Troubling times in Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso's security crisis and its new status quo of permanent military intervention will test the resilience of its political institutions.
Though much has changed for Burkina Faso since January 15, 2016, it hasn’t been for the better. On that day in Ouagadougou, a handful of gunmen took more than one hundred guests at Splendid Hotel hostage. They then killed 30 individuals and wounded dozens more by firing on civilians who had been enjoying their evening on the terrace of the popular café Cappuccino. An attack like this was previously unimaginable in the capital. But it now looms like a constant threat. Early 2016 marks the beginning of Burkina Faso’s association with terrorism, violent extremism, militant Islamism, jihad, and it could not have come at a worse time.
Months earlier, in the middle of a political transition, the Régiment de Sécurité Présidentielle—the most experienced, well-trained, and best equipped unit in the Burkinabè armed forces—staged a coup that failed and subsequently resulted in the unit’s dismantlement. The failed coup sparked a major overhaul of the security forces setting in motion reforms, which continue to present challenges for the security sector. Even more, the attack occurred on the seventeenth day of Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s presidency. Kaboré and his brand-new prime minister, Paul Thieba, formed the government on January 12, 2016—three days before the attack took place. (How many, do you think, of the newly appointed ministers had even made it to their offices?)
In the wake of what happened at Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino, imagine the internal chaos and scrambling that must have taken place as the new leaders tried to determine the best way to respond. Imagine the disappointment of all those who struggled to cling to the legitimizing narrative of a successful democratic transition. A transition made successful by the Burkinabè people’s determination and integrity, and indeed by their resistance and revolution. There must have been an immediate change in narrative as its irresistible magnetism drew the world’s attention to security in the capital and the threat of terrorism emanating from Mali. Given that magnetism, is it surprising that we are where we are today?
Today, news of attacks on security forces, assassinations of local leaders, the targeting of civilians, confrontations between community militias, and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons facing the threat of famine dominate headlines. Two years ago, this seemed unlikely, but the characteristic fragility of the state in Burkina Faso has rapidly eroded any semblance of state-delivered stability and security in the countryside.
It is not only the impact on communities in the countryside or people unlucky enough to suffer at the hands of these groups that are affected. Burkinabè friends, educated in the US and committed to “beating the brain drain” by finding work in la patrie, are now searching for jobs dehors. Colleagues and civil servants seeking to advance professionally have completely shifted their career trajectories, sensing that the winds of opportunity blow in accordance with the conflict and countering violent extremism (CVE). The big business of CVE has become a regional affair, after all. These indirect effects contribute to the transformation of the region and pose a potentially much more enduring challenge.
Not long ago, Africa Is a Country contributor and historian Greg Mann described the current situation in Mali as a “bloody scandal,” pointing to the failed efforts of the international community, regional leaders, Malian political elites, various security and armed forces and Bamako-based campaigns to curb violence and insecurity. Burkina Faso, on the other hand, had not, until recently, captured nearly the same amount of attention as Mali. Perhaps this is because the pace of violence for those tracking it has at times seemed slow during the last four years. Today, after the steady deterioration of security has led to hundreds of thousands displaced by conflict and at risk of famine, the violence has begun to attract significant international attention. Though, it remains unclear what good this might do.
More pernicious is the transformation of the region into the next “hot spot” given its ever expanding “red zone,” primed for the deployment of a European policy laboratory for future conflicts. This is the scandal. A handful of armed men have upended social order and destabilized the lives of millions making the powerful appear powerless—or worse indifferent. This tragedy has resulted in a containment response leading some to suggest a new status quo of permanent military intervention in a place where social cohesion and tolerance governed the land. The “bloody scandal” continues in Mali, and Burkina Faso just seems like the latest casualty.
Yet, national security initiatives do exist and much of what makes Burkina Faso special continues to persist. Even with the immense pressures resulting from instability and insecurity, political stability has, so far, been maintained. The political processes established during the 2015 political transition remain in place. Recent Burkinabè military operations like Ndofou and Otapuanu, despite their shortcomings, are underway in both the eastern and northern regions; potentially laying the foundation for renewed stability. That is assuming, of course, that the resources for these operations can be sustained and that security forces avoid the traps of heavy-handed human rights abuses.
Furthermore, there is little evidence that the armed insurgent groups terrorizing communities in Burkina Faso’s north and east have much support. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Ansaroul Islam, historically the two groups most active in Burkina Faso, show very little entrenched local support. Rather, they appear to derive their support from extorting communities in exchange for protection or by serving as a grievance vehicle for the most disgruntled and disillusioned in society—as has also been the case across the border in central Mali. There remains much to be done to restore elements of peace and stability to these areas, but the work has begun.
It is not difficult to envision a significantly worse situation. The popular protests that roiled the former regime and successfully ousted Blaise Compaoré could have continued. Steeped in the success of the popular insurrection, one can imagine continued protests and political instability over frustrations with the growing insecurity or even popular calls for military intervention. It would not be the first time in Burkina Faso’s history that a popular movement resulted in military rule. And yet, the military, despite its historically important influence in politics and despite arguably facing its most complex and challenging threat from the insurgencies destabilizing the Sahel, has remained subordinate to civilian leadership and governance.
These reminders and could-have-beens point to the hope that still exists in Burkina Faso. Yes, the number of violent events in Burkina Faso this year is projected to be many times higher than the number in past years. Yes, the northern and eastern regions are in a state of crisis which has been getting steadily worse. Yes, hundreds of thousands of displaced people are in need of aid. Yes, the government of Burkina Faso is confronting immense resource and capability constraints. But, most importantly, the government will be held to account for its efforts to address these challenges and for its efforts to deliver governance, peace, and stability. The Burkinabè people’s determination and integrity laid the foundation for political institutions, which persist, and if the government fails them, there will be a reckoning.