Extremist Groups in Burkina Faso May Threaten the Rest of West Africa

Published September 3rd, 2019 - 11:28 GMT
Protesters pose with a police shield outside the parliament in Ouagadougou on October 30, 2014 /AFP
Protesters pose with a police shield outside the parliament in Ouagadougou on October 30, 2014 /AFP


In October 2014, a million people march through the streets of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, in protest against attempts by ex-President Blaise Compaoré to remove Presidential term limits and continue to rule the country that he had led in a semi-authoritarian manner since the late 1980s.

A diverse opposition movement mobilised against Compaoré’s attempted constitutional manoeuvres and eventually saw off the President himself, Compaoré fleeing to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire under continuous public pressure.

Activists applied pressure to ensure a transition of power did not fall into the hands of the country’s long politicised military, braved an attempted coup by forces loyal to Mr Compaoré, and facilitated the holding of free elections in Burkina Faso. Amidst an optimistic atmosphere and bolstered by a young, energised and hopeful democratic movement, the future looked bright for the poor West African nation.


 

Yet half a decade later, Burkina Faso is gripped by a deteriorating security situation which threatens to spiral out of control. According to ACLED, an NGO which monitors political violence globally, ‘militant violence has increased exponentially across Burkina Faso’. Since 2015, armed Islamist groups have carried out hundreds of attacks across Burkina Faso.

This has escalated year on year. Whilst only 3 attacks were recorded in 2015, by 2018, this figure stood at 137. Though a state of emergency was declared over 14 provinces of Burkina Faso in December 2018, the International Committee for the Red Cross recorded as many armed incidents in the first three months of 2019 as in the whole of 2018.

In late August, gunmen killed 24 soldiers in Koutougou in the country’s northern Soum Province and as many as 230,000 people have been displaced by ongoing violence. This displacement helps exacerbate instability and has generated an acute humanitarian crisis.

The World Food Program estimates that 700,000 Burkinabé have been forced into starvation and nearly 1 million children are undernourished. Schools, health facilities and camps run by international organisations have been shuttered in response to security concerns.
 

The World Food Program estimates that 700,000 Burkinabé have been forced into starvation and nearly 1 million children are undernourished. Schools, health facilities and camps run by international organisations have been shuttered in response to security concerns.

What explains the sudden uptick of violence in a once relatively calm pocket of the Sahel? How can it be stemmed and what might increased instability augur for Burkina Faso and the volatile region in which it finds itself? 

Regional factors are certainly at play when it comes to explaining Burkina Faso’s deteriorating security situation. An expansion of extremist activity in Burkina Faso has its roots in Mali which has entered its eighth consecutive year of conflict. A 2012 uprising among Tuareg populations in northern Mali and a coup d’état to topple the Malian government paved the way for a surge of Islamist violence in the country, aided by a proliferation of arms in the region following the Libyan Revolution.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seized large swathes of territory and held de-facto control in much of Northern Mali. Scholars point to the existence of a ‘Regional Security Complex’ in which conflict has mutated and spread across porous borders in the Sahara-Sahel region.
 

Scholars point to the existence of a ‘Regional Security Complex’ in which conflict has mutated and spread across porous borders in the Sahara-Sahel region.

Militants forced out of Mali by French military operations have fled to neighbouring states, where conditions are more hospitable for regrouping. In Burkina Faso, AQIM and a local group, al-Mourabitoun merged in 2016, before forming a new group in March 2017 known as the Group of Support for Islam and Muslims (JNIM). Other transnational actors have made their presence felt in Burkina Faso, including Islamic State’s regional affiliate, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

Both ISGS and JNIM maintain close relations with Ansarul Islam, a group formed in northern Burkina Faso in 2016. Ongoing conflicts in neighbouring states, the proliferation of a large-scale arms trade in the Maghreb, and the existence of influential global Islamist movements all bolster the emergence of extremist activity in Burkina Faso.

Whilst Burkina Faso has little history of Islamist extremism and has long been known for a culture of religious co-existence and inter-communal peace between its roughly 60 different ethnic groups, a new wave of violence feeds off local grievances and is enabled by domestic political and economic circumstances.
 

State security on the eve of the G5 Sahel summit in Ouagadougou, Jan 2019 /AFP
 

According to Jared Thompson, a researcher on Burkina Faso at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced Studies, the primary factor at play when considering the country’s deteriorating security situation is the weakness of state institutions in the Sahel. In much of northern and eastern Burkina Faso, the state and its security apparatus enjoy only a nominal presence. Whilst the extent of conflict ‘should not be overstated and the government still has control over the majority of the country’, large areas of land which lack a strong state presence, particularly along porous international borders, prove a welcome safe haven for militant groups.

Ongoing conflicts in neighbouring states, the proliferation of a large-scale arms trade in the Maghreb, and the existence of influential global Islamist movements all bolster the emergence of extremist activity in Burkina Faso.

Border regions in the Sahel, which have often been exploited by criminal networks involved in kidnapping and smuggling could be co-opted by jihadist groups, providing more advanced and heavy weaponry and hard currency to make inroads in areas where they may have a limited support base and presence. This ‘jihadization of banditry’ has long been key to the success of extremist groups operating in inhospitable regions of the Sahara, as well as in the Syrian and Iraqi desert.

This ‘jihadization of banditry’ has long been key to the success of extremist groups operating in inhospitable regions of the Sahara, as well as in the Syrian and Iraqi desert.

Eloïse Bertrand, a researcher on Burkinabé politics at Warwick University argues that armed groups have also successfully exploited long-standing grievances and low-level conflict to garner recruits and resources.

Though Burkina Faso has a reputation for peaceful co-existence, conflicts have escalated between nomadic populations and farmers. As population growth has increased and climate change has let agricultural regions prone to drought and desertification, competition over land use has grown more severe.

The most widespread ethnic group conflict extant in Burkina Faso involves the semi-nomadic Peulh population whose principal source of income derives from migrating with their cattle and farmers, who claim their land is overgrazed and rendered unfit for production by the destructive habits of cattle.

Lacking strong state institutions and legal frameworks related to property ownership, conflicts over land and other resources such as potable water, of which landlocked Burkina Faso is in short supply, threaten to escalate. Jihadist groups have been especially keen to recruit amongst Peulh communities, who seek protection for their economic interests.

Additionally, jihadist groups have turned to tested strategies to confect ethno-sectarian conflict. Mr Thompson notes that insurgent groups have ‘assassinated traditional chiefs and leaders who have played an incredibly important role in resource management and social cohesion’.
 

as Ms Bertrand suggests, the deliberate targeting of Christian populations in the north of the country is aimed at pitting religious communities against one another, proving a potential inroad for Islamist movements offering support in sectarian disputes.

Without leadership structures, the delicate social balance of rural Burkinabé communities is at great risk of fraying. Secondly, as Ms Bertrand suggests, the deliberate targeting of Christian populations in the north of the country is aimed at pitting religious communities against one another, proving a potential inroad for Islamist movements offering support in sectarian disputes. Though religious leaders have been unanimous in denouncing sectarian violence, the increasingly overt targeting of Christian worshippers and leaders may encourage reprisal attacks, escalating an already tense situation.
 

Burkina Faso troops ride in military vehicles on October 30, 2014 in Ouagadougou /AFP


The Government’s abusive counterinsurgency strategy risks inflaming conflict further, unwittingly driving people into the hands of Islamist recruiters. Reports by a Burkinabé human rights agency, the Burkinabé movement for Human and Peoples’ Rights has documented widespread summary execution of those suspected of aiding jihadist groups.

Indeed, as documented by ACLED, armed forces have been responsible for more deaths than militants in recent months. Many victims have been ethnic Peuhls. Mr Thompson argues that any successful counterinsurgency effort must ‘operate within human rights norms’ and ‘prioritise civilian outreach’. Though counterinsurgency operations may prove valuable in the short term, as Mr Thompson astutely notes, ‘conflict is not going to get better if all of the responses are military’.

Ms Bertrand and Mr Thompson both argue that economic grievances lay at the heart of political debate in the country. Burkina Faso is placed near the bottom of most development indicators and was ranked 183 out of 189 countries in terms of Human Development in 2018. The country remains dependent on uncertain sales of primary commodities, particularly gold, and young Burkinabé tend to be disappointed that the new regime has brought little change in relation to quality of life in the country.

Burkina Faso is placed near the bottom of most development indicators and was ranked 183 out of 189 countries in terms of Human Development in 2018.

Tensions between organised labour and government have increased in recent years, as the government has failed to honour collective bargaining agreements. Strikes by lawyers and media workers have been prominent in Ouagadougou this year. Economic conditions outside the national capital are especially dire.

Poor transportation links and dilapidated infrastructure force many to work in a subsistence capacity off the land, whose productivity is threatened particularly by a worsening ecological outlook. A failure to redress these economic woes may bring further instability to the country, leaving a vacuum that criminal networks and jihadist movements may prove keen to fill.

A deteriorating security situation and an increasingly volatile economic outlook do not bode well for Burkina Faso. The present crisis has already toppled one government in January of this year, and the main opposition party, the Union for Progress and Change has called for the government to step down, accusing it of failing to counter the Jihadist threat. As the country prepares for elections in 2020, issues around national security may become increasingly politicised and divisive.

Though Burkina Faso has made moderate progress in the direction of democratisation in recent years, next year’s elections will prove crucial in regard to monitoring political progress. Elections in 2015 attracted much scrutiny from regional bodies and the international community and were held in a relatively stable environment. Next year’s elections, likely to be held in a more uncertain atmosphere with less international interest, may prove less successful.

Observers have pointed to the adoption of a new penal code earlier this year

Observers have pointed to the adoption of a new penal code earlier this year in Burkina Faso, which outlaws publishing information that ‘demoralises the defence forces’, as evidence of a rolling back of media freedom vital to the functioning of a new democracy. Though there is little appetite for the return of authoritarian rule, disenchantment with the inability of democratically elected leaders to stabilise the nation is growing. A failure of democracy in Burkina Faso, after the much celebrated events of 2014-15 would prove a symbolic setback for the prospects of representative government regionally.

Instability in Burkina Faso may have wider implications yet. Accumulating territory and recruits in the Sahel and West Africa would embolden Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other militant groups to expand their activities in Africa, particularly as they seek to move their base of operations following military defeats in Iraq and Syria.  Burkina Faso has long served as a peaceful bulwark between the coastal states of West Africa to the South and the heightened jihadist presence in Mali and the broader Sahel to the North.

Failure in Burkina Faso may allow increased linkage between extremist movements in North and West Africa, an outcome which would have significant impacts on global security.

Failure in Burkina Faso may allow increased linkage between extremist movements in North and West Africa, an outcome which would have significant impacts on global security. Increased extremist activity in a rapidly growing region with weak governing institutions and ill-equipped security services would prove especially challenging for international agencies and western governments who have breathed a collective sigh of relief following successes against militant activity in the Middle East.

For now, Burkina Faso’s long history of peaceful ethno-sectarian co-existence and increasingly democratised civil society, is helping see through the difficulties posed by regional insecurity. The region’s future remains very much at stake. 
 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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