Burkina Faso: Who is Ibrahim Traoré, the man who brought down Damiba?

By Benjamin Roger

Posted on Tuesday, 4 October 2022 12:24
Burkina Faso's new leader, Ibrahim Traoré, is escorted by soldiers in Ouagadougou, 2 October 2022. © VINCENT BADO/REUTERS

The 34-year-old captain, Burkina Faso’s new strongman, took part in Lieutenant Colonel Damiba's coup d'état in January 2022. Surfing on the discontent of the officers of his generation towards their elder, Traoré is now heading up the transition in Burkina Faso.

When he was named as the leader of the coup plotters, certain observers pointed out his resemblance to Thomas Sankara. In addition to the red beret, Ibrahim Traoré – Burkina Faso’s new strongman since his successful coup against Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba – has several points in common with the national icon: both are captains, both came to power at the age of 34, and both are perpetrators of a putsch against the military, which had itself come to power by force eight months earlier…

But the comparison stops there. For the situation in Upper Volta in 1983 and in Burkina Faso, today are completely different. Nearly four decades after the Sankarist revolution, this country of honest men is on the brink of chaos, riddled with rampant insecurity. Despite his promises, Damiba – at the helm of this ship adrift since his coup d’état against President Kaboré on 24 January – never managed to turn things around.

Civilian background

Criticised by his compatriots, contested by his brothers in arms, the man who had only recently enjoined his compatriots to “carry out their coup d’état” if they were “really strong” was finally overthrown himself on 2 October by one of his subordinates. A captain with a youthful face who, after having appeared perfectly stoic during his appearances on national television during the troubled hours of the current putsch, let loose a few smiles during his parade in an armoured vehicle through the streets of Ouagadougou.

Unlike Damiba and many Burkinabe officers who embraced a military career in their teens, Ibrahim Traoré had a civilian background before joining the army. Originally from Bondokuy, in Mouhoun province, he attended high school in Bobo-Dioulasso. A good student, the young man obtained his baccalaureate without difficulty in 2007. He then went to Ouagadougou to study geology at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University. As the valedictorian of his class, he chose to join the army rather than continue his university studies. In 2010, he joined the Georges Namoano Military Academy in Pô, which trains the elite of the national armed forces.

Field officer

Upon his graduation in 2012, the now second lieutenant Traoré joined the artillery regiment of Kaya. Two years later, he was promoted to lieutenant. Partly trained in Morocco, where he attended two artillery courses, he also participated in field operations: in Markoye, at the so-called three borders zone (Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger) on the front lines against jihadist groups, but also in the east, where he stood out during the Otapuanu operation, in 2019.

On regular patrol in the region of Kaya, Traoré – who became a captain in 2020 – was among the young and destitute officers who couldn’t help observing their superiors’ inability to contain the jihadist threat in the field. In January 2022, he joined the Mouvement patriotique pour la sauvegarde et la restauration (MPSR) and participated – “against the advice of his leader” according to a military source – in Damiba’s coup d’état against President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. After the successful coup, Captain Traoré was appointed chief of artillery of the 10th support and command regiment (10th RCAS) in Kaya in March.

The Damiba disappointment

As the months went by, discontent with Damiba grew among the troops. Contrary to what he had promised, not much was happening on the front. The soldiers still faced the same logistical difficulties and were suffering heavy losses. The lieutenant colonel and his entourage of “air-conditioned” officers sitting in their comfortable, cool headquarters in Ouaga were accused of being out of touch with reality. In their turn, they were accused of the same failings that brought down Kaboré and his government…

On 26 September, a supply convoy bound for the town of Djibo, which had been surrounded by jihadists for months, was ambushed. The official toll was terrible: eleven soldiers were killed and around fifty civilians disappeared. In reality, the toll was even worse. According to many sources, dozens of people lost their lives in this attack. In the army ranks, the frustration was palpable, especially among the youngest members.

Accusations against France

In the days that followed, Captain Traoré, on behalf of many malcontents, went to Ouagadougou to speak with Damiba. For a week, he asked for an audience with the president of the transition but never received an answer. Faced with what they saw as contempt, Traoré and the officers of his generation decided to take action. Left by the wayside since the January coup, to which they had contributed, they decided to take matters into their own hands. At dawn on 30 September, gunfire rang out in Ouagadougou. The coup plotters had gone into action.

Over the next 48 hours, Traoré and his men showed they were not afraid of the heat. And that they would not hesitate to play with fire. On 1 October, with their coup de force seemingly going off the rails, they went on national television to accuse Damiba of having taken refuge in the French military base of Kamboinsin to prepare a counter-offensive. In a Burkina Faso white-hot with anti-French sentiment, the announcement was a bombshell. Although Paris denied it, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Ouaga and Bobo-Dioulasso to attack the French embassy and the French Institute.

Will he remain in power?

Thanks to the lifting of the curfew decreed the day before, the coup plotters mobilised people in the streets. What had been a putsch among soldiers turned into a popular insurrection to save the country from an alleged plot supported by France. “It’s obviously a dangerous game, but it was very well played tactically,” says a former minister. “Without it, Traoré would probably not have succeeded in reversing the balance of power, which was rather unfavourable to him”. During the night, several army corps, including the air force and some special forces, switched to his camp. The next morning, the case was heard and Damiba was forced to resign.

It now remains to be seen what this fiery captain, described by many as “very structured”, has in mind for the future. Will he stay in power, or will he slip away to return to the field, as he has hinted in his few public appearances? After having obtained the support of the entire military staff, he said that he would only stay long enough to “expedite” current affairs, pending the appointment of a new transitional president by the nation’s “vital forces”.

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