The recent uptick of violence in the Sahel region has manifest notably in Burkina Faso, where the government is scrambling to pacify the nation. Attacks on towns and civilian infrastructure by a variety of militant forces have become a devastatingly regular occurrence, and the West African nation is now home to over 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). There are few clearly defined organizations or collectives responsible for these attacks—they are instead predominantly unorganized factions motivated by political opposition to the government, support and connections to the old Compaoré regime, or communalist, ethnic divisions within Burkina Faso.
Although the country has rarely been immune from violence, the last two years (and especially the last few months) draw a stark contrast to Burkina Faso’s previously enjoyed reputation as a relatively peaceful and stable nation in West Africa. According to the UN, there has been a 500% increase in the number of people displaced as a result of conflict, and various UN bodies have independently declared the recent situation an ‘escalating humanitarian crisis,’ declaring that over two million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance. This previously unprecedented scale of violence and instability has thrown the new Prime Minister Christophe Dabire into a crisis he is unprepared for.
The predominant response of the government has been a militaristic one, but this has been let down by both the under-resourcing of Burkina Faso’s armed forces and the fundamental misdirection of this strategy. Despite military assistance from France, which has increased its troop deployment in the area as part of its ongoing commitment to Sahel nations (including Mali and Niger), the military remains incapable of adequately addressing the decentralized various military groups responsible for the ongoing attacks. More disastrously, in January 2020, Burkina Faso’s military announced that it would recruit civilians—to be provided with only two weeks of training before their deployment—in order to counter the ongoing threat. While arguing that this is a necessary step to take in addressing the under-resourcing and under-staffing of Burkina Faso’s army, it remains almost certain that those who enlist will end up as fodder, sacrificed in an unwinnable war between the state and the numerous militia groups.
Rather than pursue militaristic solutions that are doomed either to fail or to necessitate unacceptably high losses of life, the national government and its allies ought to target the root causes of the underlying issues. Many of the militia groups and terrorist cells attempt to intensify and play off racial or ethnic tensions within the country as a means of recruitment, even though there is no clear ethnic basis for the domestic conflicts. Instead, attempts to make citizens aware of this manufactured division through official popular communication, as well as policies and language that increase national unity and resist division are essential in countering this threat and removing the power held by the relevant armed groups. Similarly, many other reasons for conflict are intensified and increased by issues of resource scarcity in the area, which the international community must seek to rectify through humanitarian, rather than military, assistance.
The conflict in Burkina Faso represents a challenge faced by many other nations—that of how to properly address increasing levels of violence—but the attempts to solve this crisis through force will only worsen it.