Burkina Faso Continues To Struggle With Islamist Insurgent Groups

Burkina Faso lived one of the worst episodes of violence in recent years on Wednesday November 6th, when 37 people were killed and more than 60 wounded in an ambush attack in the East of the country. Armed men opened fire on a convoy carrying workers for the Canadian mining company Semafo. The attack took place approximately 40 km away from one of the company´s gold mines in Bongou, in the East of the country. The death toll might increase as some of the people who were wounded are in critical conditions and some of the men working on the military escort might have been killed as well. In a statement, the company announced that it regretted to inform that an attack had taken place on a convoy of 5 buses carrying national employees, contractors and suppliers while they were being escorted to the mine and that several people had been killed and injured. The company announced that the mine would remain securely open and that it was working closely with Burkinabe security forces to enhance the safety of its workers and the personnel in charge of their security.


President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré announced three days of official mourning in the country. In a statement, he declared that  “Only a general mobilization, sons and daughters of the nation, regardless of region, ethnicity, political opinion and religious denomination, is able to overcome these murderers.” Since assuming office in December 2015, Kaboré and his government have struggled to defend the Northern part of Burkina Faso from armed Islamic groups belonging to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant(ISIL). 


In recent years, Burkina Faso has witnessed the rise of insurgent groups in its Sahel Northern regions. Islamist armed groups have been gaining power and presence in the region over the past decade. This is due to Burkina Faso´s political instability, which might have created a power vacuum in the regions in the north of the country. According to the Guardian, “Burkina Faso’s poorest areas in the north and east have been neglected, with the government providing minimal health services, education, jobs and infrastructure. Locals have in response forged links with militant groups – who promised, and delivered, more services than the state – and have taken up arms.” The country has also suffered from the security chaos in Mali, its Northern neighbor. Overall, nearly 700 people have died in Burkina Faso since 2015 and more than 500,000 have been internally displaced. This humanitarian crisis needs to be dealt with in a peaceful and conscientious manner. Thus, Burkina Faso´s government should develop a long term strategy aimed at fostering a more inclusive and cohesive society, one in which people in the north are protected from radical groups and can live their lives in peace. 


The terrorist attacks have shaken an ethnically and religiously diverse country. According to a census conducted by the country´s government in 2019, more than 60.5% of the population adheres to Islam and around 23.2% of Burkina Faso´s population is Christian. There is fear that the attacks might spark religious tensions and plunge the country into further ethnic and religious unrest. According to Human Rights Watch, “atrocities by Islamist armed groups in Burkina Faso´s northern Sahel Region and by security forces during counterterrorism operations have left scores dead and created widespread fear and displacement. The violence has forced tens of thousands of villagers to flee since early 2019.”  Thus, violence is spreading throughout the country and, as always, civilians are suffering the worst part. 


Villagers from the Northern Sahel regions seem to be caught in a very dangerous power struggle between the Islamic rebel groups and the Government´s security forces. According to Human Rights Watch, the Islamic rebels are executing those who refuse to collaborate with them and have instituted their laws in the regions. The government has allegedly responded to the situation with summary executions of suspected Islamists and provided no long term solutions to the problem. Human Rights Watch adds that “confronting the expansion of armed Islamists in Burkina Faso by executing suspects will only fuel the cycle of violence and abuse. The government should stop the abuse and commit itself to a lawful and rights-respecting counterterrorism strategy.” Thus, Burkina Faso´s government should try to recover lost ground in the North of the country by rebuilding public trust in the State´s ability to deliver better jobs, schools and hospitals. Preventing the spread of religious extremism with repression has never been a successful political strategy. Meanwhile, the attack that killed over 37 people and left 60 wounded near Bongou last Wednesday seems to be proof that violence is spreading to other regions in the country.