Why Burkina Faso is new Epicenter of Insecurity in the Sahel

The jihadist attacks in Burkina Faso are not isolated from the insurrectionist attacks taking place in the larger Sahel region. In fact, a report by the International Crisis Group stated that Burkina Faso suffered more jihadist attacks than any other Sahelian country in 2019. 

Such is the deepening security crisis that between 2019 and 2020, Human Rights Watch was able to document targeted attacks and summary executions that killed over 250 civilians. From 2015 to 2016, most attacks were concentrated in the north along the Malian border but from 2018, they quickly spread to the east and central parts of Burkina Faso. By 2019, the western and southern regions of Burkina Faso also started experiencing sporadic sectarian attacks even though these regions seemed to enjoy relative peace. 

It is not hard to see why the Malian security crisis spilled over into Burkina Faso. The parallels are many, and the dynamics causing insurrectionist violence in Burkina Faso can largely be explained away as a repeat of the Malian crisis.

However, a close analysis of the conflict reveals that the crisis in Burkina Faso is in some ways dissimilar to the Malian conflict, even though the Islamist attacks in Northern Burkina Faso were an extension of Malian homegrown insurgency. 

The crisis in Burkina Faso has strong local dynamics ranging from ethnic tensions, a weak central state, political instability, historical grievances, social injustices, uncontrollable self-defense militias in rural areas, as well as a network of opportunistic racketeers and bandits profiting from the lawlessness.

The political and military establishments are fuelling the crisis

A look at the political root of the crisis reveals two things. The first is a pervasive defeatist attitude among the political and military elites, and secondly, lack of political will to provide a semblance of law and order. 

This sense of defeatism manifests itself in often overt political approval of self-defense militias largely mobilized along ethnic lines, since the state is powerless to stop rampant crime and Islamic militancy. 

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Faced with an array of issues, radical Islam and Islamic revolutionary ideals have become ideological and practical resources for marginalized and stigmatized communities to oppose the government. [/perfectpullquote]

In their mission to “defend the motherland” and “fight against Islamist militants,” the self-defense militias have engaged in indiscriminate attacks against communities perceived or stereotyped to be the source of jihadism.  

This is how Fulani civilians have borne the brunt of attacks from self-defense militias like the Koglweogo or “guardians of the bush”, therefore propelling a deadly revenge-reprisal cycle. 

The problem now is that it is too late to disarm these groups as they have already been emboldened to be the law unto themselves. They have now metastasized into quasi-military organizations embedded into local communities. 

The military, on the other hand, is now incapable of mounting effective counter-insurgency operations due to internal cracks and nepotism. 

Another way the Malian conflict differs from the one in Burkina Faso is manifested in the way jihadist groups operate. In Burkina Faso, it is becoming increasingly clear that jihadist recruitment is driven by a social uprising against legitimate social and political grievances among marginalized groups.  

This fact alone is the reason why Ansarul Islam has been so successful in places like Soum province, whereby Burkinabe authorities decry the lack of cooperation from civilians in identifying jihadist groups. 

Faced with an array of issues, radical Islam and Islamic revolutionary ideals have become ideological and practical resources for marginalized and stigmatized communities to oppose the government. 

As such, it is quite commonplace for jihadist groups in Burkina Faso to encourage people to stop paying taxes and other local levies in exchange for joining the mujaheddin.  

Also, jihadist groups are emerging as a counter-response to self-defense militias where afflicted civilians are recruited under the auspices of delivering justice or rather, exacting revenge.

The toxic mix of bandits and jihadists

Given that the Sahel is a vast and harsh territory, security forces often face an uphill task in administering these sparsely populated areas. This makes the Sahel a perfect haven for transnational crime networks to conduct their logistical operations unperturbed by authorities. 

This explains the emergence of lucrative criminal activities along the Mali and Burkina Faso borders that have turned this region into a money-making machine for both the jihadists and the traffickers.  

For instance, local bandits organize illicit traffic of drugs, motorcycles, fuel, and gold, using motorcycles in part due to their ability to maneuver across military and border checkpoints. The method of using motorcycles instead of vehicles would later become the modus operandi of jihadist groups with many of them actually mounting attacks terrorist attacks using motorcycles.  

This convergence of interests and interdependence between local bandits and Jihadist groups has not only intensified, but in some cases, some Jihadist groups have taken control of some trafficking operations. 

Worryingly, despite them having different priorities, they are all unified by a common vision of fighting the state and spreading anarchy.

Solving the structural and immediate triggers of the Burkinabe crisis

Resolving the Burkinabe crisis will have to deploy a double-pronged approach, with some efforts being geared towards regional cooperation with Sahelian countries, and inward-looking security initiatives, that do not necessarily resort to military-driven responses to every crisis. 

This is because factors driving insecurity are manifestations of a deep governance crisis, historical grievances, poverty, ethno-religious divisions, and the citizenry distrust in political institutions.

For instance, Burkinabe political and military leaders could enhance their intelligence collecting capabilities to deal with asymmetrical combatants and criminal networks embedded in local communities.   

Also, to stop the spread of radical Islam, the government could closely collaborate with local religious leaders in their efforts to pacify the regions most affected by sectarian violence. Having a close relationship with such leaders can help reduce tensions or even alert the government of growing tensions. 

Charles Waiganjo holds post-graduate qualifications in philosophy and political science. He completed his studies at the Université Michel de Montaigne, and at the Université de Bordeaux. Charles is an African Liberty contributor.