By Billy Agwanda
Until 2015, Burkina Faso, a landlocked West African country with a population of 22 million, remained untouched by the array of jihadist groups operating in the Sahel. Prior to 2015, it was even considered to be an ‘island of stability’. Analysts and researchers opined that with its history of religious tolerance, Burkina Faso would be relatively insulated from the fragmented jihadi coalitions operating in neighboring countries such as Mali. However, according to the 2023 Global Terrorism Index Report, Burkina Faso has become a focal point of the crisis in the Sahel, ranking second behind Afghanistan and two places above Mali. The cumulative impact of this instability is reflected in the 2023 Fragile State Index (FSI), in which Burkina Faso recorded its highest score in the 18-year history of the Index, ranking 21st with 94 points out of a possible maximum of 120. Across the 12 indicators captured by the Index, Burkina Faso’s situation deteriorated in 10.
Due to an increasing frequency of deadly attacks, the Burkinabé military has been involved in counterinsurgency operations against extremist groups that occupy pockets of ungoverned territory since 2015. It is believed that the government controls slightly over 50% of the country’s territory, though the actual figure could be even lower. In addition, it is estimated that the number of attacks by extremists increased throughout the year such that by December of 2022, over 1,135 people had been killed, which is a 50% more than the total fatalities recorded in 2021, while more than 2 million people had been displaced.
In 2022, Burkina Faso experienced two coups within a single year (January and September) –– critical developments that exacerbated the already fragile political and economic environment in the country. In March, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba, the leader of the coup in January, was sworn in as the transitional government’s president after the detention and deposition of President Christian Kaboré, the dissolution of parliament and government, and the establishment of a military junta. Reports highlight that the January coup was welcomed on the domestic front, as large crowds were witnessed in Ouagadougou’s national square celebrating the coup by playing music, singing, blowing horns and dancing. These celebrations were said to point to a feeling of reprieve occasioned by the decline in public confidence in the government’s counterinsurgency efforts. However, on the international front, the coup was strongly condemned as illegitimate. Burkina Faso was quickly suspended from the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.
Then, Burkina Faso experienced a second coup less than nine months later in September, when a 34-year-old army captain, Ibrahim Traoré, ousted Damiba. Similar to his predecessor, Mr. Traoré justified the coup on the basis of the deteriorating security situation resulting from the growing threat of jihadist-inspired terrorism. The September coup was triggered by an attack on September 26 by al-Qaeda linked jihadists on a 150-truck convoy carrying food to Djibo, one of the major cities in the war-torn north, and which resulted in the death of 37 people, of which 27 were soldiers. The city of 60,000 people had been under siege by terror groups for 18 months. Upon taking power, Traoré announced plans to create six new rapid intervention units and recruit 50,000 civilians as army auxiliaries to support the counterinsurgency efforts. Given that the coup occurred within the military, which was already running the country following the January coup, no significant public reaction was observed on the domestic front. However, the international community once again condemned the coup and countries such as the United States took additional punitive measures such as reducing aid by $160 million and removing Burkina Faso from a bilateral trade facilitation program. After the Ibrahim Traoré’s inauguration in October, a transitional period was established under a Transition Charter, to be managed by a civilian prime minister–Joachim Kyelem, and a transitional legislative assembly. The Charter established a 24-month timeline culminating in 2024, when constitutional order is expected to be restored.
The perceived shortcomings of the Burkinabé military in the face of the jihadist insurgency threat led to the establishment of self-defense militias in affected areas. These operate unchecked and unsupervised, contributing to the perpetration of acts of violence against civilians, including killings and massacres. A report by Human Rights Watch highlighted that significant human rights violations were observed, including unlawful, extrajudicial, and arbitrary killings by security forces, state-sponsored militias, and extremist groups. The Report also noted other issues such as corruption, lack of accountability for gender-based violence, inhumane prison conditions, restrictions on free expression, violence against journalists, and human rights abuses in local conflicts. Finally, crimes that involved violence or threats of violence directed at members of national, racial, and ethnic minorities were also reported.
As a consequence of the strains created by social and political dynamics, Burkina Faso’s economic development regressed in 2022. Although the economy had registered a robust 6.9% recovery in 2021, the growth rate slowed down to 2.5% in 2022. This was partly driven by low productivity in the mining sector, which recorded a 4.9% contraction in 2022 as a result of the closure of several mines for security reasons. In the 2023 FSI, Burkina Faso’s highest level of pressure was in the Security Apparatus indicator, with a score of 9.3 out of 10. This is the highest score for the indicator since the beginning of the FSI in 2006.
The departure of French military forces from Mali in August 2022, marking the end of a nearly decade-long military presence, perhaps represented the most significant transformation of the security dynamics in the Sahel. French counterterrorism operations had constituted a vital deterrence to jihadist groups, who were often compelled to adopt covert methods to avoid detection by drones and planes, refraining from using phones, reducing group sizes, and only coordinating minimally. However, the withdrawal of French troops from Mali in particular has had a far-reaching impact in the whole region, including in countries such as Burkina Faso, because it has created the perception of a power vacuum and emboldened jihadists to perpetrate violence against civilians, government officials, and security forces.
In 2022, France experienced strained relations with Mali, leading to the eviction of the French ambassador to Mali in January 2022, and subsequently resulting in France’s withdrawal from the country. Since then, in Burkina Faso, there was also an increase of popular anti-France sentiment, and the junta regime demanded the withdrawal of French forces, which they did in February 2023. In their absence, reports have indicated that the Russian mercenary Wagner Group may seek to fill the vacuum. The Wagner Group has shown limited effectiveness in combating jihadist organizations in Africa. In Mozambique, for example, they suffered significant defeats at the hands of the Islamic State Central African Province and were forced to withdraw in November 2015 from the Cabo Delgado province. And compared to the French forces, Wagner troops are logistically fewer, less experienced, and less well-equipped for an effective counterinsurgency. Since the arrival of Wagner in December 2021 in Mali, there has been a surge in violence against civilians. One of the most egregious incidents occurred in late March 2022, when Wagner troops carried out a five-day siege in the central Malian town of Moura, resulting in the massacre of over 300 civilians.
As Western powers begin to disengage from places like Afghanistan and the Sahel, in favor of other geopolitical priorities, the question of what is left behind and who fills the gap remains a pressing concern. One way or another, the challenges of governance, poverty, and violent extremism must be confronted through security, social, political, and economic development strategies. Fragility still matters.
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