Burkina Faso Election

How Did Extremism and Violence Become a Dangerous Reality in Burkina Faso?

Voters queue to vote at a polling station in Ouagadougou on November 22, 2020 in the shadow of a growing jihadist insurgency. (OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images)

Only six years ago, Burkina Faso looked like a beacon of hope and stability in West Africa. In 2015, the country held its first democratic election ever, and President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré was supposed to lead the country into a bright future. But since then hopes are being dashed by persistent poverty and surging violence and insecurity. An unprecedented number of people—more than 1 million—have been forced to flee their homes as a result. Yet, in the November 2020 elections, President Kaboré won a second term. What happened in the past six years, and what would it take to bring Burkina Faso back to a path of peaceful development?

From Democracy to Humanitarian Emergency

The break with the dictatorial system in 2015 was a pivotal moment, and people were proud of Burkina Faso having joined the ranks of democratic countries. But shortly after, at first small and then bigger incidents appeared as harbingers that violent extremism was coming to the country.

After jihadist groups took root in Mali in 2012, they quickly started spreading their spheres of influence, crossing borders, and setting up local groups wherever possible. A terrorist attack at the beginning of 2016 in the center of the capital Ouagadougou left 28 dead and 56 injured. In March 2017, teachers and students held a silent protest after armed fighters attacked and burnt down schools. Experience demonstrates that violent extremism will continue spreading if jihadist groups are not curbed effectively and root causes are not addressed concurrently. Yet, unabated violence and extremism are increasingly shaping daily life in Burkina Faso.

Since 2019, insecurity has reached devastating levels. It has become clear that attacks can happen anywhere, targeting anyone—Saturday markets in villages, transports of merchandise on trade routes, and even humanitarian convoys. The number of attacks linked to jihadist activity rose from just three in 2015, to 516 between mid-2019 and mid-2020. Security forces are largely overwhelmed, and reports of alleged abuses by state forces are accumulating. Extrajudicial killings and raiding refugee camps in spring 2020, for example, seemed to follow patterns of reprisals after armed groups ambushed gendarmerie patrols and tried to cut emergency food and medicine delivery to the village of Djibo. In the surrounding area, more than 180 bodies were found in common graves, believed to be ethnic Fulani or Peuhl. Most of the victims were shot while blindfolded and with their hands bound. Human Rights Watch attributed the killings to government security forces, but also admitted that the common use of stolen uniforms and vehicles makes it extremely difficult to identify perpetrators.

The state’s presence in regions of concern is noticeably receding, especially in rural areas. Armed groups of any kind—jihadist groups, criminal gangs, and smugglers—are proliferating in environments devoid of state authorities. Most attackers are believed to be jihadists, affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, having their origins in Mali. Ansarul Islam, however, is a homegrown terrorist group, calling themselves the defenders of those who don’t have anything. These groups, in fact, control many rural areas especially in the north and east, according to a researcher on violence from Ouagadougou University.

The number of Burkinabe people fleeing violence has skyrocketed within a short time span, from fewer than 50,000 in January 2019, to 765,000 in March 2020, reaching more than 1 million displaced in the summer of 2020. Altogether, 2.9 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in a country of just 20 million. For young people the consequences are devastating, as more than 2,000 schools are closed, depriving 300,000 students of education. This exacerbates already existing education challenges, for example that less than 60 percent of children finished primary school in 2016. In the current circumstances, this number is likely to go down even further.

The economic repercussions have been similarly building. GDP growth was at 6.8 percent in 2018, decreased only slightly to 6.0 percent, but is projected to plummet to -2.8 percent at the end of 2020, due to the combined effects of rampant insecurity and the coronavirus pandemic, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts. As most attacks happen in the main agricultural and mining regions, the African Development Bank warns of even more dire circumstances with possible shortages of food or significant reductions in gold mining, an important source of income for Burkina Faso. Reports of a goldmine in the province of Soum where armed groups are siphoning off profits and controlling operations illustrate the danger.

Another underestimated aggravating factor is climate change. Scientists estimate that the region could see average temperature increases of up to 3 and 5 degrees Celsius by 2050. Traditionally, farmers and herders both have been using and sharing the same land, and were able to manage in case of dispute. But with rising temperatures and more intense, unpredictable droughts and floods, farmers are struggling with declining harvests and reduced crop growth, and herders are struggling to find lands for grazing. Tensions and violent clashes are noticeably increasing, and this conflict over resources is feeding into the spiraling security crisis.

The Next Five Years Could Make or Break Democracy

President Kaboré now has five more years to bring the country back to the once hopeful path it embarked on as a fledgling democracy in 2015. Burkina Faso is a diverse country of over 60 ethnicities that have traditionally lived together with consensus and agreement. Returning to this more peaceful way of life is imperative sooner rather than later, as despair is heavily impacting the social fabric. Coherently addressing the underlying causes of violent extremism is critical in this regard, through ending exclusion and impunity, and protecting civilians exposed to violence. The fact is that jihadist groups provide social services to communities and, thus, present themselves as the better alternative, fueling hate toward supposedly immoral and corrupt elites in power. It is essential that the state takes back its very basic and vital functions: serving the people to lead decent, secure lives, and responsibly and effectively taking action.

Violent extremism sneaked in through the back door, and today in Burkina Faso it is interwoven in local disputes about resources and power, pitting ethnicities and communities against each other, and Burkinabe people against state authorities. Terrorists and other armed groups are breaking up social structures, sowing mistrust and hate, and recruiting among the young and marginalized, the traumatized and the displaced, and whoever lacks other prospects for their future. The overarching aim for the Burkinabe government has to be to make the rule of law and human rights a reality for all people. In the coming years, it is crucial for Burkina Faso to bolster its democratic system and the rule of law, and bring back the traditions of its diverse people living together peacefully. Both swift actions and long-term approaches are required to restore trust and confidence in the government, especially in state structures and actors. Burkina Faso can’t afford any less.

Adele Orosz is the Deputy Special Envoy to the Sahel of the German Federal Foreign Office. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article reflect solely those of the author, and not necessarily those of the German Federal Foreign Office.