As a heavily armed convoy threaded its way through a cheering crowd in Burkina Faso’s capital on Sunday morning, the youthful face of the country’s last military ruler, Captain Ibrahim Traore, emerged from the turret of an armored personnel carrier.
Wearing a sports uniform and a red beret, the 34-year-old smiled and gave him a thumbs-up as onlookers welcomed him, some waving Russian flags.
Traore, a relatively low-ranking officer who days earlier led an artillery regiment in a small northern town, has been catapulted onto the world stage since he and a group of soldiers overthrew President Paul-Henri Damiba in a coup on September 30.
Little is known about Traore and his colleagues, who since Friday have given statements on national television brandishing guns, ammunition belts and masks.
They face mammoth challenges to alleviate hardship in one of the world’s poorest countries, where drought, food shortages, and broken health and education systems pose daily challenges for millions of people. However, the initial focus has been conflict and politics.
In an interview with Radio France International on Monday, Traore, a career soldier who fought on the front lines against Islamist militants in the north, insisted he will not be in charge for long.
A national conference will name a new caretaker leader at the end of the year. That leader, who could be civilian or military, will honor an agreement with the West African regional bloc and oversee a return to civilian rule by 2024, he said.
“We did not come to continue, we did not come with a particular purpose,” he said. “All that matters when the level of security returns is the fight, it is the development.”
Still, an early picture of what Traore’s board intends to do with its time in power has emerged.
His moves, which may include military reform and ties with new international partners like Russia, could upend politics in West Africa and change the way Burkina Faso fights. an Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands and forced millions to flee.
Army officials initially supported Damiba when seized power in his own coup in January, promising to defeat the Islamists. But they quickly lost patience. Damiba refused to reform the army, Traore’s junta said. The attacks got worse. Last week, at least 11 soldiers were killed in an attack in the north.
Meanwhile, Russia has voiced support for the coup just as regional neighbors and Western powers condemned it.
“I salute and support Captain Ibrahim Traore,” read a statement by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the private military company Wagner Group, which has operations throughout Africa, including in Burkina Faso’s neighbor Mali.
Ties with Russia would put further strain on relations with former colonial power France, which has provided military support in recent years but has become the target of pro-Russian protests. His embassy in Ouagadougou was attacked after Friday’s coup.
Wagner’s entry into Mali last year spelled the end of France’s decade-long mission to contain Islamists linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State who have since spread into Burkina Faso.
Since then, Wagner and the Malian military have been accused by rights groups and witnesses of widespread abuses, including the killing of hundreds of civilians in the town of Moura in March.
Burkina Faso’s new leaders fueled anti-French unrest on Saturday when they said in a televised statement that France had harbored Damiba in a military base and was planning a counteroffensive.
The French Foreign Ministry denied that the base had housed Damiba.
Traore is on a crash course in diplomacy. He downplayed the link between Damiba and France and called for an end to the protests. On ties with Russia, he was vague.
“There are many partners. France is a partner. There is no particular target,” he told RFI.
In the meantime, you have to juggle everyday problems. On Sunday, he arrived in a military uniform for a meeting with ministry officials that was broadcast online.
Can the board ensure the safety of schools reopening this week? their new leader was asked. What is being done about a tender for a rail link to Ghana?
Traore, who had to consult with advisers, did not have all the answers.