Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, on Saturday in support of the ruling junta, days after France confirmed its special forces there would withdraw, according to an AFP journalist at the rally.
Packing Nation Square in central Ouagadougou, protesters held signs bearing slogans including “Down with imperialism,” “Down with French policy in Africa” and “Forward for Burkina’s sovereignty.”
“We do not want any more foreign military bases on our soil,” Lazare Yameogo, spokesperson for the Inter-African Revolutionary Movement told the crowd. “We want respect and a win-win cooperation.
“We will remain on the lookout until Burkina Faso is liberated from Western imperialism,” he added.
Former colonial power France has special forces based in Ouagadougou, but its presence has come under intense scrutiny as anti-French sentiment in the region grows.
Paris confirmed this week that the troops, deployed to help fight a years-long jihadi insurgency, would leave within a month.
Anger within the military at the government’s failure to stem the insurgency, which has raged since 2015, fueled two coups in Burkina Faso last year.
Violence by insurgents linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group has killed thousands of people and forced around 2 million more to flee their homes.
Junta leader Captain Ibrahim Traore was acting for the West African state’s sovereignty and “an army powerful enough to fight jihadists,” said Alassane Kouanda, head of an association backing the planned transition to civilian rule.
Some observers say the Burkinabe government’s request for France to withdraw its troops is reminiscent of the ideals of former president, left-wing anti-colonial hero Thomas Sankara.
A coalition of organizations supporting Sankara’s ideas welcomed “the complete liberation of our country from the yokes of Francafrique, imperialism and deadly capitalism,” using a term to describe French influence in its former African colonies.
Mahamadou Sawadogo, leader of the Burkina-Russia association, said during Saturday’s protest that there were “other opportunities for cooperation” in the fight against jihadis, notably from Moscow.
Some protesters on Saturday held Russian flags and giant posters of the leaders of Mali and Guinea, West African neighbors that, like Burkina Faso, are ruled by military juntas following coups.
Monique Yeli Kam, a former presidential candidate and a major figure in the anti-France movement, told AFP Burkina Faso’s turn toward Moscow and the Russian paramilitary group Wagner was “also a form of sovereignty.”
“The old powers tend to treat us like children by saying we don’t know how to choose,” but Burkina is now independent and able to act freely “according to our interests,” she said.
Turning away from France in favor of Russia in the anti-jihadi fight has not convinced all Burkinabe citizens.
“We demanded the French soldiers’ departure. Now that it’s done, we must not let in other imperialists,” said Ibrahim Sanou, a 28-year-old shop worker. “It’s up to us to take full responsibility because the fight for true independence in Burkina Faso begins now.”
Civil servant Desire Sanou added: “We must be ready to hold out to free the country from these hordes of terrorists. We don’t even need Wagner or other forces.”