’s unconditional support for the coup. The ECOWAS intervention and negotiations with the coupists, which emphasize non-acceptance by the ECOWAS of unconstitutional changes of government, ignored the interest of the people of Mali. They ignored the unconstitutional practices in which the IBK administration had been engaged and against which the people were militating.

In this regard, how do we explain the fact that the 18 August 2020 coup was quickly followed by a palace coup on 24 May, 2021, that is, in less than a year? How do we also explain the fact that the AU and ECOWAS supported the transition government put in place with the active support of Colonel Goïta, and the policy stand of the regional organisations could not prevent the palace coup? Two possible rationales can explain the background to the coup which led to the arrest of President N’daw and the Prime Minister, Moctar Ouane, as well as their hostage in Kati, a garrison town located nine miles north of Bamako. First is that President N’Daw had just announced a cabinet reshuffle of 25 people which excluded the previous Defense Minister, Sadio Camara, and Security Minister, Modibo Kone, both of whom were members of the 2020 coup junta. Secondly and more importantly, Assimi Goïta, as Vice President, was not carried along in the reshuffle. He was not consulted and this was considered a violation of the ‘terms of the Transition Charter.’ In the eyes of France, the coup was ‘coup within a coup.’

Our point of emphasis here is that the five coups in Mali all enjoyed the people’s support, but the unconstitutional practices of elected governments were often neglected. Coups in Mali have always followed enduring public protests during which African leaders ought to have intervened, but they hardly did. They always waited until there was a forceful change of government before coming out to complain about unconstitutional changes of government. 

Put differently, is the Malian coup the real problem? Why have the people of Mali always supported coups d’état in their country? Why was it that incumbent governments have not always been able to respond to public protests amicably or why incumbent governments were always intransigent when protesters make demands and, at the end of it, the incumbent governments have to be forcefully or unconstitutionally removed? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we explain the development of hostility vis-à-vis France, especially in terms of the declaration of the French ambassador to Mali as persona non grata?  

As regards the coups in Burkina Faso, the situation is not much different from that in Mali. The minor difference is that Burkina Faso has played host to more coups than Mali: eight coups. Like Mali, where the last two coups took place in less than one year (August 2020 – May 2021), the last two coups in Burkina Faso similarly took place in less than one year (January 2022 – September 2022), and the profound reasons are not different: The immediate reason given in both Mali and Burkina Faso is inability to contain jihadist insurrection in both country.

What is noteworthy is that Paul-Henri Damiba ousted President Roch Kaboré in January 2022 based on the perception of his inability to deal with the worsening armed uprising in the countries. Damiba took over power, appointed himself as transitional Head of State, and made security as his top priority. However, about nine months thereafter, he too was found incapable of containing the same problem of jihadist insurrection which had remained a critical and worsening issue since 2015. Terror was unleashed on the Malian people by the rebel fighters in alliance with the al-Qaeda and the ISIL (ISIS) armed groups. Hundreds of people have been killed and not less than two million Malians have been displaced so far.

Regional Politics and France as Non-grata 

Efforts to reduce French influence in Francophone Africa predated those of Mali and Burkina Faso. In November 2019, eight countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo, and Guinea Bissau) unanimously decided to withdraw their CFA-denominated foreign reserves from the French Central Bank to the Central Bank of West African States in Senegal. In doing this, the CFA, which was created in 26 December, 1945 when France ratified the Bretton Woods Agreement, was referred to as the franc of the French Colonies of Africa (franc pour les colonies françaises de l’Afrique). The CFA was split into two, for West and Central Africa. The Communauté Financière d’Afrique for West Africa include all Francophone countries and Guinea Bissau, while the Communauté Financière d’Afrique for Central Africa comprised Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon. The CFA is linked to the Euro, and is to be replaced with the Eco, name the ECOWAS already reserved for the ECOWAS regional currency. 

What is particularly noteworthy is that the CFA arrangement is well regulated. First, every Member State must maintain a minimum of 50% of its foreign assets with the French treasury, that is, with the French Central Bank. Secondly, foreign exchange cover of not less than 20% must be maintained for ‘sight liabilities.’ And thirdly, each government can only have a ceiling of 20% of its revenue from the previous year at the time of need. 

With these rules, Francophone Africa is subject to the whims and caprices of France, in spite of whatever advantages of what a strong CFA may have. Recall for example that, in 1994, France devalued the CFA franc, thus raising the parity rate increased from 50 CFA francs per French franc to 100 CFA francs per French franc.

In the eyes of Fred Muhumuza of the Makerere University, the move engenders a ‘loss of a pool of resources and control of the economies of these countries will have a cascading effects on France, which may not take the move lightly. It will be difficult to transfer reserves. There were similar proposals before. They never materialized’ (vide Felix Tih and James Tasamba, “African Nations to Withdraw Cash Reserves from France, AA World, Africa, 15 November, 2019). Even though the Beninois president, Patrice Talon, made it clear that ‘we all agree on this, unanimously, to end this model,’ there is no disputing the fact that the coup makers had been influenced by the belief that France would not easily accept the transfer of their reserves to the Senegal-based Central Bank of West African States.

In the same vein, in early 2019, Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s former deputy Prime Minister and then Foreign Minister, said ‘France is one of those countries that, by printing money for 14 African States, prevents their economic development and contributes to the fact that refugees leave and then die in the sea or arrive on our coasts.’

The Malian and Burkinabé coups necessarily raise conflicting interests that are threatening regional peace and security at three different levels: France; Nigeria, ECOWAS-  African Union. At the level of France, she is a former colonial master. In addition to the United Nations’ 15,000 peacekeepers in Mali, France is leading two military missions in the Sahel with about 6,000 European soldiers in Northern and Central Mali. However, the Malians and Burkinabés are not only spearheading the neutralisation of French influence in their countries, but are also making strenuous efforts to replace the French with an arch rival, if not enemy, Russia. The French, with other European Union countries, are seriously taking sanctions against Russia following its special military intervention in Ukraine in February 2022. The NATO and EU are currently mobilising global support against Russia but the Malians and Burkinabés are seeking a rapprochement with Russia, a case of disorderliness arising from order and counter-order.

In fact, and more disturbingly, Mali and Burkina Faso have opened their doors to Russia in their quest to nip terrorism and insurrection in the bud. As clearly shown in the people’s support for the coups, the coup in Burkina Faso was followed by protests against France. The protesters not only carried Russian flags but also used slogans saying ‘France Get Out,’ in their placards. In some of other placards were ‘No to ECOWAS Interference’ and ‘Long Live Russia-Burkina Cooperation.’

With the protests, how do we reconcile saying ‘au revoir’ to the French and ‘bienvenue’ to the Russians in West Africa? By prohibiting ECOWAS interference, are the Burkinabés not exaggerating? Interference, unlike intervention, is a daily occurrence in inter-state relations. Even at the level of intervention, both the ECOWAS and the AU, through the principle of subsidiarity, can intervene in the event of necessity. Can the two peoples of Mali and Burkina Faso relate with the Russians outside of the West African regional and African continental frameworks?

At the level of Nigeria, it has been posited that France is Nigeria’s fifth neighbour by the principle of propinquity after Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroun’s rule of territorial contiguity. France’s policy towards Nigeria is to ensure that Nigeria is never capable of influencing Francophone African countries against French interests in Africa. In the same vein, Nigeria does not accept any aspect of French influence, especially in her immediate neighbourhood, to be detrimental to Nigeria’s policy and interests. In this regard, is it in Nigeria’s national interest to have the French replaced with the Russians especially that the ties between the immediate neighbours and France still remain strong and warm? To what extent can there be de-Frenchification to the advantage of Russia and Nigeria?

As regards the ECOWAS and the AU, to what extent can they go to impose their supranational authority? Without any jot of doubt, neither the ECOWAS nor the AU has been able to squarely contain terrorism regionally or continentally. If Mali and Burkina Faso are seeking solution to the Sahelian terror and insurrection with Russian collaboration, to what extent can ECOWAS-AU interference and intervention prevent the application of national sovereignty, as well as the quest for also protection of territorial integrity which is also the main reason given for the Malian and Burkinabé coups? And perhaps also more interestingly, how do the EU, the US, and the NATO countries want to respond to Russianisation in West Africa? Will this Russianisation not engender a Cold War peculiar to Africa, in general, and West Africa, in particular? The international politics of the coups are pointers.

Without doubt therefore, the mere fact that France has officially ratified the bill bringing an end to the 75-years-old West African CFA Franc simply suggests a partial reduction in France’s influence in Africa, and West Africa, in particular. This cannot but be so because the Central African CFA Franc is still in use by the six countries of the region. Besides, some Francophone countries are still much in romance with France. They have little or no problems with the CFA franc. This means that France still has the opportunity of political manipulation and adoption of stick and carrot attitude in other domains. However, considering the implications of France’s promulgation of a law enabling the return of the African reserves and considering the growing opposition to French policies in Africa, especially Italy’s observations on the roles of France in the death of many Africans crossing the Mediterranean Sea, it is clear that Mali and Burkina Faso are likely to take advantage of the intra-EU disagreement, not only to deepen the disagreement by moving closer to Russia, they may also lead other countries in anti-French activities. The format is not far-fetched: coups-making and prevention of pro-French leaders from governing. Thus, coups d’état can compel withdrawal of French troops but will not solve the issue of jihadist terrorism. Friendship with Russia is even far from the solution. What should be noted is that  the old generation of pro-West leaders is gradually belonging to the garbage of history. The current generation has different mentality and believes in self-dignity and self-reliance. They should therefore be treated with respect.

Related Articles