Burkina Faso Reckons With Civilian Massacres

On Monday, November 1st, 10 civilians were executed by armed militants and four others are believed to have been kidnapped. According to government sources, the civilians were intercepted by unidentified, armed men on their way to the market town of Markoye. The recent attack adds to the growing number that have taken place across Burkina Faso as its dilapidated security state wrestles with the threat of Islamic militarism.

The town toward which the murdered civilians were travelling neighbours the tri-border area at which Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso meet. In recent years, the region has acted as a deluge for hasty and bloody assaults on quotidian life. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), over 1.3 million Burkinabe residents have been displaced by conflict and violence during the past two years. Such figures parallel well-known horrors in Syria and Yemen, yet the despair in Burkina Faso receives infinitesimal media coverage.

Only a day prior to the murders near Markoye, five policemen were killed on the Mali borderlands; both attacks were carried out by armed militants with suspected links to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In the month of August alone, 30 people were killed by fundamentalist assailants in the towns and regions surrounding Markoye. One local official reported that the jihadists often cut the throats of their victims and enjoy looting, stealing, and kidnapping in the municipalities in which they wreak havoc. The Burkina Faso government is struggling to compete with highly mobile strike units that have poured into the nation, mostly from Mali and Niger, and whose attacks are sporadic and horrific in their intensity and lack of regard for human life. President Roch Kabore told journalists on the same day as the Markoye attack that the nation would “get through it together, or not at all,” in a remark that sums up the ephemeral yet imperative need to flush out the insurgency.

In July, the President assumed the role of Minister of Defense after dismissing the former officeholder as well as the minister of security. This acted as a prelude to a supposed reformation of the nation’s counterterrorism strategy. Yet, in the face of continuous unsettling attacks, it appears that more tangible and less superficial alterations need to be made in order for the government to combat the armed assailants terrorizing its people. Jacob Yarabatioula, a professor of sociology at Joseph ki Zerbo University in the capital, Ouagadougou, claims that “people are [becoming] more and more demanding” in light of persistent besiegement. Protests against the government will increase if the situation does not improve.

The army has proven itself to be ill-fitted to protect its citizenry. Reporting from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) buttress this point as their data reveals that civilian deaths have increased by more than 300% from May to August compared to January to April 2021 (80 to 335). On June 4th, 160 people were massacred by gunmen in the mining town of Solhan. The pivot towards killing civilians may be due to certain provinces’ support for and provision of volunteer fighters who augment military ranks. Heni Nsaibia, a researcher at ACLED, posits that infighting and pseudo-political squabbling within terrorist groups could be the cause of more civilian deaths. Lack of cohesion within Al-Qaeda linked groups like Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) may be fueling erratic behaviour among jihadists. The synthesis of “umbrella ideologies” that attempt to accommodate the doctrinal deviations of all usually fall short and end in schismatic splintering’s, the byproduct of which is shock attacks with little strategy and less tact.

To make matters even worse for those in Burkina Faso, the United Nations has warned that approximately 600,000 people are at risk of food insecurity. In a report sent to the AFP, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated that “non-state armed groups targeting farmers and civilians will have serious repercussions this year on the already precarious food situation.” Unfortunately, until the government of Burkina Faso can stem the flow of violence, it will not be sufficiently suited to tackle a food crisis – not to mention the fact that food insecurity is a probable catalyst for internecine conflict.

So, what can be done?

In an attack in April this year, 69 people were killed in an ambush on a delegation travelling with the local mayor (who was also killed in the attack). The culprits are believed to be members of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Interestingly, a local source claimed that the attack was targeted at the Vigilance Committees, a local anti-jihadist defense force headed by the mayor of the Banibangou district. The armed group was established by disillusioned locals who became frustrated with the lacklustre protection from the central government and took their safety into their own hands by hunting down assailants and protecting farm workers. Thus, I think the best course of action for President Kabore is to encourage the creation of more Vigilance Committees and funnel financial resources and weaponry to them. A cogent government operation could be orchestrated whereby local defense militias partner with the military to combat the threat of radical jihadism. An information-sharing system would allow the government to track the movements of mercurial attack units more closely and would enable quicker response times from the military as an open communication network would facilitate coordinated offensive and defensive moves. Overall, I think this is the best strategy for Burkina Faso to move forward, at least for the time being. The conflicts raging in Mali and the world’s poorest nation, Niger, are unlikely to stop anytime soon. Thus, Burkina Faso is geographically surrounded by radical violence, the perpetrators of which are ever elusive. So, in the long term, I believe an international response would be prudent. Possibly one led by the African Union or the United Nations; not by actors who solely represent their own nation and its interests.

Emmet McGeown

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