Sahel military coups only help jihadists: analysts

Sahel military coups only help jihadists: analysts

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Burkina Faso’s new rulers say they have seized power to better fight jihadists, but history in the Sahel suggests the coup will only fuel turmoil and division, to the benefit of insurgents, analysts say.

The poor, arid region has been plagued by jihadist insecurity since 2012.

It started in northern Mali and then spread to the center and neighboring countries of Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015, killing thousands and causing more than two million people to flee their homes.

A new junta led by 34-year-old Captain Ibrahim Traore took power in Burkina Faso last week, the second such power grab since January, which has been blamed on failure to quell jihadist attacks.

Two similar coups followed in Mali in 2020 and 2021.

The latest takeover comes amid a struggle for influence between France and Russia in the former French colonies, whose leaders appear increasingly to be turning to Moscow for help in the fight against the jihadists.

But analyst Yvan Guichaoua said the coup would only serve the interests of jihadists – the al-Qaeda-affiliated group in support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) and the local branch of the Islamic State group.

“The big winners are not the Russians or the French, but GSIM and IS,” said Guichaou, an expert at the Brussels School of International Studies. “What a disaster.”

Organizers of coups in the Sahel usually promise improved security, but those promises are misleading, analysts say.

A coup “usually destabilizes the army structure and divides military personnel into supporters and opponents of the coup,” said Djallil Lounnas of Morocco’s Al-Akhawayn University.

“It means instability, division and purges.”

Coups only exacerbate problems in countries where armed forces are already accused of inefficiency and mismanagement, and security forces are often under-equipped, he and others said.

– army problems –

Alain Antil, a Sahel expert at the French Institute for International Relations, gave the example of more than 50 Burkinabe gendarmes killed by jihadists last November.

Two weeks earlier, they had warned headquarters that they were running out of supplies.

“They were hunting gazelles in the bush to eat them,” he said, unable to take on the insurgents.

“You can’t fight such determined opponents with such a logistics problem.”

Disgruntled junior officers led by Traore drove out junta leader Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, whom they accused of abandoning his country.

Traore was declared president on Wednesday, three days after Damiba fled to neighboring Togo following a prolonged standoff over the weekend.

But, said Antil, nothing indicates that Traore will be more successful.

“The myth of the enlightened military being able to solve problems … very rarely persists,” he said.

Soldiers are “often less well equipped than the civilians they replace to understand non-security aspects of a crisis.”

GSIM poked fun at Burkina’s recent leadership change this week.

“Let the tyrants know that the repeated coups will do them no good,” it said in a statement.

Mauritanian journalist Lemine Ould Salem, who has written a book on jihadism, said political unrest lends credibility to extremist speech that “delegitimizes state institutions”.

“They say, ‘Look, there is no democracy, no state, no constitution,'” he said.

– Regional impact –

Military coups in the Sahel have also weakened regional cooperation in the fight against the jihadists.

Since coming to power, Mali has been at odds with France, the country’s strongest foreign ally, which withdrew its last troops from the country in August.

The junta has brought in Russian agents whom it describes as military trainers, but whom Western countries say are Wagner Group mercenaries.

Mali has also deserted a regional anti-jihadi force called the G5 Sahel and angered its southern neighbor, Ivory Coast, by arresting 46 Ivorian soldiers in July.

Bamako “runs the risk of ruining the whole cooperation, including in terms of security,” Antil said.

The Soufan Center think tank said in a note this week that France “has served as a sort of ‘bogeyman’ or pretext to explain the growing strength of jihadists in Burkina Faso and the wider Sahel.”

Michael Shurkin, a US historian specializing in the French army, said there are also “many who believe in conspiracy theories that the French are arming the jihadists”.

They “simplify a complex reality and allow people not to understand their own responsibilities and to find their own solutions,” he said.

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