Franco-Burkinabé relations have continued to worsen since the rise of Captain Ibrahim Traoré to power within the western African state. After the attacks against the French Embassy and Institute during the coup d’état that swept him into power at the end of September 2022, the repeated anti-French demonstrations in Ouagadougou, and the request for Ambassador Luc Hallade’s departure at the beginning of January 2023, the ball is now in the court of French special forces.
On Saturday 21 January, the Burkinabe Agency of Information (AIB) reported that Burkina Faso’s government had requested the departure of French troops from its territory within a month. Soon after, an unauthenticated document, supposedly originating from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, began to circulate on social networks before being picked up by local media.
The report, which addressed the status of the French military on Burkinabè territory, formally denounced and brought to an end in its entirety the agreement signed between France and Burkina Faso on 17 December 2018.
‘This isn’t goodbye’
“What we denounce is the agreement allowing French forces to be present in Burkina Faso,” said Jean-Emmanuel Ouedraogo, in an interview with Radio-television du Burkina (RTB). “It’s not about the end of diplomatic relations between Burkina Faso and France.”
As of Monday 23 January, French military and diplomatic sources had received official notification from Burkinabè authorities. “We learned of their decision in the press. It’s still a fun way to go back on an international treaty,” said a source from France’s Ministry of the Armed Forces. Even President Emmanuel Macron mentioned a “great confusion” of sorts with events heading into Monday’s official announcement that has ultimately confirmed rumours from previous weeks.
But the French were preparing for this since Traoré’s rise to power on 2 October. Since the change of authority in Burkina Faso, several civil society movements supporting him had been calling for the departure of the Camp Kamboinsin-based Sabre regiment of French special forces 20km northwest of Ouagadougou.
“We will continue to discuss with our Burkinabè partners to evaluate the implementation of this withdrawal,” said a source from the Elysée, “but as we have always stated, our troops will never stay against the wishes of the local authorities.”
According to our sources, the departure of the Sabre regiment from Burkina Faso is set for 22 February. Since France’s withdrawal from Mali in August 2022, it has ended Operation Barkhane and is currently engaged in a substantial reorganisation of its west African military apparatus.
Discussions are currently underway between Paris and several African capitals, beginning with Niamey in Niger, on who may be interested in hosting a new detachment of French special forces on their respective territories.
Sabre questioned Burkinabè citizens, interviewed them, and then handed them over to our custody.
But this latest development with Burkina Faso counts as a blow for France. After being driven out of Mali by Colonel Assimi Goïta, France is now being dismissed from Burkina Faso by Traoré.
Anti-French sentiment has begun to run rampant throughout the Sahel. Many in Paris now fear that Ouagadougou will fall under Russian influence, and for good reason: the Traoré-led country has since November begun a Mali-supported rapprochement with Moscow, complete with ongoing discussions between Burkinabè officials and the Wagner Group.
French Presidential mission
On 10 January, Chrysoula Zacharoupoulou, President Macron’s Secretary of State for Development, Francophonie, and International Partnerships, was sent on a presidential mission to Ouagadougou in an attempt to smooth things over with Burkinabè authorities, speaking at length with Traoré himself on the future of French soldiers in the military captain’s country as well as the diplomatic fate of Ambassador Hallade.
According to Burkinabè sources, Traoré presented the French with a new version of the cooperation and defence agreement which effectively ended Operation Sabre.
“The Burkinabè military’s departure request is a total revision of their initial policy, reflecting the view that the prior plan has been unsuccessful,” says Rinaldo Depagne, Director of the West Africa Project at the International Crisis Group. “Burkinabè authorities, now faced with an uncertain situation, must find a solution and have chosen to reorganise their security apparatus to fight terrorist groups, seeking new partnerships with either Russia or Iran.”
Lack of transparency
Within Burkinabè leadership, many officers have expressed their dissatisfaction with Operation Sabre, their main grievance concerning undeclared flights and non-compliance with flight regulations, as well as the persistent presence of unidentified aircraft detected above their own territory.
“There has been a lack of transparency during certain Operation Sabre activities,” denounced a Burkinabè officer. These issues led Traorè to ground French aircraft upon coming to power in October 2022. In particular, rumours about a secret airstrip led to the opening of an investigation.
For several years, Burkinabè security officials have regularly protested against the overflight of their territory by unidentified aircraft. In 2019, after many of the same unidentified aircraft activity, General Moïse Minoungou, then Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, was forced to warn Burkina Faso’s partners that “unidentified aircraft flying over our bases and areas of operation…are to be considered enemies and treated as such,” as explained in a formal correspondence addressed to the French Embassy.
And what of the prisoners taken during Operation Sabre? Concluded an Ouagadougou military source, “Sabre questioned Burkinabè citizens, interviewed them, and then handed them over to our custody.” More on the ongoing France-Burkina Faso situation as it develops.
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