DAKAR, Senegal — A day after military officers seized power in Burkina Faso, they accused France of helping the deposed leader plot a potential comeback, plunging the West African nation into further uncertainty as it endured its second coup in eight months.
As gunfire erupted on Saturday and groups of protesters attacked the French Embassy in the capital, Ouagadougou, the country’s new strongman, Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, accused France of meddling. He said in a speech read on national television that the leader deposed on Friday, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, was planning a counterattack from a “French base” to “stir up trouble” in the country’s armed forces.
France, Burkina Faso’s former colonizer, quickly denied any involvement, and Captain Traoré appeared to row back his earlier comments on Saturday evening, acknowledging on the television channel France 24 that France was likely not supporting Colonel Damiba.
But as the whereabouts of Colonel Damiba remained unknown throughout the day, Burkina Faso’s residents were left with increasing doubts about who was in charge of their country.
Adding to the confusion, Burkina Faso’s army chief of staff on Saturday afternoon appeared to deny that Friday’s coup had overthrown Colonel Damiba.
In a statement shared by the army’s communication office, he said that the announcement on Friday by some officers that they had removed Colonel Damiba did not reflect the army’s position. He called the situation “an internal crisis within the National Armed Forces.”
The chief of staff could not be reached for comment.
Burkina Faso, an impoverished, landlocked country of 21 million, was once stable but has faced growing attacks on civilians from violent extremists belonging to an Islamist insurgency that is spilling over from neighboring Mali.
The first gunfire on Friday erupted in the early hours in Ouagadougou, but it was only in the evening that military officers announced that they had removed Colonel Damiba, who had taken power in January.
As an officer read a statement accusing Colonel Damiba of failing to bring security to the country, a stern Captain Traoré sat next to him, surrounded by a dozen other officers covering their faces with sunglasses and neck guards.
It was a coup within a coup: Captain Traoré was now in charge, the officers said on national television.
Calm precariously returned to Ouagadougou on Saturday morning, as shops reopened and traffic returned on roads that guards had been monitoring a day earlier. But soon, gunfire could be heard again and helicopters could be seen flying over the city, a reminder that even as coups have become a regular feature of Burkina Faso’s recent political life, the capital remained on edge.
Regional and international organizations, including the African Union, the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS, the European Union and the United Nations, all condemned the coup.
The United States called “on those responsible to de-escalate the situation, prevent harm to citizens and soldiers, and return to a constitutional order,” according to a statement on Saturday from the State Department’s spokesman, Ned Price.
As much remained unknown about Colonel Damiba and even Captain Traoré, it had become clear that civilians would bear the brunt of the instability.
“We just want security,” Théophile Doussé, a travel agency employee, said on Saturday in Ouagadougou. “Without security, business is too complicated.”
When he seized power in January, Colonel Damiba had blamed the civilian, democratically elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, for failing to contain a worsening security situation. Hailed as a strong-willed officer with on-the-ground experience, Colonel Damiba vowed to bring back security and asked the nation to wait until September before making a first assessment of his fight against insurgents.
But as he addressed residents last month, Colonel Damiba had made little progress, said Constantin Gouvy, a Burkina Faso researcher based in Ouagadougou with the Clingendael Institute, a think tank funded by the Dutch government.
For months, insurgents have blockaded towns and villages in the country’s north and east, attacked army-escorted convoys supplying them, and spread the same insecurity that Colonel Damiba had vowed to tackle.
“There was this frustration brewing in the military and the population on the basis that he would make things better,” Mr. Gouvy said, “but they actually were getting worse on some fronts.”
Last month, 35 people died when a convoy leaving a town under blockade hit a roadside bomb, and this past week 11 soldiers were killed when insurgents attacked another convoy on its way to the same town.
Nearly one-fifth of the country’s population is in need of urgent humanitarian aid, the United Nations said this week, and more people were displaced from January to June than the whole of last year, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The ongoing uncertainty about the country’s political situation is likely to worsen the humanitarian crisis, experts say, as donors may divert aid away from Burkina Faso, which relies heavily on international assistance.
“It’s a vicious circle: These coups further destabilize the military, which embolden jihadists, and make the humanitarian situation worse,” said Abdul Zanya Salifu, a scholar at the University of Calgary who focuses on the Sahel region, the vast stretch of land south of the Sahara that includes Burkina Faso.
Colonel Damiba had just returned from the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where he described his coup in January as “illegal in absolute terms” and “perhaps reprehensible,” but “necessary and indispensable.”
“It was, above all, an issue of survival for our nation,” he said.
On Friday, the officers who removed him invoked the same arguments after they grew disillusioned with some of his actions.
A top concern from other officers, experts say, was the international allies that Colonel Damiba surrounded himself with. Unlike in neighboring Mali, where a military junta recently cut its defense ties with France and aligned itself with Russia and its mercenaries of the Wagner Group, Burkina Faso’s previous military government kept the doors open to France, its former colonizer, as well as to Russia and others — at least on paper.
But in practice, analysts said, Colonel Damiba was seen as leaning too heavily on France and Ivory Coast, drawing the ire of a part of the population in which an anti-France, pro-Russia sentiment has been growing.
“Damiba wanted to create a balance between Russia and the West, but this isn’t what the masses want at the moment,” said Mr. Salifu. On Saturday, France denied claims that Colonel Damiba had taken refuge at a camp where French special forces are posted, or at its embassy. Still, several civilians said they were blocking roads in Ouagadougou to prevent France from intervening in the capital, and images of fires around the French Embassy circulated widely on social media.
Many said earlier in the day that Colonel Damiba could not have stayed in power much longer.
“He couldn’t accomplish the mission he came to fulfill, so it was time to quit,” said Drissa Samandoulgou, 32, a student. “We’ll judge the new ones on facts, too.”
Whether the new leadership can bring much-needed changes remains another question, said Mr. Gouvy, the analyst at the Clingendael Institute.
“Damiba’s justification for the coup became his undoing,” he said. “But what more does Traoré have to offer? What is going to be different, and how is he going to deliver?”
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