By Brian Okoth
Ibrahim Traore is Burkina Faso’s president today, courtesy of two coups in under nine months – January and September 2022.
He became the world’s youngest head of state in September, when he and other junior military officers ousted Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Henri Damiba, who had also ascended to the presidency through a coup in January.
Justifying why they were removing Damiba from office, Traore said in a televised address on October 1, 2022 that the embattled head of state had failed to tackle the perennial problem of insurgency.
Damiba, 41, had been ousted by Traore, who was seven years his junior, and two positions lower than him in the military chain of command.
In the military hierarchy, Traore is in the rank of Capitaine, a French word for Captain. There are three ranks above that of captain. They are Commandant, Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel respectively.
Being a former French colony, Burkina Faso adopted France’s military command structure.
Whereas many people describe Traore’s rise as meteoric, within the military circles his rise to the top was just around the corner.
After serving in relatively junior positions in Burkina Faso’s military, Traore’s major stride came in 2014, when he was deployed to Mali as a soldier under the United Nations peacekeeping mission programme, MINUSMA.
Soldiers within Burkina Faso’s military told the country’s Radio Omega in the past that Traore, during his deployment to Mali, “showed bravery.”
Aged 26 at the time, Traore overcame a “complex attack” by militant extremists in the northern Timbuktu region, an unnamed source told Radio Omega.
The source further said that Traore, who was a lieutenant at the time, exhibited leadership attributes, including “being wilful, courageous and close to his men.”
Besides the assignment in Mali, Traore also featured prominently in the fights against insurgency in his native Burkina Faso between 2019 and 2022. He was promoted to the rank of captain in 2020.
Shortly after staging a coup against Damiba’s administration in September 2022, Traore acknowledged that his age – 34 – would be a subject of discussion among those questioning his presidential credentials.
“I know that I am younger than most of you here. We did not want what happened (coup against Damiba), but we did not have a choice," he told government officials in October 2022.
The international shine on him appeared to have faded until July 2023, when he accompanied 16 other African heads of state to Saint Petersburg in Russia for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, who had organised the Russia-Africa Summit.
His fellow presidents were dressed in their characteristic custom-tailored, expensive suits. But the towering Traore, who is slightly above six feet in height, showed up in military combat clothing, complete with a red beret and tactical gloves.
While walking past the security officers who were saluting the arriving heads of state at the summit’s venue, Expo Forum, Traore was one of the few, if not the only visiting president, who saluted back.
If that did not appeal to the world’s optics, his muscular physique and unique presence – even in Putin’s proximity – did when he posed for a photograph with the Russian leader.
The saluting, the picture with Putin and the dress code earned him the attention, but his speech during the Russia-Africa Summit held between July 27 and 28, earned him plaudits.
“The problem is seeing African heads of state, who bring nothing to people who are struggling, singing the same song as the imperialists who call us ‘militia’. As a result, they end up referring to us as people who do not respect human rights,” Traore said.
“We, African heads of state, must stop acting like marionettes who dance each time the imperialists pull on our strings.”
‘Let us feed our citizens’
He went ahead to blast African presidents who “are happy to receive freebies.”
“Yesterday (July 27), President Vladimir Putin announced that (free) grain would be shipped to Africa. This is pleasing, and we say thank you for this. However, this is also a message to our African heads of state.
“At the next forum, we must not come here without having ensured the self-sufficiency of the food supply for our people. We must learn from the experience of those who have succeeded in achieving this…,” Traore said.
His remarks were likened to those made in the early 1980s by the revered Thomas Sankara, who, just like Traore, ascended to the Burkina Faso’s presidency through a coup.
On October 4, 1984, Sankara, in an equally major international platform – the United Nations General Assembly – said: “Our economic ambition is to use the strength of the people of Burkina Faso to provide, for all, two meals a day and drinking water.”
On social media, Traore has been referred to as Sankara incarnate. Amid a major famine in Western Africa that had ravaged Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and Niger in the early 1980s, Sankara staged a coup against the French leadership in Burkina Faso on August 4, 1983.
The Pan-African revolutionary would go ahead to win the hearts of many citizens of Burkina Faso by introducing measures to address foreign debt and extreme hunger that had caused excessive suffering.
Whereas hunger remains one of Burkina Faso’s main challenges today, insecurity is even a bigger problem.
Traore has pledged to fight extremist violence, and has called for support from new allies, including Russia. He says his soldiers need training, equipment and intelligence-gathering to up their game against the militant extremists.
'Yet to prove his credentials'
Amid the high praise, some political observers say that Traore has not yet done something concrete for the people of Burkina Faso to draw the strong approval.
Nigerian Public Affairs commentator Achike Chude says Traore needs “to put certain structures on the ground” that would allow him to build a reputable legacy.
“Will he improve on the challenges that he highlighted about his predecessor? Leaders who ascend to the presidency through a coup have to walk the talk,” Chude told TRT Afrika.
“He needs to put certain structures on the ground, such that by the time he is leaving office, people would look back and say: ‘Well, the military was in charge, but its leadership was not so bad’,” he added.
Chude also took issue with the manner in which Traore rose to presidency.
“Coups can be very delicate and dangerous, especially when you try to oust a military government. People say he worked closely with Damiba, his predecessor. Some would look at it and term his actions betrayal,” Chude said.
The public affairs commentator adds that Traore’s motivation for ousting Damiba remains unclear.
“We do not have a definite knowledge about what is motivating him. He could be motivated by selfish interests. He could also be motivated by a genuine and patriotic national interest,” Chude said.
After his trip to Russia in July, Captain Ibrahim Traore received a grand welcome by thousands of Burkina Faso citizens, who had lined up on the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou.
How did his journey to the relatively senior military rank, and eventually the presidency start?
Traore studied at a local military academy and thereafter joined the army in 2009, when he was 21 years old. He acquired artillery skills in the North African nation of Morocco.
Traore settled on a military career after completing his secondary education in Bobo-Dioulasso City, southwest of Burkina Faso. Reports state he is a “shy and reserved person”, but “highly intelligent.”
Prior to removing Damiba from office, he was the head of an artillery regiment in Burkina Faso.
Immediately after the September 2022 coup, Traore declared himself the new head of the Patriotic Movement for Conservation and Restoration, and five days later – on October 6 – he announced that he was Burkina Faso’s new transitional president.
He has promised to return power to civilian authorities in Burkina Faso by July 2024.