This week in Burkina Faso, 2.3 million new voters were registered for the upcoming presidential election. However, following a new law that justified the cancellation of voter registration under “force majeure,” the least secure 17.4% of the country was excluded from registration. In the same week that 417,465 Burkinabè were left disenfranchised, another 25 civilians were killed in the latest attack of what, according to Amnesty International, amounts to a full-scale armed conflict.
Burkina Faso has, until recently, been relatively peaceful compared to the rest of the Sahel region. But the country has seen a huge rise in violent attacks since 2018, and in 2019 it was the Sahelian country most targeted by jihadists. There were an estimated 2000 deaths last year, perpetrated not only by Ansaroul Islam, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM), and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) but by locally-organized defense militia and the Burkinabè armed forces. For example, on 8 March, 43 people were killed by one of the Koglweogo self-defense militia in Yatenga province, and on 9 April, 31 residents of the town of Djibo were executed by the government’s Groupement des Forces Anti-Terroristes (GFAT).
The government’s response to the jihadist threat in Burkina Faso continues to be mainly military, despite increasing reports of civilian deaths at the hands of the Burkinabè armed forces and of local defense militia. The Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland Act, approved in January, enables the recruitment of volunteer fighters to assist the Burkinabè army after only two weeks of training. This amounts to sponsoring the existing (and harmful) defense militia. International assistance is also military, with the French military presence increasing significantly last year as part of its Sahel-wide anti-terrorist military campaign.
The government has been criticized for its failure to clearly control the actions of its military. The electoral commission has also failed to disclose public access information on the details of this week’s restricted voter registration. Internationally, the Norwegian Refugee Council ranked Burkina Faso the third most neglected displacement crisis in the world this year. Amid this hush-hush war, the civilian population of Burkina Faso suffer at the hands of all military parties; one million people have now been displaced, huge areas of land have been cut off and villages burned, and 1.5 million have lost access to healthcare in the midst of a global pandemic.
The Burkinabè government is invisible to the rural population, who are struggling in a climate and land ownership crisis. A military offensive of abusive armed forces only adds to the popular discontent which makes the population ripe for jihadist recruitment. The war that the Burkinabè government and its international sponsors is waging “against jihadists” then, is in practice facilitating the jihadist movement. The side of this conflict which suffers the greatest loss is the civilian population; losing their lives, homes, and democratic rights, often at the hands of those who are supposedly their allies. The government should redirect its attention to the rural crisis which is the root cause of jihadist popularity in the country instead of waging a war against its own people.