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Ukraine war spills over to coups in Western
Africa

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2023 04:20 | By
Ukraine war spills over to coups in Western
Burkina Faso President Ibrahim Traore with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg last Friday. PHOTO/GAZPROM

“The question that people in my generation are trying to understand is why Africa, with so much wealth on our soil, with generous nature, water, sun in abundance, is today the poorest continent.”

These are the words that have made 35-yearold Burkina Faso military president, Captain Ibrahim Traore, attract attention, not just in Kenya, where he and his country were trending on Twitter yesterday, but in other parts of Africa.

He spoke during a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Economic and Humanitarian Summit, held last week in St Petersburg.

Although 17 African presidents attended the talks, Traore captured the world’s imagination because he showed up at the meeting dressed in military combat fatigues, complete with a maroon beret.

“You look like a military unit,” President Putin said and chuckled before settling down to the serious business of the day with Traore and his delegation. In the beginning, Traore struggled to get his earpiece in place — because one had to pull the cord to one side and this took time for the inexperienced.

As a result, he missed the first part of Putin’s opening remarks. Seeing that he was not responding — and was fumbling to get his earpiece in place — Putin paused briefly before beginning his formal speech all over again.

The images of that meeting, splashed across the world by television stations and on social media platforms, thrust Traore into the global limelight, especially because he asked important questions that hacked back to the days of his predecessor, Thomas Sankara, himself a military man with revolutionary ideas and who was assassinated by his officers in a 1987 coup de tat.

“Africa is a hungry continent,” Traore said during the St Petersburg meeting.

“And how is it that our heads of state are crossing the world to beg? These are the questions we ask ourselves and we have no answer to so far.”

Millenial At the summit, Traore was the only African leader who travelled with security in combat fatigues. In the common areas, where all attendants congregated, they attracted significant attention but their dark, mean faces, tall frames and menacing comportment ensured that even journalists kept their distance.

At one point, they visited a stand where high-calibre military weapons were on sale in the exhibitions halls, and this was one of the few places they actually looked at home. Besides being the youngest president in the world, Traore is also attracting attention in part because he is a Millennial.

A study conducted by the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications and published in May this year indicated that Millenials were most concerned about how they communicate.

At least 39 per cent of those interviewed for the study conducted in East Africa said this was what they cared the most about. Interestingly, a similar number said they were also concerned about how they dressed.

When all other presidents were showing up in blue and black business suits and red ties, with their aide-de-camps strutting after them in ceremonial uniforms, Traore and his military men were marching in jungle fatigues, combat gloves and shinhigh boots. And when it was his time to speak, he was eloquent, firm and focused; the quintessential Millenial.

“We have the opportunity to forge new relations,” he said in crisp French. “And I hope that these relations can be the best to give a better future to our peoples.”

Honest men Ironically, he used the same language to lambast what he described as “barbaric neocolonialism” in an apparent reference to his country’s former coloniser, France.

In January this year, the Burkinabe government asked French soldiers to leave the country, saying the responsibility of defending its territorial integrity lay squarely with the government.

Before the aboutturn, French soldiers had been fighting al-Qaeda linked insurgents in the country that describes itself as “the land of honest men”.

The move was, incidentally, similar to one that Mali had taken against the French last year. Both countries slid from civilian to military rule within one year of each other — Mali in May 2021 and Burkina Faso in January last year.

Colonel Assimi Goita assumed power in Bamako and Captain Traore in Ouagadougou. And on the eve of the Russia-Africa Summit last week, the military took over in yet another coup in Niger, which shares borders with both Mali and Burkina Faso.

Led by the commander of the presidential guard, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the military detained the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, and General Tchiani declared himself president on Wednesday.

According to Reuters, French President Emmanuel Macron in November blamed Russia for the military take-overs in French-speaking West African nations, accusing President Putin of “predatory” ambitions. In the last three years, there have been five military coups in French-speaking and resource rich western Africa countries.

“A number of powers, who want to spread their influence in Africa, are doing this to hurt France, hurt its language, sow doubts, but above all pursue certain interests,” Reuters quotes Macron as having said in an interview with TV5 Monde.

While at last week’s meeting with President Putin, Captain Traore appeared to answer President Macron obliquely. “African countries have suffered for decades from a barbaric and brutal form of colonialism and imperialism, which could be called a modern form of slavery,” he said, his voice rising, his face deadpan.

Trump threat And in what could be one of his most re-shared quotes this week, he said that a slave who does not fight for his freedom is not worthy of any indulgence. His views appeared to partly dovetail with the words that President Putin spoke at the close of the summit.

“We want to build a new world order based on democracy and opposition to sanctions,” he told journalists, clearly taking a broadside at western European powers allied to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Russia has opposed plans by its neighbour, Ukraine, to join NATO, a military cooperation organisation which has imposed sanctions on Russia after it attacked Kiev in February last year.

Since then, President Putin has been building new alliances, including with China and various African countries, as part of his war of attrition with Western Europe.

In America, President Joe Biden has committed to support Ukraine with weapons and security, although he has also called for an end to the war before Ukraine can be allowed to become a NATO member.

However, two weeks ago, Republican presidential contender Donald Trump, who is seeking to recapture the presidency in next year’s election, said he would end the war in 24 hours if re-elected.

Trump, considered a Putin ally, said he had what it would take to get Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to agree to a peace deal or else he would give Ukraine more weapons than it has received so far.

“I know Zelenskyy very well, and I know Putin very well, even better. And I had a good relationship, very good, with both of them. I would tell Zelenskyy, no more. You got to make a deal. I would tell Putin, if you don’t make a deal, we’re going to give him (Zelenskyy) a lot,” he said in a widely circulated interview.

For now, however, it would appear that the war between Russia and NATO abroad is being fought on African soil, including in oil-rich Chad — which borders Niger and is a French speaking nation.

Russia has sent mercenaries operating under the Wagner Group in what the Wall Street Journal has described as a mission to oust Chad’s transitional president, Mahamat Idriss Déby.

The unrest in the oil and resource rich region of western Africa has attracted the attention of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has warned that it will not allow the coup in Niger — the fifth in the region since 2020 — to stand.

“We must stand firm on democracy. There is no governance, freedom and rule of law without democracy,” said newly elected Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who has also been appointed Ecowas chairman.

Fuel to fire According to Al Jazeera, Ecowas has given a one-week ultimatum to the General Tchiani-led interim military junta in Niger to restore constitutional order or risk the possible use of force. But this has only added fuel to the fire.

Within three days of leaving Russia, Captain Traore — in sentiments echoed by the President of the Malian Transitional Council, Colonel Assimi Goyota — warned Ecowas that taking military action against the coup leaders in Niger would amount to a declaration of war against both Burkina Faso and Mali, a threat that, if actualised would lead to conflagration in West Africa.

Already, the African Union (AU), through its chairman and President of Comoros, Azzali Assoumani, has called for peace between Russia and Ukraine in a last ditch attempt to de-escalate the tensions that are now playing themselves out in nowvolatile western Africa.

“Putin is ready and the AU will try to convince the other party,” President Assoumani told journalists in St Petersburg on Friday. WILD WEST Mali and Burkina Faso slid from civilian to military rule within one year of each other — Mali in May 2021 and Burkina Faso in January last year.

Last week, the military took over in yet another coup in Niger, which shares borders with both Mali and Burkina Faso.

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