Sub-Saharan Africa

Burkina Faso

  • Burkina Faso
    A Country in Freefall
    The latest military coup d’état would seem to be the least of Burkina Faso’s problems.
  • Burkina Faso
    Blaise Compaore’s Conviction Is a Momentous Victory for the Rule of Law and Citizen Power in Africa
    Compaore’s conviction is good news for the rule of law and democratic consolidation in Africa. 
  • Burkina Faso
    What the Sankara Assassination Trial Means for West Africa
    The trial against Burkina Faso’s exiled former leader for a decades-old assassination case could signal progress on accountability at a time of coups and upheaval regionwide.
  • Burkina Faso
    Coup in Burkina Faso Bodes Ill for Stability in West Africa
    Putschists in West Africa should not interpret initial popular support for coups as an indication that citizens no longer desire responsive, accountable governance.
  • Burkina Faso
    Unanswered Questions Swirl Following Burkina Faso Murders
    Confirmed by the Spanish prime minister, Western media reports that two Spanish filmmakers and the Irish president of a conservation non-governmental organization (NGO) were murdered in Burkina Faso near the border with Benin on April 26. Roberto Fraile and David Beriain were in Burkina Faso working on a documentary about poaching. They were accompanied by Rory Young, a Zambia-born Irish citizen who headed Chengeta Wildlife, an NGO devoted to training local residents to counter wildlife poaching; Chengeta reports it trained ninety rangers and other personnel in Africa last year. Though details are unclear, it appears that the victims were part of a convoy of forty that was attacked. Six others were injured and a Burkinabe soldier is missing. The fate of the rest is unreported, making it likely that they survived at least the initial attack, though contact with the group was lost. Media reports are situating the murders in the context of the upsurge of jihadi activity across the country. Perhaps. But the eastern region where the attack took place, situated on the border with Niger and Benin—rather than the “Three Borders” region shared with Niger and Mali, a more longstanding jihadi hotspot—is also characterized by criminal gangs often involved in poaching, robbery, and kidnapping. That the attack was motivated by criminals protecting poaching cannot be dismissed. Jihadi groups and criminal gangs would often appear to overlap; both make use of kidnapping. That the three Europeans were murdered rather than held for ransom is curious. In the Sahel, Europeans from rich democracies are prime targets. Public pressure to secure the release of kidnapping victims encourages European governments (or other entities) to pay enormous ransoms. Whoever the perpetrators, the three tragic murders are emblematic of the accelerating breakdown of security in the Sahel.
  • Burkina Faso
    The Confluence of Conflict, Corruption, and Coronavirus in Burkina Faso
    The confluence of political, institutional, and societal breakdown, the murderous activity of militias and radical jihadist groups, the predation of criminal networks (often allied with other groups), corrupt and unresponsive government, and the coronavirus has produced a perfect storm of human misery in the small West African state of Burkina Faso. Burkina, with a population less about 20 million, is described as one of the world's poorest countries in normal times, which these are not. Burkina may be only the first of poor West African states already reeling from poverty, marginalized territories, and insurrection to be pushed over the edge into societal disintegration. Mali could be next. Jihadis are also beginning to threaten Ivory Coast and Ghana. Before the coronavirus arrived, Burkina faced growing fighting among rival jihadi terrorists that the share goal of the destruction of the state, rival political and ethnic militias, political groups associated with the business community, remnants of the networks of former dictator Blaise Compaore, deposed in 2014, and the state security services. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED), fatalities caused by violence against civilians and in battles between armed actors has dramatically increased since 2018, and 2020 is on pace to surpass the highs set in 2019. Such violence killed over 250 people in 2018, over 2,000 in 2019, and 871 in the first four months of 2020. About 800,000 Burkinabes had fled their homes as of March 2020, according to the UN, or about 4 percent of the population. The French anti-jihadi Operation Barkhane is allied to the Ougadougou government, which commands little legitimacy in much of the country. Some from Burkina have described the breakdown of the country's social fabric as "incivisme,” and the breakdown of personal security as "insecurite." Burkina Faso reported its first two coronavirus cases on March 9; by April 16, there have been 542 total cases in the country, with 32 deaths and 226 recoveries. The health ministry and Western non-governmental organization have been advocating the standard response of social distancing and testing. But, testing materials hardly exist any more than ventilators do. For the displaced and for ordinary slum dwellers, social distancing is impossible, as is hand-washing, where water is so precious it is reserved for drinking. There is anecdotal evidence of the security services attempting to enforce social distancing by the liberal use of whips. Meanwhile, jihadi groups, seeing their moment, are moving against the government and their rivals, and criminal networks are flourishing.  The Macron government in Paris appears to remain committed to the Ouagadougou government. France seeks with some success to increase the engagement of some of its European Union partners, and has pushed back against Trump administration proposals to reduce the U.S. military presence in the Sahel. Though small in number, U.S. forces provide logistical and intelligence support to the French. However, in France, comparisons are being drawn between Burkina Faso and Afghanistan, with growing concern as to how France can extract itself. But, French withdrawal and the likely subsequent collapse of the Ouagadougou government risks the domination of the state by anti-Western jihadis that France regards as part of its "near abroad."
  • Burkina Faso
    The Roots of Burkina Faso’s Crisis
    Burkina Faso is in trouble. The shocking ambush of a Canadian mining company’s convoy earlier this month was part of a relentless series of deadly attacks perpetrated both by terrorist organizations and by domestic criminal groups that has claimed hundreds of lives, forced nearly half a million people from their homes, and gravely shaken domestic and international confidence in the country’s security services. But it was not so long ago that Burkina Faso was inspiring champions of democracy and setting an example for civil society movements around the world. Fed up with 27 years of Blaise Compaoré’s corrupt presidency, and angered by his attempt to extend it, in 2014 citizens rose up in an extraordinary movement to insist on a change not just in leadership, but in the way that the country was governed. Balai Citoyen (Citizens’ Broom) did not just want Compaoré to step down. They called for an urgent focus on addressing poverty, creating opportunity for young Burkinabe, and building more resilient and unbiased state systems of accountability. So how did the situation turn from one full of hope for positive change to today’s atmosphere of crisis? Many African leaders argue that the messy fallout from the West’s 2011 Libya intervention is to blame for the crisis in Burkina Faso, and indeed Libya’s instability has been devastating to security across the Sahel. It is also true that Compaoré often preferred to make accommodations with violent movements terrorizing neighboring states rather than oppose them. But Burkina’s insecurity today is also a direct result of the rot at the core of state institutions that was enabled by Compaoré’s style of rule. For years, opposition was demonized and state security was personalized, with funding and support funneled to those closest to the strongman at the top. When that system, which had become increasingly unstable over time, toppled, the fallout entailed the fragmentation of intelligence capacities, tension and underperformance among defense forces, and ongoing mistrust among security elites. As the international community debates how best to help stabilize Burkina Faso, policymakers should also reflect on the toxic legacy of the Compaoré era. Turning a blind eye to autocrats who can keep a lid on violence (at least the kind that is not state-sanctioned) is deeply shortsighted, because no one leader’s self-serving system lasts forever. The security sector reforms required after decades of such a system are painful and slow, and building trust and communication among those left to pick up the pieces can be equally difficult. These weaknesses are easy for terrorists and criminals to exploit, and the violence can make it even harder to get governance reforms and service delivery right. Disorder and insecurity are surely the enemies of the kinds of changes the people of Burkina Faso had hoped for. But it was the old way of maintaining order that has made this problem so hard to solve.
  • Terrorism and Counterterrorism
    Coastal West Africa Now Facing Islamist Extremist Threat
    Adam Valavanis is a former intern with the Africa Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He received a master’s degree in conflict studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science. West Africa is facing a growing threat from Islamist extremist groups. Many of these groups originated in Mali but have since spilled over its borders, with jihadis establishing themselves in the north and east of Burkina Faso. The country has become a desirable haven for many groups because of the security vacuum that has defined the country following the deposition of longtime strongman Blaise Compaore. The presence of these groups, including Ansaroul Islam, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen, has precipitated a rise in interethnic and interreligious tensions in a country that has for years been characterized by peaceful coexistence.  Burkina Faso's inability to clamp down on many of the extremist groups operating inside its borders has allowed such groups to use the country as a launch pad for attacks in coastal West African countries, most notably Benin. Burkina Faso borders Pendjari National Park in Benin's northwest. This forest has become the site of several incursions by jihadis, who have attacked communities and tourists in the area. The situation has become so dire in the north that both France and the United States have issued travel warnings for Pendjari and the surrounding areas. Such incursions by Islamist groups come at a time of political fragility in Benin, following its controversial legislative elections in April. The protests and general sense of insecurity that have gripped the country in the last few months could provide fertile ground to extremist groups looking to gain a foothold in the country. Officials fear that jihadis have also infiltrated Togo and Ghana.  Currently, the most comprehensive effort to combat Islamist terrorism and intercommunal violence in the region is the G5 Sahel Joint Force, a security partnership between five states in the Sahel and supported by France. Unfortunately, the G5 has faced funding shortfalls, preventing it from quickly and effectively responding to threats as they arise.  For most of the past decade, coastal West Africa has been spared the Islamist violence that has dominated the Sahel. It hosts some of the continent's most stable democracies, including Senegal, Ghana, and Benin. The region has also become a hotspot of foreign investment, attracting interest from the West as well as China and Turkey. The presence of Islamist groups, along with ongoing issues such as corruption and drug trafficking, threatens to upend all of this.  
  • Burkina Faso
    Islamist Violence in Burkina Faso Following Familiar Pattern
    Islamist terrorist groups in northeast Burkina Faso are following a strategy of violence reminiscent in some ways of Boko Haram’s early days in Nigeria. The groups are attacking Protestant and Catholic churches, killing pastors, priests, and congregants, and also teachers in secular schools. In a May 12 attack on the town of Dablo in northern Burkina Faso, “gunmen” killed a Catholic priest and five congregants, burned the church and places serving alcohol, and looted other commercial establishments. The attackers numbered about twenty. On May 10, apparently in a separate incident, militants killed five teachers. Similarities to Boko Haram include targeting Christians and teachers in secular schools. The theological basis of both appears to be a similar, extremist variant of Salafist Islamic now thought to be associated with the Islamic State. Based on that theology is a similar hostility to all things western and secular. Like in Nigeria’s northeast, government authority in northern Burkina Faso has been weak following the 2014 ouster of long-time strongman Blaise Compaore. But unlike Boko Haram, the terrorists in Burkina Faso do not appear to have a charismatic leader with a media presence like Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau. Furthermore, Burkina Faso has in France a close ally that is prepared to intervene when needed, as it recently did to rescue four hostages. The extent and nature of the groups’ ties in both countries to outside terror networks in not completely clear. Boko Haram appears to be largely indigenous, with little or no tactical and strategic coordination with the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), despite similar rhetoric and apparent communication. Though in Burkina Faso there appear to be links with Islamist groups in Mali, details are sparse.