Angry protesters attacked the French Embassy in Burkina Faso's capital on Saturday after supporters of the West African nation's new coup leader accused France of harboring the ousted interim president, a charge French authorities vehemently denied.
Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba was overthrown late on Friday less than nine months after he’d mounted a coup himself in Burkina Faso, which has been failing to effectively counter rising violence by Islamic extremists.
Comments by a junta spokesman earlier on Saturday set into motion an outburst of anger in Ouagadougou, the capital.
“Damiba has tried to retreat to the Kamboinsin French military base to prepare a counteroffensive in order to sow divide amongst our defense and security forces,” said Lt. Jean Baptiste Kabre, reading a statement on behalf of the new junta leadership.
Video on social media showed residents with lit torches outside the perimeter of the French embassy and other images showed part of the compound ablaze.
In Burkina Faso’s second-largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso, angry crowds also vandalized the French institute.
Damiba's whereabouts remained unknown but France’s Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded statement: “We formally deny involvement in the events unfolding in Burkina Faso. The camp where the French forces are based has never hosted Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba nor has our embassy.”
French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre later told France-24 Saturday night that it was a “confusing situation” in Ouagadougou and she urged French citizens to stay at home.
Traore, the 34-year-old army captain who was named in charge after the Friday evening coup was announced on state television, said in interviews that he and his men did not seek to harm Damiba, who unlike other deposed leaders in the region has yet to give a resignation.
“If we wanted, we would take him within five minutes of fighting and maybe he would be dead, the president. But we don’t want this catastrophe,” Traore told the Voice of America. “We don’t want to harm him, because we don’t have any personal problem with him. We’re fighting for Burkina Faso.”
He later told Radio Omega: “We have no intention to bring Damiba to justice. We only wish that he would go rest because he is tired, and as for us we are going to continue to do the work.”
As uncertainty prevailed, the international community widely condemned the ouster of Damiba, who himself overthrew the country’s democratically elected president in January.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Saturday that the United States “is deeply concerned by events in Burkina Faso.”
“We call on those responsible to de-escalate the situation, prevent harm to citizens and soldiers, and return to a constitutional order,” he said.
The African Union and the West African region bloc known as ECOWAS also sharply criticized the developments.
“ECOWAS finds this new power grab inappropriate at a time when progress has been made,” the bloc said, citing Damiba's recent agreement to return to constitutional order by July 2024.
After taking power in January, Damiba promised to end the Islamic extremist violence that has forced 2 million people to flee their homes in Burkina Faso. But the group of officers led by Traore said Friday that Damiba had failed and was being removed.
The new junta leadership said it would commit “all fighting forces to refocus on the security issue and the restoration of the integrity of our territory.”
But it remains to be seen whether the junta can turn around the crisis. Concerns already were mounting on Saturday that the latest political volatility would further distract the military .
Still, some in Burkina Faso's military, Damiba was seen as too cozy with former colonizer France, which maintains a military presence in Africa's Sahel region to help countries fight Islamic extremists. Some who support the new coup leader, Traore, have called on Burkina Faso's government to seek Russian support instead.
“One point of contention that has divided the MPSR (junta), the army and indeed the population for months is the choice of international partners," said Constantin Gouvy, Burkina Faso researcher at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
“Damiba was leaning toward France, but we might see the MPSR more actively exploring alternative from now on, with Turkey or Russia for example," Gouvy added.
In neighboring Mali, the coup leader has invited Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group to help with security, a move than has drawn global condemnation and accusations of human rights abuses.
Mali also saw a second coup nine months after the August 2020 overthrow of its president, when the junta’s leader sidelined his civilian transition counterparts and put himself alone in charge.
Chrysogone Zougmore, president of the Burkina Faso Movement for Human Rights, called the latest overthrow “very regrettable,” saying the political instability would not help in the fight against Islamic extremist violence.
“How can we hope to unite people and the army if the latter is characterized by such serious divisions?” Zougmore said.