Burkina Faso is experiencing an unprecedented wave of jihadi militant violence, undermining its reputation for stability in a region beset with terrorism and violence.
– Burkina Faso has suffered a spiral of unrest with militant insurgent groups increasing their attacks
– Jihadi insurgent groups often exploit inter-communal grievances, as witnessed in neighbouring Mali
– Armed groups will remain a threat to Burkina Faso’s social fabric until security forces are reformed and inter-communal violence and economic grievances are addressed
Burkina Faso has experienced an extraordinary spike in violence, with some 267,000 people being displaced by conflict since July alone. On November 6, a number of unknown gunmen killed 37 people in a mining convoy in the most deadly attack in recent Burkinable history. The sudden uptick in violence has had a devastating effect on all sectors of Burkina Faso but agriculture and education have been hit particularly hard. Consequently some 330,000 schoolchildren are out of school and reports abound of jihadis burning schools and threatening teachers. This violence has undermined Burkina Faso’s reputation as a safe haven in a region of conflict.
A DECLINE OF SECURITY
Authorities in Burkina Faso have struggled to assert authority in the northern regions that border Mali since the ousting of long-standing dictator, Blaise Compaoré, in a 2014 popular revolution. Compaoré was known for his brutality towards dissent and his alleged secretive deals with militant groups in exchange for their neutrality. Following Compaoré’s removal, a steady deterioration of security along the northern border ensued, with armed groups infiltrating from Mali. Burkinabe citizens faced their first terrorist attack in history in 2016. Since then, armed groups have penetrated Burkina Faso’s eastern and southwestern regions and extended their presence to approximately one-third of the country. On January 1, the government declared a state of emergency.
Among the militant groups exerting their presence on Burkinabe life is Ansurul Islam, a domestic jihadist group largely composed of ethnic Peul fighters lead by Jafar Dicko, and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam Wa al-Muslimeen (JNIM), an umbrella coalition of al-Qaeda affiliated groups led by Tuareg militant leader Iyad Ag Ghali. al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) also comprise transnational jihadi presence in the region — the latter has been reported to cooperate with JNIM,
As experienced in Mali, militant jihadi groups have been taking advantage of security gaps and tensions in Burkina Faso. Most problematic is the country’s arid north, where Burkinabe authorities have lost control of remote border regions, allowing insurgents to operate with impunity. Militants frequently attack military and civilian targets, and concerns are now being raised regarding the spread of violence to neighbouring coastal countries such as Benin, Togo, and Ghana.
ISGS, Ansural Islam and JNIM have embedded themselves with local criminal networks and enjoy significant freedom of movement, control and extraction from artisanal gold mines, run fake checkpoints to root out security services, and even implement Sharia-style prohibitions on music, prostitution, and Dolo (a traditional beer). ISGS is involved in the illicit trafficking of drugs, arms, and people. The jihadi insurgency has also become intertwined with inter-communal tensions and violence. Militant groups, particularly Dicko’s Ansural Islam, exploit social grievances, typically culminating in violence directed towards the traditionally nomadic Peuls, who comprise approximately 8.4% of the population but have strong ethnic ties across the Sahel. Peul herdsmen, largely excluded from education and political influence, are often characterised as jihadis, or at least sympathisers. Divisions such as this are destabilising Burkinabe social fabric and leading to ethnic clashes, such as the Yirgou Massacre, where forty-six people were killed.
Burkina Faso has seen an ‘explosion’ of school closures, as jihadis have taken the battle to the classroom. Approximately 2000 schools were closed at the end of the last academic year, raising fears of radicalisation of idle school-aged children. These closures have undermined a years-long push from the government and aid agencies to boost enrollment, especially among young girls. Significant progress had been made. However, with reports of teachers being murdered and schools being burned, progress is in reverse. Although some options have been floated, including the grouping of thousands of students under Burkinabe armed guard in the summer holiday period for remedial classes and radio-based lessons, these initiatives are becoming less feasible and were never intended to be an indefinite replacement for the classroom.
PROSPECTS FOR THE FUTURE
The shortcomings of security services in the face of this recent violence, the prominence of inter-communal violence, and the economic grievances of Burkinabe citizens make the cessation of militant violence in the near future unlikely.
A Human Rights Watch report discussed the heavy-handed tactics employed by military forces towards suspected jihadi militants, including extra-judicial killings, abuse of suspects in custody and arbitrary arrests. Human Rights Watch warned these actions often aggravate tensions. A disproportionate amount of the abuse is directed towards the Peul, alienating them from the military and making them reticent to cooperate or support military operations. Additionally, the abuse contributes to overall lawlessness in affected areas, which groups like ISGS and JNIM thrive on.
The military’s chronic lack of equipment contributes to its ineffectiveness. Senior military commanders have raised this, warning of ‘serious trouble’ unless they received additional support, particularly training, intelligence, and equipment. Concerns regarding an ineffectual military are twofold: not only is the risk of a protracted, widespread insurgency increased, but security threats to foreign companies operating in Burkina Faso could endanger further business, potentially compounding economic woes.
The inter-communal violence that seemingly targets Peul communities enables groups like JNIM and ISGS to exploit local and historical grievances to their advantage. Described by some analysts as perhaps the biggest threat to Burkina Faso’s stability, aggravated tensions in outlying Burkinabe provinces often revolve around stigmatisation of Peul communities. ‘Self-defence’ groups, called Koglweogo, similar to those found in Mali, have at times undertaken vigilante operations against Peul communities. Inter-communal violence like this provides a fertile ground for extremist recruiters.
The economic grievances of Burkinabe citizens aggravate anti-government sentiment, contributing to a general disillusionment with the government that jihadi militants seek to exploit. With an estimated 44% of the population living in poverty and a lack of critical infrastructure, many Burkinabe citizens feel a sense of abandonment. This perception of government ineptitude and dereliction only serves to reinforce jihadi anti-government narratives and sap support from the state.
There are some promising signs in Burkina Faso’s battle against the multipronged insurgency. Notably, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a community comprised of diverse West African economies, recently pledged $1 billion to combat jihadi violence in the region. The plan is for a common fund to be financed from 2020–2024 to reinforce military operations of participating nations as well the joint military actions. This should assist affected militaries at least with equipment requirements.
Militarily, greater resources may soon be available to authorities. Alongside the $1 billion ECOWAS pledge, the French government has announced a troop deployment to Burkina Faso. The region’s former dominant colonial power, France already has 4,500 troops headquartered in Chad under Operation Barkhane, but the additional support should provide further training, law enforcement, and intelligence.
Nevertheless, for a country with a prior reputation for calm, these encouraging signs are limited. Inextricably linked to the broader Sahel and to the jihadi insurgent movement in it, the regional lessons are concerning. Mali’s experience suggests there is no quick fix to removing armed groups such as JNIM and, with a considerable backlog of grievances, it is difficult to envisage jihadi groups being expunged anytime soon.