34-Year-Old Burkina Faso’s Military Leader Becomes World’s Youngest
Just two weeks ago, 34-year-old Ibrahim Traore was an unknown, even in his native Burkina Faso.
But in the space of a weekend, he catapulted himself from army captain to the world’s youngest leader – an ascent that has stoked hopes but also fears for a poor and chronically troubled country.
Traore, at the head of a core of disgruntled junior officers, ousted Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who had seized power just in January.
The motive for the latest coup – as in January – was anger at failures to stem a seven-year jihadist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives and driven nearly two million people from their homes.
On Wednesday, Traore was declared president and “guarantor of national independence, territorial integrity… and continuity of the State.”
At that lofty moment, Traore became the world’s youngest leader, wresting the title from Chilean President Gabriel Boric, a whole two years older. Traore’s previously unknown face is now plastered on portraits around the capital Ouagadougou.
His photo is even on sale in the main market, alongside portraits of Burkina’s revered assassinated radical leader, Thomas Sankara, and of Jesus. Traore’s previously unknown face is now plastered on portraits around the capital Ouagadougou. His photo is even on sale in the main market, alongside portraits of Burkina’s revered assassinated radical leader, Thomas Sankara, and of Jesus.
Traore was born in Bondokuy, in western Burkina Faso, and studied geology in Ouagadougou before joining the army in 2010.
He graduated as an officer from the Georges Namonao Military School – a second-tier institution compared to the prestigious Kadiogo Military Academy of which Damiba and others in the elite are alumni. Traore emerged second in his class, a contemporary told AFP, describing him as “disciplined and brave.” After graduation, he gained years of experience in the fight against the jihadists. He served in the badly-hit north and centre of the country before heading to a posting in neighbouring Mali in 2018 in the UN’s MINUSMA peacekeeping mission. He was appointed captain in 2020.
But it was a move that ironically would sow the seeds of Damiba’s own downfall.
The regiment became a cradle of discontent, and Traore, tasked by his colleagues with channelling their frustrations, made several trips to Ouagadougou to plead their case with Damiba.
Disillusionment at the response turned into anger, which appears to have crystallised into resolve to seize power after an attack on a convoy in northern Burkina last month that left 27 soldiers and 10 civilians dead.
“Captain Traore symbolises the exasperation of junior officers and the rank and file,” said security consultant Mahamoudou Savadogo.
The new president faces a daunting task in regaining the upper hand over jihadist groups, some affiliated with Al-Qaeda and others with the Islamic State. They have steadily gained ground since they launched their attacks from Mali in 2015.
Yet Traore has promised to do “within three months” what “should have been done in the past eight months,” making a direct criticism of his predecessor.
Savadogo warned that one soldier overthrowing another illustrates “the deteriorating state of the army, which hardly exists any more and which has just torn itself apart with this umpteenth coup d’etat”.
Traore’s takeover comes during a struggle for influence between France and Russia in French-speaking Africa, where former French colonies are increasingly turning to Moscow.
Demonstrators who rallied for him in Ouagadougou during last weekend’s standoff with Damiba waved Russian flags and chanted anti-France slogans.
Traore seems – for now – to bring hope to many in a country sinking steadily in the quagmire. Last Monday, L’Observateur Paalga newspaper, went with a decidedly biblical headline: “Ibrahim, the intimate friend of God, will he be able to save us?”