Saturday, September 23, 2023

Could West African coup leaders have trained in Botswana?

The name Yacouba Isaac Zida will mean nothing to most Batswana but should mean something because it connects their country with a military coup that happened in Burkina Faso in 2015.

Last year, a United States publication called The Intercept revealed that two years before that coup, Lieutenant Colonel Zida had attended a counter-terrorism training course at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida which was sponsored by the US Special Joint Operations University. Thereafter, the publication adds, Zida “attended a military intelligence course in Botswana sponsored by the US government.”

Once back home, Zida would execute a coup – within another coup that was already in progress. The first coup happened when President Blaise Compaoré, who was already Burkina Faso’s longest-serving president, attempted to amend the constitution to extend his 27-year term. This sparked an uprising that forced Compaoré to flee to Ivory Coast.

Subverting the constitutional arrangement that was already in place, army chief, Honoré Nabéré Traoré, announced that he was taking over as head of state. Zida, who was a presidential guard officer, contested Traoré’s claim to power and managed to get the backing of the armed forces. Thus for three months (September 23, 2015 – December 29, 2015), a Burkinabe military officer who had received part of his US-sponsored military intelligence training in Botswana was the head of a transitional government.

On the basis of what a security sector source tells Sunday Standard, that particular training would have been very useful in the planning and execution of the coup.

“It is very important to plan, execute and maintain tempo of operations as well as act in accordance to detect, deflect and defeat all efforts opposed to your mission. Planning Prevents Poor Pissing Performance – or the 5Ps as some of us like to call it. With the help of intelligence, you are able to sequence your courses of action and some should take place simultaneously. Intelligence helps you to plan and position yourselves, especially to be ready to counter the presidential guards who are the most likely to build pockets of resistance to key coup plotters,” says the source, adding that in one other respect, intelligence helps coup plotters to neutralise “instruments of power” (IoPs) used by the sitting government they want to topple.

Key IoPs include national TV and radio stations as well as airports.

The source says that gathering good intelligence will also help coup plotters get ready to counter outside forces that – for any number of reasons, may want to keep the government in power. In elaboration of the latter, the source says that in the Francophone set-up, “most sitting presidents are puppets of France.” On such basis, France is a vital key player from which massive resistance is likely to come from in order to scuttle any coup plots because France has vested interests, financial and otherwise.

“You can’t go in blind,” says the source. “You need intelligence in order to be successful in your mission.”

Of late and in the US itself, some have expressed grave concern that coup leaders that have been disrupting constitutional order have received American training. Going back to 2020, democratically-elected governments in west and central Africa are being incrementally displaced by army officers – some of whom were trained by the US. As a side note, history buffs would have noted a first that is inconvenient for the west and one that the Guinness Book of Records has conveniently and persistently ignored – that on October 1, 2021, French-born Lauriane Darboux became the first Caucasian in modern history to become an African First Lady by way of a coup. Darboux is an active duty member of the French National Gendarmerie, a branch of the French armed forces.

The first coup happened in August 2020 when a group of Malian colonels led by Assimi Goïta ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. After clashing with the interim president, retired colonel Bah Ndaw, the coup leaders engineered a second coup in May 2021. A month earlier, the warrior-president of Chad, Idriss Déby, who was a former high-ranking army officer, was killed on the battlefield while visiting troops fighting rebels in the northern part of the country. One of his favourite saying was “to lead troops you have to smell the gunpowder” and he had died while getting his gunpowder fix. In terms of the constitution, Déby should have been replaced by the Speaker of Parliament but instead it was his son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby, who did.

In September 2021, special forces commander Colonel Mamady Doumbouya ousted Guinea’s President Alpha Conde. The 83-year old had wanted to fiddle with the constitution to extend his term. A former member of the French Foreign Legion, who are basically state mercenaries, Doumbouya was sworn in on October 1, 2021. Next to go (in January 2022) was President Roch Kabore of Burkina Faso. Coup leader Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba was himself toppled by Captain Ibrahim Traore some eight months later. Two months ago, members of Niger’s presidential guard toppled and detained President Mohamed Bazoum. Subsequent to that, head of the presidential guard Abdourahamane Tiani declared himself the new head of state. The latest coup happened in Gabon when a group of senior military officers in Gabon announced on national television that they had taken power and election results were annulled. This happened a few minutes after President Ali Bongo was declared to have won a third term.

US Africa Command (AFRICOM) which is one of the unified combatant commands of the United States Armed Forces, runs an annual special operations training for African military leaders that it calls “Flintlock.” As has been revealed, Damiba, Goïta and Doumbouya and Zida are Flintlock graduates. Zida has been linked to Botswana and it is possible that the others also underwent the same training in Botswana. A headline of Rolling Stone article has asked: “How many more governments will American-trained soldiers overthrow?”

In particular reference to West Africa where terrorism is a huge problem, the Libertarian Institute, a US think tank, has observed that while the Flintlock programme is supposed to be part of America’s counter-terrorism strategy in Africa, “its graduates often have goals other than fighting jihadists.”

In the upcoming session of US Congress, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida will seek an amendment to the 2024 defence budget that requires  the Pentagon, for the very first time, to collect information on African military officers trained by the US, who go on to overthrow their governments.

In much the same way that the Botswana Defence Force and Botswana Police Service can’t be blamed for former members who use their highly specialised weapons training to launch lucrative armed-robbery careers, Botswana and the US can’t be held responsible for having trained army officers who later become a mutineers. There would be an issue though if such training involves coup plotting and execution. Some people are convinced that the US – which has carried countless coups in Africa and even murdered an African leader (Patrice Lumumba) is behind these coups. If the training that Zida and yet nameless coup leaders received went that far, that would raise deeply troubling questions about the nature and full extent of the “military cooperation” between Botswana and the US. In defence of the US, a former US army officer has stated that African mentees are not taught how to topple governments but are equipped with training that enhances ability to do so. Indeed, human nature is such that military training can trigger hunger pangs for political power – and lead to catastrophic results.


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