On Monday 28th of December 2020, Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Kaboré promised to make reconciliation, stability, and security his priority focus for his second and final term as the country descends into violence and economic crisis. The violent security crisis Burkina Faso (BF) faces is due to the rise of armed groups and Islamist militant attacks. Although Burkina Faso was a relatively stable country in the Sahel region in Africa, Kaboré’s first term was marked by increasing fatalities related to the conflict, worsening societal and economic problems, and a fast-growing humanitarian crisis.
Reuters reports that in 2020 alone, Islamist insurgents with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIL) have killed more than 2,000 people in attacks in Burkina Faso. Aljazeera recounts how the conflict began in neighbouring Mali where, since 2012, armed groups with links to terror groups took control over large parts of the country. The conflict spilled over into Burkina Faso after President Blaise Compaore’s attempt to extend his 27-year rule resulted in an insurrection for democracy and Compaore’s exile. Aljazeera holds that Compaore’s exile was the “triggering event” for the conflict spillover, as he was suspected of having a pact with Malian rebels that allowed them to refuge in Burkina Faso in exchange for non-aggression.
The loss of a non-aggression pact with rebel leaders helps explain the increase of fatalities in the five years since Kaboré came into power. As Aljazeera reports, since 2015, the armed groups have gained control of Burkina Faso’s north and east. They quote Heni Nsaibia, an analyst for ACLED, “In the last two years, [Burkina Faso has] replaced Mali as the epicentre of armed attacks attributed to jihadi militant groups.” One of Kaboré’s strategies to combat this violence is through the creation of security “bubbles” around the country’s major cities through military fortification and restricting citizen movement. Aljazeera quotes Rinaldo Depange, West Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group think-tank, who characterizes Kaboré’s first term strategy as a “muscular” and confrontational approach in dealing with the armed groups. While campaigning for a second term, Kaboré stated he would continue refusing to negotiate with the fighters, differentiating from his opponents who promoted negotiations and opening channels with rebel leaders.
Along with the emergence of rebel fighters, Kaboré’s term also saw the rise of vigilantes. Aljazeera reports although vigilante groups were at first disapproved of by the government, a law that passed last January allowed for the creation of an armed and trained civilian defense force to assist the military. Aljazeera also notes that the presence of vigilante groups at Kaboré’s campaign rallies – despite facing accusations from human rights groups of carrying out atrocities and massacres against civilians, particularly against the nomadic Fulani ethnic groups – indicates the government has handed over part of the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Human rights groups have growing concerns that these groups cause more violence than the violence they seek to prevent. Nsaibia states, “State-sanctioned violence has increased at the hands of government forces and state-backed groups…” Aljazeera further reports on the accusations of the army and military police using draconian measures to achieve justice when dealing with terror suspects, such as “widely reported extrajudicial killings.” They have also received multiple reports, especially from ethnic Fulanis, which claim arbitrary detention by security forces and police on ambiguous terrorism charges. Additionally, no trials for these crimes have ever taken place although there are hundreds of suspects in prisons. Nsaibia cements these concerns stating Kaboré’s approach, “…has been heavy-handed even by subregional standards when comparing the targeting of civilians by government forces in…the three countries primarily concerned by the Sahel crisis. Overall, the approach appears to have fuelled more than it has reduced militancy.” With the number of deaths due to violence by state and state-backed forces reaching similar levels to those killed by rebel armed groups, it is clear why many were left disappointed by Kaboré.
The conflict has resulted in the displacement of more than one million people. It has also further affected Burkina Faso’s economy, with many countries marking it as unsafe for travel and Burkina Faso’s primary export targeted for attacks. Aid organizations fail to access many areas of their country because they are unable to determine whether it is safe to distribute. Another consequence of the violence has been the disruption to the electoral process; Reuters estimates that nearly seven percent of the electorate were unable to vote. Aljazeera further reports that the independent electoral commission was unable to hold voter registration in more than 17 percent of the BF’s municipalities and that according to reports submitted, rebel groups participated in voter intimidation.
Kaboré’s plans to launch consultations in the next few months to reach “true national reconciliation” is a start. During these consultations, it will be necessary to examine the broader sources of conflict that stem from colonialism. Kaboré is heading in the correct direction, when as quoted by Aljazeera, he stated that these consultations need to consider the “political, economic and blood crimes that from [independence from France in] 1960 to this very day have continued to poison relationships.” The government should enact curriculum and programs that educate citizens on biological, historical, and social realities. Additionally, the government needs to publicly denounce vigilante groups. The government must also be held responsible for any discriminatory practices towards citizens, with the creation of an independent body that specifically monitors terrorism charges and reviews evidence. The government should ensure that temporary camps where internally displaced people reside are not segregated to prevent further divisions. Enacting programs that attempt to reconcile ethnic divisions and an end to discriminatory practices can help put an end to armed groups preying on ethnic divisions for recruitment. Widespread poverty, weakened institutions, and the competition for resources also drive the rise of these armed groups. As the humanitarian organization Refugees International notes, “there is no purely military solution to these crises” and to help overcome violent competition, humanitarian funding must at minimum match the military support the area receives. Burkina Faso needs drastic change to address the interrelated increasing violence, the worsening economic conditions, and increasing displacement of people. If Kaboré is unable to implement a successful strategy for security, his government could face protests, or worse the fairly new democracy could face the threat of a coup attempt.
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