Explained | Why have French troops withdrawn from Burkina Faso? 

How successful was Paris’ operation in taking back regions from the Islamist groups in the Sahel region? 

Published - February 23, 2023 08:30 am IST

Senior officers from the Burkina Faso army and French forces in the country holding a flag-lowering ceremony to mark the end of operations by the French army in Burkina Faso at Camp Bila Zagré in Kamboincin, on the outskirts of the capital Ouagadougou.

Senior officers from the Burkina Faso army and French forces in the country holding a flag-lowering ceremony to mark the end of operations by the French army in Burkina Faso at Camp Bila Zagré in Kamboincin, on the outskirts of the capital Ouagadougou. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: On February 19, Burkina Faso announced an official end to the operations led by France in the country. France had signed a military agreement with Burkina Faso in 2018 to achieve stability against the threat of Islamist militant groups. France signed a series of similar agreements with other West African nations, including Mali who terminated the operation in late 2022.

Why is France withdrawing?

For Paris, the military governments in West Africa pose multiple challenges. In February 2022, while announcing the withdrawal of France and its allies from Mali, French President Emmanuel Macron said, “Victory against terror is not possible if it’s not supported by the state itself.” France has also been critical of Russian inroads into Africa. It has accused the Russian private military company Wagner Group for working closely with the military governments in West Africa.

On January 23, Burkina Faso’s military government announced its decision to end the military agreement with France and called on Paris to withdraw its troops within a month. A Burkinabe government spokesperson said that the military government and the country wanted themselves “to be the prime actors in the recapture of our territory,” which was controlled by Islamist militant groups. On January 26, France agreed to withdraw its troops from Burkina Faso.

Why did Burkina Faso end it?

France was asked to withdraw its troops from Burkina Faso months after it pulled out its troops from Mali. The primary reason behind the withdrawal is the failure of its counter insurgency operations in the Sahel region against Islamist groups. Islamist insurgency has surged since 2015 and fuelled two coups in Burkina Faso last year. The violence linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State groups has killed thousands and forced more than two million to flee their homes in the country.

Secondly, as Islamist insurgency kept intensifying, France’s military presence in Burkina Faso came under scrutiny. After the second coup in September 2022, anti-France protests increased in Burkina Faso with demonstrators demanding French withdrawal from the country. There was also an increasing pro-Russia sentiment. And finally, the ruling military junta of Burkina Faso was looking beyond its traditional allies for support in its counterinsurgency campaign. Dissatisfaction with the French approach has made other actors including Russia and China more preferable partners to fight insurgency.

Is there Russian involvement?

Russia’s engagements in Africa have been under scrutiny for a few years, especially after the resurgence of military governments in West Africa since 2020.

Following Ouagadougou’s announcement of the termination of France operations, Burkinabe Prime Minister Apollinaire Kyelem de Tambela termed Russia “a reasonable choice”. Simultaneously, Moscow has been courting African countries; in 2023 alone, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited seven countries in Africa: Angola, Eswatini, South Africa, Eritrea, Mali, Sudan and Mauritania.

What next for France and Burkina Faso?

Paris has accepted the military governments’ decision which marks a significant change in its West Africa approach. In Burkina Faso, in the absence of France’s troops, the alleged Russian mercenaries may fill the security void, as part of its bid to enhance military engagements in the continent. However, the new developments are unlikely to address the insurgency and the consequent insecurity.

The writers are with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

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