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“​​A Complex and Devastating Crisis”: Burkina Faso Sees Second Military Coup This Year

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The western African nation of Burkina Faso is facing its second military coup in eight months. After a day of gunfire rang out Friday in the capital Ouagadougou, Captain Ibrahim Traoré announced on public television that he had replaced Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba as president. Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch, says Damiba’s inability to improve security in the face of an Islamist insurgency was “the primary reason for the coup d’état.” We also speak with Aziz Fall, coordinator for Justice for Sankara, an international campaign dedicated to uncovering the truth behind the 1987 assassination of Burkina Faso leader Thomas Sankara. He says the legacy of U.S. military intervention and French colonialism has led to instability in the region. “People are outraged with the role of France but also the role of the United States,” says Fall.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

For the second time this year, a military coup has occurred in the African nation of Burkina Faso. A group of army officers led by Captain Ibrahim Traoré seized power Friday, ousting another military officer, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba, who had led the country since a January coup. On Saturday, protesters attacked the French Embassy, where some had believed the ousted president was hiding. Some supporters of Friday’s coup flew Russian flags in the streets while calling for Moscow to help Burkina Faso confront an ongoing jihadist insurgency that began in 2015.

We’re joined right now by two guests. Corinne Dufka is the Sahel director for Human Rights Watch, and Aziz Fall is the coordinator for the International Campaign Justice for Sankara, which has campaigned for years to uncover the truth behind the 1987 assassination of Thomas Sankara, who led Burkino Faso from 1983 to 1987.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s first go to Montreal, where we’re joined by Aziz Fall. If you can talk about what is happening in Burkina Faso right now? Why have there been two coups in the last year?

AZIZ FALL: Well, truly, this is the aftermath, I think, of Compaoré’s ousting. The coup d’état which occurred, even if it’s not democratic and correspond to an internal struggle within the MPSR, within the army, is actually a positive thing. Former President Damiba committed many bad political maneuvers and had dared to defy the justice system, which has condemned President Compaoré and folks, the main killers of Sankara.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I’m going to ask you to step back, because as you make all these references, I think it will be most helpful to give us a history in a nutshell of Burkina Faso, so we can understand who Thomas Sankara and Compaoré were.

AZIZ FALL: Right. This is like a landlocked country, quite poor, who actually have helped Ivory Coast becoming this big miracle on cocoa and coffee with, you know, the productive forces, and until 1980s was truly a Françafrique hub. And when Compaoré and Sankara took power, they had a major change, a revolutionary change, in favor of women, the peasantry, a change of the mode of production. And that length for three years with amazing achievement. And he was killed in an international plot, including local players, his main friend Compaoré, who ran the country for three decades. And this is the industrial extractive mining sector, mainly gold, and also the beginning of the geopolitical warfare in the region after what happened in Tripoli, Libya, where the U.S. Africa Command and France has destroyed the Jamahiriya of Gaddafi, and from there start spreading mercenaries who have started these jihadist cells, which clearly also are blossoming because of underdevelopment.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance? I mean, you have spent many years looking for justice and accountability in the assassination of Sankara. If you can talk about him and his significance, not only in Burkina Faso but in Africa?

AZIZ FALL: I think he symbolized for most African youths the hope of a sovereign Africa. He actually gave his life for that. And this is why this fight against impunity is so important and has created a landmark in the legal history of Africa itself. And so he’s an icon, I think. And this is like a sweet revenge that the youths actually are just using his image to gain more sovereignty.

And this issue is very important as also, you know, the whole Sahel region is not destabilized, and you have like 2 million people who have been displaced in the region. And the trial opened a kind of wound in the country by actually undermining the role of France. And this is where the whole geopolitical landscape is changing. So, not just Sankara has tackled the so-called imperialist trend of France, but the new generation of leaders, who actually learned from him, are trying to do the same.

So, Ibrahim Traoré was, in a way, trying to rectify what Damiba did by trying to, under the guise of reconciliation, bring over President Compaoré despite of his condemnation in Burkina Faso. And this is the lower officers ranks who were outraged by this gesture, but also the political maneuvers with Ivory Coast and France that actually created this coup d’état. And actually, the situation as we witness it, it’s interesting in a way because they want to speed the process toward a democratic transition with civilian taking power nearly probably before 2024. And this is what actually probably is reducing the pressure and the embargo of the African Union and the regional organization, which actually sent a mission in Burkina Faso today.

AMY GOODMAN: Corinne Dufka, you’re the Sahel director for Human Rights Watch. If you can talk about the role of — well, talk about these last two coups and then the role of the United States in military training, their connection to those involved with these coups. Apparently, the former president who came to power in a coup, Damiba, has left for Togo, left on Sunday.

CORINNE DUFKA: Yes, sure. So, Burkina Faso, since at least 2015, is experiencing a complex and devastating crisis, which is both the security, because of the presence and the increasing presence of armed Islamists linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, a humanitarian catastrophe, and then, of course, the political crisis, which has been intensified by the coup, these two coups within the last year. The Burkinabe have lost probably — estimated to be 40% of their territory to these armed Islamist groups who are slaughtering people, raping women and undermining their ability to farm, and it’s a largely agrarian society. On the other hand, the security forces have engaged in a lethal counterterrorism strategy and have executed, allegedly executed, hundreds of terrorism suspects. People are absolutely besides themselves, including the security forces. Damiba came to power a year — sorry, in January, pledging to address this rapidly deteriorating security situation on account of the armed Islamists, and he was unable to do that, to the extent that this really, I think, is the primary reason for the coup d’état.

Now, yes, Damiba, I believe, was trained by the United States, if I’m not mistaken, but he was similarly trained by the French and by numerous other actors. Burkina Faso is a very proud country, and they have largely tried to address the counterterrorism threat on their own. In many ways, they’ve resisted the presence on their territory of other countries. The United States was engaged in training the military — again, the French and others, as well.

So, I see this as primarily a Burkinabe problem. And it’s situated within the wider Sahel, in which, you know, it’s the fastest-growing area for armed Islamist activity pretty much in the world. And it’s situated in between Mali, where there is — which has been battling these armed Islamists linked to IS, the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda. So, it’s really a very complex situation, and, again, situated within — you know, there’s a call for the people of Burkinabe, as my colleague mentioned who was speaking just now, there are 10% of that population, 2 million out of 20 million people, are displaced on account of this insecurity.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why protesters would be holding Russian flags and calling for assistance from Moscow, Corinne?

CORINNE DUFKA: Well, there’s — we’re in a bit of a geopolitical realignment here with respect to military aid, where the Russian-backed Wagner Group has over the last year gone into Mali. The Malians don’t admit they’re there. They say they’re Russian traders. But there are hundreds of them in the country. And it coincided with a serious deterioration of relationship with the French. And the French did make some mistakes with respect to managing military sort of engagement in Mali. So, Mali has engaged on — you know, engaged these Russian trainers. I myself documented a massacre by the joint forces, with the Malians and these Russian-backed trainers, of 300 people in March of this year. So they’re engaging in very serious human rights abuses.

But I think, again, people are beside themselves because of this growing and lethal Islamist threat that has taken root in the country. So I think they’re looking to Russia, as France backed out of Mali. I’m not quite sure — you know, I’m not convinced that the Burkinabe are going to welcome the Russians in as they have in Mali. I’m not convinced about that. We’ll see. But I think it’s a reflection of their growing fear. And remember, there are hundreds of Burkinabe security forces who have lost their lives, as well. So people are desperate, and they’re looking to anyone who might be able to help them better tackle this lethal threat.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is Human Rights Watch calling for in Burkina Faso?

CORINNE DUFKA: Well, we don’t take a position on mercenaries. We don’t take a position on coups. We look at are the human rights dynamics. We call on the coup leaders to respect rights, to restore democracy, but also for those engaged in counterterrorism operations to ensure that their response is grounded in human rights, because if they don’t do that, it only pushes more and more people into the hands of the armed Islamists, who are adept and very clever at exploiting all kinds of fissures — economic, ethnic, political and so on — to garner new recruits.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Aziz Fall, if you could address the attack on the French Embassy? If you can talk about the history of France in Burkina Faso?

AZIZ FALL: Well, I think, truly, this is not a Burkinabe case. The United States and France have a great responsibility in what is happening in the region, despite of what my colleague is saying. I think here we have to look at the geopolitcal problems that were actually implanted in that region, in the Sahelian region. So, people are outraged with the role of France but also the role of the United States, who have started these terrorist cells in the region for geopolitical reason. So, yeah, in a way, people want to change the landscape.

I think President Macron, just by saying that he would declassify the documents in the killing of Sankara, when he said that he will change his strategy on the military battlefield by changing Barkhane’s role in Mali, were not very convincing. We didn’t receive most of the declassified documents, as well as for the United States. And it’s the same situation that actually put these people trying to imitate what is happening in the Republic of Central Africa.

So, if some of your viewers can watch the AFRICOM Go Home film, which is against foreign military base, this was screened 12 years ago and explaining how the spreading of these geopolitical strata is evolving. Unfortunately, it was said — and I think Human Rights Watch and many other organizations, like Amnesty International, have to look at also the big picture, not just the local picture but look at the big picture, the role of China, the role of India, the opposition of the imperialist forces on the ground, and the fierce resistance of the people of Mali and Burkina Faso and the rest. But having said that, most this hierarchy, this military hierarchy, have been formed and trained by the U.S. AFRICOM, as well. So, we have to have an introspection here and look at the deep causes in order to have a new momentum that gives the Burkinabe people the worthy title of the land of the upright people. And I think these are very proud people who are trying, with very little means, to counter a geopolitical tide that is beyond the scope of their capacities.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Professor Fall, earlier this year The Intercept reported U.S.-trained officers have attempted at least nine coups, and succeeded in at least eight, across five West African countries since 2008, including Burkina Faso three times, Guinea, Mali three times, Mauritania and the Gambia. If you can say what you think the U.S. should be doing or not doing in Africa? And finally, how did Thomas Sankara die?

AZIZ FALL: Well, Thomas Sankara died with the international plot that started with Charles Taylor being smuggled in Libya. And then it was a big plot where Compaoré, Ivory Coast, France were the mastermind of that coup, and he was killed. For 10 years, his death certificate said that he died of natural death. So, it was, I think, now revealed in that trial how the whole thing happened. And we are still witnessing and hoping that we will have an international plot. I will tour the United States on the commemorative date. October 15, I will go to New York and Washington, asking for declassified documents showing the involvement of those people who were in that plot.

Having said that, it is true that the United States can change its policy, distance itself from the old Monroe Doctrine. The world doesn’t belong to the United States. And I think we have to respect African sovereignty. We have to listen to the pan-Africanist position, which are very important. And once we have that, if we have a different position on how the former 20th century cannot repeat itself in the 21st century, then I think the United States will change its policy. No one is actually denying the military might of the United States. I think they have a political, geopolitical power. But people in Africa look for a multipolar system. They look for more balance on impunity cases. They look for international order that is respected. And in that regard, I trust that the people of America, if they had learned what is happening on the ground, would distance themselves from the Pentagon’s policies. So, this, I think, is important for the new 21st century to look at this achievement and to respect also African sovereignty. This is the role of transnational and the rest.

AMY GOODMAN: Aziz Fall, we want to thank you for being with us, coordinator for the International Campaign Justice for Sankara, and Corinne Dufka, Sahel director for Human Rights Watch. I hear you’re leaving Human Rights Watch. All the best in your next endeavors.

CORINNE DUFKA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Next up, we go back more than a century in the United States to look at the Elaine massacre of 1919, when white mobs in Arkansas killed over 200 African Americans in one of the worst racial massacres in U.S. history. Stay with us.

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