A Massacre In Solhan And The Crisis Of The Sahel

While Burkina Faso has seen several years of unrest, the violence reached new heights last week. In an attack on Solhan, a village in the northern part of the country, an armed group described by the government as terrorists — likely affiliated with the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda — murdered over 100 civilians, shaking Burkina Faso and the entire Sahel to the core. Yet such shocking, pointless violence could not have occurred in a contained environment. The massacre at Solhan is the tragic result of decades of destabilization and the destruction of civil and governmental functions, and urgent action is needed to prevent further wanton violence. 

The attack began overnight sometime on June 4th or 5th, with militants attacking a goldmine outside of Solhan before arriving in the village. When they arrived they massacred anybody they came across in addition to burning buildings, including a hospital, and looting. While the massacre’s official death toll is 132, aid workers stationed in the region say the death toll is likely closer to 160 people. 

Many wounded survivors flooded into nearby villages, and are currently under significant duress. Humanitarian aid is desperately needed, and Amnesty International has called on both the Burkinabe government and international partners to take concrete steps to de-escalate tensions in the region. Survivors need material support and effective protection as they attempt to piece their shattered lives back together. 

This is not the first such attack on Solhan, which has seen several bouts of violence over the past few years, nor is this sort of violence limited to Solhan or even Burkina Faso. The entire Sahel region — between tropical West Africa and the Sahara desert — is experiencing a crisis similar in form and scale. Instability and violence, exemplified by the recent episode in Solhan, have caused a massive exodus of refugees from the region. In Burkina Faso alone, the refugee count has increased by over 6% since March, and there is no end in sight. 

Many refugees end up attempting to flee to North Africa and Europe, which has put significant strains on those nations’ resources in addition to the uncertainty and vulnerability that goes along with the lifestyle of a refugee. Yet in a time of acute crisis, Emmanuel Macron announced yesterday that France’s military would scale down counterterrorism operations throughout the Sahel, and integrate them with international peacekeeping forces. 

This is not a bad thing on its face, but the Sahel can only stabilize if that international peacekeeping mission materializes effectively. There are some UN peacekeepers stationed in Burkina Faso, but nowhere near enough to replace France’s limited role in ensuring Burkinabe stability. And while France has been a very active presence in the Sahel, composed almost entirely of former French colonies, it is clear that they have not been able to protect the citizens of these areas. Burkina Faso has seen over 400 civilian deaths since January, and the violence is only increasing. 

So what should be done? Escalating military presence may not be a viable or even effective solution to civilian violence, nor is the local government capable of or willing to intervene and put an end to militant insurgency. Ultimately, development may be both the most effective and passive solution available, but it will take time and concerted resources. So while France winds down its military presence, it is absolutely crucial that they and other nations with an interest in the region’s stability as well as private actors in wealthy countries replace troops with aid dollars. But peacekeeping forces will be necessary in the wider Sahel region for some time, and in what is currently a volatile region, development alone cannot quell extremist militants and the senseless violence they inflict on the Burkinabe population.