Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: The perpetrators of a 2009 massacre in Guinea go on trial, McKinsey faces further legal trouble in South Africa, and investigators examine a controversial biometrics deal in Gambia.
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What Russia Stands to Gain From Burkina Faso’s Coup
Army Capt. Ibrahim Traoré of Burkina Faso has proclaimed himself the new president of the country’s military junta. Traoré dismissed the previous military leader, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, in the country’s second coup in eight months against a backdrop of mounting jihadi insurgency.
The 34-year-old Traoré has called for both Russian and U.S. support or any other outside powers “willing to help” improve the country’s security woes. In his first public speech on Sunday, Traoré took a megaphone to address demonstrators in the capital, Ouagadougou. “We will start working in the direction you want,” he said, echoing Burkinabé revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara, who also swept to power in a military coup at the same age.
Damiba, who has reportedly fled to neighboring Togo, offered his resignation under seven conditions, which Traoré accepted—including a promise that the country would continue with the commitments made to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on a two-year transition to democratic power.
However, it is increasingly likely that in seeking to reduce attacks by armed groups and thereby keep themselves in power, the new coup leaders will join Mali and pursue support from the Wagner Group, a private military company founded by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. Burkinabé soldiers see the relative success that the Wagner Group has had in seizing back territories from armed militias in the Central African Republic and in preventing rebels from deposing its government.
“Russia is certainly closer to now cut a deal with Burkina than ever, certainly than they were with Damiba,” Rinaldo Depagne, the West Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy. But “what we see in Mali is that Russia does not bring more security or improvements in the situation. … The Russian army in Ukraine is not doing well, and in Mali, the Wagner Group is not doing well at all.”
Strongman politics. When Damiba seized power from elected President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré on Jan. 24, he argued that the president was failing to properly equip the army.
Kaboré became unpopular amid incessant attacks by armed groups and because he ignored mass demonstrations calling for him to resign. This laid the groundwork for a coup backed by the population in which Damiba vowed to beat back jihadis. But his record was dismal. More territories have been lost to armed groups under the military government since January.
Traoré justified his intervention, saying he and his supporters “had no choice” but to intervene. “Faced with the deteriorating situation, we tried several times to get Damiba to refocus the transition on the security question,” Traoré said in a signed statement read out by another officer on state television. “Damiba’s actions gradually convinced us that his ambitions were diverting away from what we set out to do.”
Russian playbook. Russia has sought closer ties with African countries wracked by insecurity by offering military arms and support. Damiba had started on a path of cooperation with ECOWAS, having so far held out against Russia’s offer to train Burkinabé troops. He also allowed former President Blaise Compaoré back into the country within a “framework of national reconciliation” despite Compaoré’s life sentence for the murder of Sankara. Many felt Damiba was becoming more of a politician than a military leader who could succeed against the jihadis.
“The future of these relations will partly depend on how the Western powers support the new authorities,” Mathieu Pellerin, a Sahel senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy. “But what is certain is that part of the public opinion which supported this counter-coup will continue to demand a shift in favor of Russia.”
Russian flags were waved by some of Traoré’s supporters in Ouagadougou due to grievances against former colonial power France. Meanwhile, the French Embassy was attacked by angry protesters after an officer said France was sheltering Damiba at a French military base and that he was planning a counteroffensive. Both Damiba and French authorities have denied those allegations. Demonstrators also attacked the French cultural center in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s second-largest city.
Security vacuum. Disorder has increased in Burkina Faso and elsewhere across the Sahel region. Traoré’s move comes amid escalating violence. At least 11 soldiers were killed on Sept. 26, and 50 civilians were reported missing after militants attacked a 150-vehicle convoy. And that follows a similar attack on Sept. 5 that killed 35 civilians.
It is clear that the coup caught regional bodies such as ECOWAS by surprise, as they issued a now well-worn statement “strongly” condemning a takeover by “unconstitutional means.” ECOWAS representatives had been doubling their efforts in neighboring Mali to negotiate the release of Ivory Coast soldiers that the Malian junta had deemed mercenaries. ECOWAS mediators arrived in Ouagadougou on Tuesday to demonstrations against the bloc’s delegates. As a result, the meeting with the junta had to be held at the airport.
The African Union expressed “deep concern,” but its measures of forcing military juntas into power-sharing arrangements with civilian leaders has also led to more coups, such as in Sudan. As previously discussed in Foreign Policy, the violence in the Sahel is a symptom of deeper, unresolved issues, namely the inability of state governments to provide services in all their territories, impunity for government officials who abuse civilians, and a lack of jobs that helps armed groups recruit among the local population.
The situation seems perilous. The insurgency has displaced around 2 million people, representing roughly 10 percent of the country’s 22 million population. There is abuse being committed on all sides, including by the country’s army. Depagne warns that international partners “sanctioning a fragile country like Burkina Faso won’t help.” Instead, “the best thing they could do is to maintain the continuity of the [ECOWAS democratic transition] calendar.”
Traoré’s comments so far suggest he is open to working with all international partners excluding France, who Burkinabé perceive as having worsened civilian casualties in the region. The junta could also seek out the assistance of Turkey, which has increased its military sales to Africa.
What is driving pro-Russian sentiment is a state of desperation among the population over the country’s insecurity. Temporary suspensions of humanitarian operations and donor fatigue has resulted in severe hunger in parts of the country; 3.5 million people are facing food insecurity. In the northern town of Djibo, about 300,000 people have been under a monthslong militia blockade that has led to water and food shortages.
Experts argue it is critical that international partners avoid anti-Russia rhetoric in Burkina Faso that could be weaponized by the junta as the West prioritizing geopolitics over the security of the people. “Western partners have everything to lose by being dogmatic, as this favors rapprochement between the authorities and Russia,” Pellerin said.
Wednesday, Oct. 5: The United Nations Human Rights Council discusses the situation in Somalia and the Central African Republic.
Wednesday, Oct. 5, to Thursday, Oct. 6: The trial of Félicien Kabuga, alleged financier of the Rwandan genocide, continues in The Hague.
Wednesday, Oct. 5, to Friday, Oct. 7: The Africa Oil Week conference continues in Cape Town, South Africa.
Friday, Oct. 7: Lesotho parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place.
Sunday, Oct. 9: Uganda celebrates 60 years of independence from Britain.
Monday, Oct. 11: Britain’s High Court of Justice hears a further legal challenge to the country’s asylum deal with Rwanda.
Guinea massacre trial. The trial of Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara, Guinea’s former president and military ruler, as well as 10 other security officials began last Wednesday, 13 years after more than 150 unarmed people were gunned down and over 100 women were brutally raped at an opposition rally in Guinea’s capital, Conakry, on Sept. 28, 2009. Those gathered were protesting Camara’s rule, who had come to a power in a coup the previous year.
An investigation into the killing had lagged as then-Guinean President Alpha Condé avoided bringing the case to trial because men employed in his own government were implicated in the massacre. Political experts suggest current military leader Col. Mamady Doumbouya’s decision to begin the trial could be to garner public goodwill—having himself taken over in a coup last year.
Doumbouya is under pressure to set a workable timeline for a democratic transition and has issued a three-year ban on public demonstrations. But for Guineans whose family members are still missing, they hope the trial will at least reveal where they are buried.
Maasai evictions upheld. A regional court has dismissed a case brought by Maasai pastoralists to stop the Tanzanian government from evicting them from their ancestral lands. The East African Court of Justice upheld the government’s decision to demarcate 580 square miles of land within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Locals previously told Foreign Policy that human rights defenders have been intimidated, and some have gone into hiding over the planned evictions. Rights groups say the Tanzanian government intends to turn the area into a luxury game reserve allegedly for the Emirati royal family.
An estimated 150,000 Maasai people face displacement, according to the United Nations. But the judges said no compensation was owed to the Maasai because the government can acquire lands if it is in the public interest and that the alleged violence during evictions could not be substantiated.
McKinsey “state capture” charges. Global consulting firm McKinsey & Company’s South African branch was charged on Friday over its involvement in corruption relating to the wealthy Gupta family benefiting from ties to former South African President Jacob Zuma in what became known as “state capture.”
The case, announced by South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority, implicates McKinsey in a locomotive purchase contract for the state-owned ports and rail operator Transnet, a process that McKinsey oversaw in 2012. The price of the locomotives is alleged to have been inflated.
McKinsey, former Transnet executives, and Vigas Sagar, a former McKinsey executive, have been summoned to appear at the country’s specialized commercial crimes court on Oct. 14 on charges of fraud. An inquiry found that McKinsey had knowingly allowed funds from state utility provider Eskom to be diverted to Gupta companies as a way of securing two lucrative contracts.
McKinsey has previously apologized for its part in a series of contentious South African contracts but is lawyering up for this round. “We have gone beyond our legal obligation as we have sought to make amends for our mistakes,” McKinsey said in a statement. “Given no new information has been presented since the commission, we believe pursuing McKinsey does not have merit and we will defend ourselves against any claims.”
FESTAC Portraits. A new book, Last Day in Lagos, by Black American photographer Marilyn Nance documents the iconic Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, known as FESTAC ’77, held in Lagos, Nigeria. Around 17,000 artists and performers from around the world gathered in Lagos in February 1977; among them were singer Stevie Wonder, singer Miriam Makeba, composer Sun Ra, and instrumentalist Fela Kuti at a time when the goals of the Pan-African movement had taken shape.
Aiming to showcase Nigeria as the “Giant of Africa,” the bill for the festival came in at $1.75 billion in today’s money during the height of Nigeria’s oil boom and a military coup. Yet the raid of Kuti’s home by 1,000 armed soldiers of Nigeria’s military government immediately after the festival would come to symbolize the dashed political hopes of the 1970s, Nance told the New York Times. Kuti’s mother was thrown from a window during the raid and subsequently died from her injuries.
For several years, Burkina Faso has experienced attacks by armed groups allied with al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Some gold mining areas are under the control of militant groups and provide a source of their funding.
U.S. firm angers Gambians. In Gambian investigative platform Malagen, Mustapha Darboe examines the Gambian government’s controversial deal with U.S. biometrics security firm Securiport. The deal led to the implementation of a $20 security levy on all travelers arriving at and departing from Banjul International Airport in 2019.
Authorities in Gambia’s government advised against the deal, and Gambians say the levy has also discouraged tourism. As part of the contract, Securiport earns $10 from each $20 levy. The company is accused of having directly lobbied Gambian President Adama Barrow for the unsolicited proposal and that no competitive tender process reportedly took place.
Swiss firm profits in Nigeria. Journalists at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project examine how in 1998, a Geneva-based company called Addax Petroleum with no record in oil extraction gained four valuable oil production licenses.
Records among the trove of leaked financial documents from Swiss bank Credit Suisse suggest executives at the energy company paid bribes held in Swiss bank accounts to the inner circle of then-Nigerian military dictator Gen. Sani Abacha. Addax then became Nigeria’s largest independent oil producer, making its shareholders millions of dollars in dividends before being sold in 2009 to Chinese state oil giant Sinopec.
FP Event: Investing in African Health Security
How can the public and private sectors work together to address chronic inequities and strengthen regional health security in Africa?
Against the backdrop of the pandemic and on the occasion of the 77th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, Foreign Policy, in partnership with PATH, hosted a live event exploring the investments, partnerships, and models that can inform a strategy for fostering a sustainable African manufacturing industry and distribution networks across the continent.
The recording of this event is now available online.