Burkina Faso: The next Mali?

Date first published: 14/5/2019

Key sectors: all

Key risks: terrorism

Violence has spiralled out of control in Burkina Faso in recent months. Around 550 civilians were killed between November 2018 and April 2019, representing a staggering 7,000 per cent increase relative to the same period last year. The majority of attacks have been perpetrated by militant groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Worryingly, violence, which had previously been confined to the northern Sahel Region and the East, has recently spread southwards. In January Islamist militants carried out a number of attacks in Comoé and Poni provinces, raising the risk of overspill into neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, Togo and Benin. The recent abduction of two French tourists in northern Benin, and their subsequent rescue by French special forces near the Burkina Faso-Mali border, testified to the unabated spread of militancy throughout the region. If left unchecked, violence could feasibly degenerate into a full-blown sectarian conflict and precipitate national disintegration, as occurred in neighbouring Mali.

The conflict has recently taken on an increasingly sectarian dimension. In late April six people were killed when militants attacked a Protestant church in Silgadji, Soum province. Six others were killed in an attack on a Catholic church in Dablo, Sanmatenga province on 12 May. The repeated targeting of Christian churches indicates a growing resolve amongst Islamist militants to foment sectarian conflict. Due to the deteriorating security environment the risk to foreign nationals, particularly those working in the extractives industries and humanitarian organisations, has also increased. In December 2018 a Canadian and an Italian citizen were abducted while travelling between Bobo-Dioulasso and Ouagadougou, whilst in January a Canadian national was kidnapped from a gold mining site in Soum province and subsequently killed.

The security situation has been exacerbated by the military’s heavy-handed response to the upsurge in militancy. There is mounting evidence that Burkinabe forces have perpetrated mass extra-judicial killings in the north of the country. In early February 57 civilians were allegedly executed in Soum province, whilst at least 30 Fulani were reportedly killed later that month. The indiscriminate targeting of the country’s Fulani minority, many of whom already feel socially and economically marginalised, will drive additional recruits into the militants’ swelling ranks and harden opposition to central government authority.

The task of uprooting militancy remains fraught with difficulties. The 2014 uprising that deposed president Blaise Compaoré, together with a failed military coup in 2015, has undermined the capabilities of the country’s security and intelligence apparatus, leaving militants’ power unchecked in outlying provinces. A lack of cohesion and funding will likely render security forces’ efforts to combat the growing crisis fruitless, whilst porous borders will provide militants with a place to regroup in the face of intensive counterinsurgency operations.

Despite political stabilisation under President Roch Marc Kaboré, the government has proved unable to foster a more inclusive political environment. The Fulani remain disenfranchised, providing militant groups with a steady stream of recruits. To dry up this source, Kaboré must make a concerted effort to alleviate social and economic inequality and bolster state institutions. A further escalation of violence could even precipitate French intervention. However, as French involvement in neighbouring Mali has shown, any positive effects of foreign intervention would likely be temporary – a lasting solution to Burkina Faso’s security crisis can only come from within.