Extremist Expansion in Burkina Faso: Origins and Solutions

A man stands outside the Splendid Hotel after an extremist attack that killed 32 people. Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, January 20, 2016. (Sipa/Associated Press)

On May 1, the French army discovered large amounts of weapons and ammunition, including rocket launchers and explosives, in woods near the Malian city of Gao, just across the border from Burkina Faso. In a large-scale operation involving fighter jets, helicopters, paratroopers, and demining troops, 20 terrorists were “killed or captured” according to the military authorities. The materiel was apparently intended for fundamentalists—who have been crossing the border from Mali to Burkina Faso since 2016—trying to turn the latter country into a jihadist stronghold.

Widely unnoticed by the international community, the north of Burkina Faso has indeed faced a slow but steady increase in terrorist attacks in recent years. While its capital, Ouagadougou, is home to a thriving youth culture and is considered a center of African cinema in particular, Burkina Faso is one of the poorest landlocked West African nations. It is burdened with a steady loss of workforce and intellectual property to its neighbors to the north, a low living standard and rising levels of inequality.

For more than a year, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the previously little known Ansarul Islam (“Defenders of Islam”) have been trying to make the north of Burkina Faso a sub-Saharan stronghold. That could come in handy for building new jihadist alliances with the so-called Islamic State, preparing parts of the country to be a potential sanctuary of recruitment and training and a transnational hub after the radical Islamists’ probable defeat in Syria and Iraq.

In January 2016, the sleepy Ouagadougou was hit by a spectacular Islamist terror attack. Armed fighters carried out a 15-hour siege on hotels and cafes in the center, leaving 28 dead and 56 injured. In March this year terror expanded to the northern countryside, with attacks on police posts and military installations, as well as educational facilities.

Although one “key jihadist” was killed and others arrested, and despite suspects believed to be responsible for the 2016 attacks being arrested in northern Mali, the psychological upheaval that followed fostered a regional sense of insecurity. The violence could trigger pressure, and even unsolicited intervention by neighboring countries, which could further destabilize the nation. It could also undermine Burkina Faso’s promising economic growth of around 5% in 2015 and 2016, which is foreseen to rise to up to 6% in 2017.

On March 10, many hundreds of teachers and students held a silent protest in Ouagadougou after a teacher was killed by an unidentified gunman on March 3 in the village of Koursayel, in the province of Soum. The teachers marched to the Ministry of National Education, where they held a sit-in.

A similar silent demonstration was reportedly held in the municipality of Koloko, 400km west of Ouagadougou. The protesters demanded all public and private schools in Soum be guarded by police or special forces in order to ensure normal teaching activities. In April, government agencies from all sectors of Soum province suspended theirs activities for days in protest against the rise of terrorism in the region. Some officials have even abandoned their activities, citing threats from Burkinabe terrorist Malam Ibrahim Dicko, leader of Ansarul Islam; Dicko has taken official responsibility for several previous attacks in the country.

The reasons for these recent developments are many and rightly concern not only local actors but the former colonial power in the region, France, whose government is expected to lead a new united European Union policy toward sub-Saharan Africa after the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the May 2017 presidential elections.

First, former Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré had played a role in keeping extremists out. Following his mediation role in the 2012 Mali conflict, he indirectly helped the extremists there gain official recognition, which led to them ignoring his nation. Compaoré was forced to resign in 2014 after popular protests against his efforts to amend the constitutional two-term presidential limit escalated into riots. AQIM and other groups now seem to be taking advantage of the situation at Mali’s borders.

Second, Burkina Faso has weaker security forces than most West African states. Its army is ill-equipped for dealing with extremist hit-and-run tactics, and the police force outside the capital has poor equipment and training. In addition, security forces are concentrated in the main centers, yet widely absent from the countryside. This mirrors the poor territorial and social integration of the nation and the lack of participatory governmental structures in non-urban areas.

Third, parts of the country outside the cities are underdeveloped. Burkina Faso remains one of the least urbanized countries in the world, despite its towns and cities growing fast, with urban-dwellers making up 22.7% of the population in 2014. Complicating development efforts, the country remains one of the focal points of malaria, with 9.8 million registered cases and 4,000 dead, among them 3,000 children below age five, in 2016 alone. The jihadists target these disadvantaged populations outside the cities.

Fourth, discontent of the Burkinabe population has been growing against its rulers. President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, in charge since December 2015, has so far produced mixed feelings in delivering on his promises for integration of the center and periphery, shared development, participation in socioeconomic growth, and ethnic and social inclusion.

Fifth, Burkina Faso has a notoriously divided opposition, and insecure political and institutional structures. Problems are magnified by the dependence of many on remittances from émigré workers (three to four million Burkinabe work in the Ivory Coast alone, which accounts for a sixth of the overall population). Different languages, ethnicities, and cultures have not been sufficiently included in society and a joint consciousness is poorly developed.

Finally, but maybe most importantly, despite Burkina Faso’s remarkable economic growth over the past few years the international community has paid little attention to the country, focusing instead on the Ivory Coast and other bigger African “lion states” (most of them heavily reliant on the export of raw materials, such as Nigeria and Ghana).

To respond to these problems, the approaches to contain extremism must also be multi-dimensional.

First, the nation’s leaders will have to eliminate the fertile grounds for extremism in the north by a better redistribution of funds, more participatory structures, integration into the overall growth of the nation, including through redistribution of wealth. An example could be Germany’s special “solidarity tax” on certain rich areas after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Second, Burkina Faso has a critical need to provide more effective help to educators to foster a rational dialogue about the differences between religious fundamentalism and modernity, and the implications, for broad parts of the population from an early age on.

Third, the nation has to undergo institutional and political reforms to increase the connection between rural and metropolitan areas and reduce the gap between rich and poor. President Kaboré was right to say after the January 2016 attack that the nation’s fight against terror may now be part of Burkina Faso’s daily routine. But Kaboré has the personal responsibility to sustain this fight through systemic reforms that make it harder for extremism to take root.

Fourth, the international community also has homework to do. It must better calibrate its aid and the cooperative structures through which it sustains its local efforts, as well as its coordination with the African Union.

Fifth, the EU, in particular, could work toward a joint intervention force, to be potentially developed from France’s forces already in place, as proposed as early as 2007 by Oxford expert Paul Collier. This could be the right moment to support a cautious European intervention option in support of the rule of law and democratization in Africa. It would need to occur in close cooperation with the UN and AU, as well as the Burkina Faso government as the first line of coordination, calibration and application. A joint European force for Africa’s development and stability could in turn become an important factor for further integration with that continent.

Sixth, the current post-Brexit renewal of the EU includes future scenarios such as the envisaged new post-2020 partnership with Africa announced by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini in November 2016. This could take notice of the rise of extremism in smaller countries such as Burkina Faso from the start and address it on different levels: education, aid, training and equipment of police and military, and modernization of rural areas, including their access to global networks.

All this presumes a seventh task: that wide-spread corruption will be better fought, and that internationally sustained programs for good governance be implemented to prevent the extremists infiltrating the institutions of the executive, administration, and legislature. Burkina Faso was ranked 72nd out of 176 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index of 2016, has made noticeable progress over the past few years, and has large margins for improvement.

The international community would benefit from beginning its response quickly. According to the African Development Bank Group Burkina Faso Economic Outlook 2016-17, “Strengthening security to combat jihadist threats is a major challenge to economic revival, especially after the January 2016 terrorist attack.”

The necessary responses, taken together, entail not only increased attention outside the African continent, but a more decisive hand from neighboring countries, principally the Ivory Coast, which is closely linked by history, geography, politics, and economics. All parties must have an interest in keeping extremists out of Burkina Faso.

Roland Benedikter is Research Professor of Multidisciplinary Political Analysis at the Willy Brandt Centre of Wroclaw-Breslau University, Global Futures Scholar at the European Academy of Bolzano-Bozen, and Research Affiliate of the Global Studies Division of Stanford University. Ismaila Ouedraogo is a student at the University of Erciyes, Turkey, and a program coordinator for Plant for the Planet.