The driving forced behind the Burkina Faso coup currently taking place within West Africa is yet another individual who is from a quite long line of US trainees. The latest turn of events have seen the removal of an elected president.
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Burkina Faso’s military overthrew the country’s democratically elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, earlier this week.
A young commander proclaimed the coup on national broadcast on Monday, saying the troops had revoked the constitution and disbanded the government. Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, the commander of one of Burkina Faso’s three military zones, appeared next to him and was presented as the country’s newest leader.
Damiba is a well-trained soldier, thanks largely to the United States military, that has a long history of training soldiers throughout Africa who later plot coups. According to the United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM, Damiba took part in at minimum a half-dozen US training drills.
He actively took part in the Flintlock exercise, a yearly special operations training program, between 2010 and 2020. Damiba was admitted into a State Department-funded peacekeeping training scheme called Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance in 2013. Damiba underwent the US-sponsored Military Intelligence Basic Officer Course-Africa in 2013 and 2014. He also took part in activities in Burkina Faso with a US Defense Department Civil Military Support Element in 2018 and 2019.
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Damiba is the newest in a long line of coup commanders in West Africa who have been educated by the US military as part of a $1 billion security aid package to foster “stability” in the country. Since 2008, soldiers taught in the United States have undertaken at least nine coups in five West African nations, involving Burkina Faso (three times), Guinea, Mali (three times), Mauritania, and the Gambia.
Ever since 2000s, the US has frequently mobilized small squads of commandos to counsel, aid, as well as accompany local troops, even throughout battle; supplied weapons, equipment, and aircraft; and provided a variety of training programs, which include Flintlock, which is run by Special Operations Command Africa and aimed at improving the counterterrorism prowess of West African countries such as Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal.
“When the U.S. prioritizes tactical training, we overlook longer-term goals that could create more stable governments,” said Lauren Woods, director of the Security Assistance Monitor, which is a program of the nonprofit Center for International Policy. “We need more transparency and public debate on the foreign military training that we provide. And we need to do a much better job thinking about the long-term risks — including coups and abuses by forces we train.”
AFRICOM highlights that its security collaboration and “capacity-building activities” promote the “development of professional militaries” which are regimented and dedicated to their populations’ well-being. “U.S. military training regularly includes modules on the law of armed conflict, subjugation to civilian control, and respect for human rights,” AFRICOM spokesperson Kelly Cahalan told The Intercept. “Military seizures of power are inconsistent with U.S. military training and education.”
However, in Burkina Faso and everywhere else in the area, coups d’état by officers educated in the United States have become more commonplace.
American Green Berets, for instance, traveled to Guinea last summer to instruct a special forces unit led by Col. Mamady Doumbouya, a brilliant young soldier who already had previously operated in the French Foreign Legion. Members of Doumbouya’s squad took some time off from their regular training — in small unit strategies, tactical combat casualty treatment, and the rules of military confrontation — in September to invade the presidential mansion and overthrow Alpha Condé, the nation’s 83-year-old president. Doumbouya quickly declared himself Guinea’s new leader, and the US training program officially came to an end.
Col. Assimi Goïta led the junta that ousted Mali’s administration in 2020. He had previously cooperated with US Special Operations forces, engaging in Flintlock training drills and completing a Joint Special Operations University conference at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
“The act of mutiny in Mali is strongly condemned and inconsistent with U.S. military training and education,” Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton T. Semelroth, a Pentagon spokesperson, said at the time.
Gota stood down just after coup and became vice president of an interim government entrusted with restoring Mali to democratic authority. He captured control once more nine months later in his second coup.
Gota wasn’t the first the first Malian soldier taught in the United States to subvert the nation’s leadership. When Muammar Gaddafi was deposed by a US-backed rebellion in Libya in 2011, Tuareg soldiers in his command plundered the regime’s weapons depots, travelled to their home Mali, and took control of the northern section of the country. Amadou Sanogo, an officer that studied English in Texas, had intelligence education in Arizona, and completed Army infantry officer initial training in Georgia, ended up taking affairs onto his own shoulders and ousted his nation’s constitutionally chosen administration.
“America is a great country with a fantastic army,” he said after the 2012 coup. “I tried to put all the things I learned there into practice here.”
In Burkina Faso, another US-trained soldier, Lt. Col. Isaac Zida, gained control during popular uprisings in 2014. Zida had attended a counterterrorism training academy at MacDill Air Force Base funded by Joint Special Operations University and a military intelligence course in Botswana funded by the US government two years prior, while he was a major.
Another coup in Burkina Faso the following year placed Gen. Gilbert Diendéré. Diendéré had not only participated in a US-led counterterrorism operation called Flintlock, but he had also functioned as a walking billboard for it, featuring in an AFRICOM photograph addressing Burkinabe troops before their deployment to Mali in aid of the Flintlock exercise in 2010.
In the Gambia in 2014, two generations of American-educated officers clashed as a team of American-trained would-be coup-makers pushed (but failed) to topple Yahya Jammeh, who’d already taken control in 1994. The supposed commander, Lamin Sanneh, who had obtained a master’s degree from National Defense University in Washington, D.C., was killed in the failed revolt.
“I can’t shake the feeling that his education in the United States somehow influenced his actions,” wrote Sanneh’s former NDU mentor Jeffrey Meiser. “I can’t help but wonder if simply imprinting our foreign students with the ‘American program’ is counterproductive and unethical.”
General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the mastermind of a coup against Mauritania’s elected president, “had worked with US forces that train in the African country,” according to Stars and Stripes in 2008. Aziz was reportedly released on bond due to bad health after being detained and convicted with corruption following a decade of control.
Coup conspirators trained in the United States aren’t limited to West Africa. Before deposing Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi had basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1981, and intensive training at the United States Army War College (in 2006).
The Rand Corporation, the Pentagon’s go-to think tank, released a report in 2018 that put doubt on the idea that US military training develops coup-makers.
According to the study, “[T]here is little evidence that overall [security sector assistance] (measured in dollar terms) associates with coup propensity in Africa,” which had been written for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and did note a “marginally significant” connection with in post-Cold War era.
Despite restricting their assessment to the International Military Education and Training program — “which explicitly focuses on promoting norms of civilian control,” a study published a year earlier in the Journal of Peace Research by Jonathan Caverley of the United States Naval War College and Jesse Savage of Trinity College Dublin discovered “a robust relationship between U.S. training of foreign militaries and military-backed coup attempts,” evaluating data from 1970 to 2009.