By Esu Anahata
Co-Founder, The BARKA Foundation
In October of 2014, Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in the heart of West Africa, was the toast of democracies around the world. Its people rose up in a relatively peaceful popular revolution that succeeded in overthrowing the authoritarian president, Blaise Compaoré, who tried one too many times to extend his 27-year regime. Compaoré was a strongman who forged cozy relations with terror factions, trading their safe harbor for security, something the nation’s democratically-elected government opted not to renew in 2016 when it came to power. Shortly after that, the first major terrorist attack took place in Ouagadougou at the Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino Café killing 30 people. Since then, Burkina has become one of the most dangerous places on the continent—the new ground zero for West African jihad.
My wife and I have operated a small UN-affiliated NGO focused on clean water, sanitation, hygiene and women’s empowerment in Burkina Faso since 2005. Last October, our on-the-ground staff told us it was impossible for us to return, due to security concerns. Since 2012, we’ve spent 6-9 months a year in “the Land of Upright People.” We have watched with horror the “alarming deterioration” that has unfolded in just the past five months. The nation currently suffers from almost daily terrorist attacks perpetrated by four distinct Islamist terrorist organizations. The impact on Burkina Faso has been catastrophic. This nation, one of the poorest and most water-stressed in the world, is ill-equipped to deal with the urgency, speed, scope, and complexity of the problem it now faces.
Jihadi threats and attacks on schools and the abduction/assassination of teachers have forced the closure of 1,135 schools in the country, and 154,000 students are without access to education—arguably one of the best weapons against terrorism. In addition, massive displacement is occurring, with 115,000 people forced to flee because of terrorist threats and violence – half of those in just the past eight weeks, at a rate of 1,000 people a day. The UN has sounded the alarm, estimating that 670,000 face food shortages and 1.2 million among Burkina’s population of 19 million are in dire need of humanitarian aid. The UN has asked for $100M to address this unprecedented humanitarian emergency.
There is now a curfew over one-third of the country. States of emergency (for what they’re worth) have been declared in all border provinces, and Burkina’s tourism industry has been dead since the first major attack three years ago. In cities like Ouagadougou and Fada N’Gourma (the capital of the eastern region where our NGO is based) the once-lively nightlife is now gone, replaced with military patrols from night until morning, crippling an already severely challenged economy.
The wheels are coming off the rails. Attacks are becoming more frequent, violent, innovative, and are expanding to almost all corners of the country. Administrative buildings, schools, security facilities, and entertainment venues have been targeted and destroyed. There have been 200 attacks in the past two years. One of the most flagrant occurred a year ago in Ouagadougou when the French Embassy and the military headquarters were attacked on the day the G5 Sahel, an international effort to combat terrorism in the Sahel, had been scheduled to meet there. A more brazen show of force is hard to imagine.
The most gruesome example of the escalation of violence is the implanting of IEDs (a growing menace on roads of the North and East regions) into dead bodies, effectively booby-trapping them. While most targets are military patrols (to intimidate and dominate), gendarme outposts (to restock weapons and supplies), and gold company convoys (to destabilize foreign investment and intercept gold transports), there has been a sharp uptick in civilian killings and kidnapping of locals and westerners. A Canadian gold exec was abducted and killed in January, and a young Canadian tourist and her Italian boyfriend have been missing since mid-December and are presumed to have been kidnapped. In the first high-profile kidnapping three years ago, Ken Elliot, a beloved 80-year-old surgeon and his wife who had spent 40 years providing medical services for the community of Djibo – a town in the center of terrorist activity in the North – were kidnapped. Mrs. Elliot was released after a month, but Dr. Elliot is still in captivity.
To make matters worse, as if they could be any worse, one of Burkina’s greatest strengths – its deeply embedded social cohesion – is being torn apart by ethnic conflicts arising out of this quagmire. Burkina is made up of more than 60 ethnic tribes which have lived together peacefully for centuries. The Peuhl or Fulani people, who are pastoralists and have at times had conflicts with farming communities, are being persecuted and accused of harboring or aiding terrorists. More than 200 were allegedly slaughtered in at least two incidents this year by the Burkinabe army and Koglweogo, a civilian vigilante group which has served as local law enforcement where the state’s writ does not reach. One of the links between the Fulani and Islamist terror groups is the association to Ansaroul Islam, Burkina Faso’s first indigenous terrorist group, established by the late Boureima Dicko, a Fulani radical Islamic preacher.
The Trump administration is providing $242M in military aid to the G5 Sahel’s force, which will grow to 5000 troops, however, the G5 Sahel has thus far been ineffective and slow to distribute funds. The US has pledged $100M in support over the next two years (vehicles, body armor, radios, night-vision goggles), three times the total for the previous 11 years. Not only is this insufficient, but African commanders cite that the equipment is not always effective. Land Cruisers, for example, lack the armor to protect against roadside bombs. In addition, last month the US Department of Defense said it would cut its forces in Africa by 10%, precisely at a time when it should be increasing its presence to get this escalating situation under control and prevent it from spreading to West African coastal countries.
As we are dealing with an encroaching insurgency, the solution lies in counter-insurgency, i.e., coordinated efforts between military, police, government and civil society to address the problem at its root. However human rights must be asserted forcefully, as abuses by the army and cover-ups by the government are playing into the terrorists’ hands, allowing radicals to enter villages as the defenders and protectors of the people. The global community needs to more aggressively support Burkina’s development trajectory so that the conditions in which Islamic militant groups flourish are less favorable. In the context of extreme poverty, a lack of public services, education, healthcare, a 70% unemployment rate, and government corruption, joining a terrorist group (offering food, motorcycle, Kalashnikov) is a viable choice. Burkina Faso must reinforce the legitimacy and effectiveness of its government, but it cannot do this alone. A perfect storm is forming, and if we do not take swift, bold and decisive action soon, the reverberations of our inaction will be felt around the world for years to come.