Tackling Burkina Faso’s Insurgencies and Unrest
Tackling Burkina Faso’s Insurgencies and Unrest
Commentary / Africa 8 minutes

Tackling Burkina Faso’s Insurgencies and Unrest

Burkina Faso is suffering mounting insurgent attacks and social unrest. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support the return of some Burkinabé troops from Mali and to fund social programs that could ease discontent.

Burkina Faso is caught between escalating insurgent violence and widespread social discontent. An Islamist insurrection led by the militant group Ansarul Islam continues to exact a heavy toll on government forces in the country’s north, while in 2018, a second hotspot emerged in the east, which over the latter part of the year suffered a series of attacks whose perpetrators are as yet unknown. Yet another group, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), which is active across the Sahel, has perpetrated attacks in the capital Ouagadougou and elsewhere. Parts of the north and east have slipped beyond the state’s control. The Burkinabé army has engaged in abuses that fuel local anger. Morale across the security forces is plummeting. On 31 December, President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s administration declared a state of emergency in fourteen of the country’s 45 provinces as a result of insecurity. Meanwhile, dwindling social spending, due in part to counter-insurgency costs and drops in revenue, has prompted protests in the capital. On 21 January, Kaboré appointed a new prime minister, reportedly to reboot his presidency and give time for a course correction ahead of presidential elections in 2020; for now it is too early to say whether the change will allow him to address the many challenges his country faces.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Encourage the government to better support troops on the battlefield with bonuses and help for families of soldiers killed or wounded in the line of duty; the EU might also consider supporting Burkina Faso’s effort to withdraw its large Badenya battalion, currently deployed with the UN mission in Mali, to deal with growing instability at home – though such a withdrawal should be preconditioned either on the UN finding replacements or the agreed handover of that battalion’s positions to Malian forces.
  • Allocate a substantial share of its security and justice support for Burkina Faso to help speed up judicial proceedings against over 300 suspected terrorists, already detained for months, with the aim of diminishing their families’ sense of injustice.
  • Encourage the disbursement of EU and other donors’ budgetary pledges to the Joint G5 Sahel Force and support a joint Nigerien-Burkinabé operation on their border.
  • Prioritise the release of EU development funds allocated to food security, and establish additional programs aimed at subsidising or organising direct delivery of staples to reduce social discontent and enhance Burkinabé households’ spending power.

Mounting Insurgent Violence

Burkina Faso’s security forces are struggling to cope with increasing insurgent attacks, particularly in the country’s north and east. Violence in the north has spread from Soum province, the epicentre of the Ansarul Islam insurgency, to other provinces, particularly Sourou. Ansarul Islam continues to launch attacks, mostly on security forces. The Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), which also operates in central and northern Mali and parts of Niger, has struck in the north, though whether it has ties to Ansarul Islam is uncertain. On 27 December 2018, it claimed responsibility for an ambush in Sourou that killed ten gendarmes. Earlier, in March 2018, it struck the army headquarters and French embassy in Ouagadougou – the third major attack in the capital over recent years. Meanwhile, a new rebellion has appeared in the east, in the vicinity of Fada N’Gourma, Burkina Faso’s third largest city. The insurgents’ identity remains unclear, but they have launched attacks with a ferocity matching that of Ansarul Islam. Overall, the number of attacks in late 2018 grew each month.

For the first time since independence, Burkinabé state authorities have lost control of parts of the country. In some northern and eastern areas, courts have shut down, while police and customs officers no longer leave their posts because patrolling has become too dangerous. Eight hundred schools are closed. Insurgents can openly gather villagers to preach and demonstrate their influence. At the same time, the military’s often brutal and indiscriminate crackdown on people suspected of helping the insurgents further alienates locals. More than three hundred people have been arrested since 2016, mostly in the north, and are kept in jail for months on weak legal grounds. A May 2018 Human Right Watch Report noted that “witnesses implicated Burkina Faso security forces in at least fourteen alleged summary executions” in the Sahel region. It is difficult to gauge either the level of support enjoyed by militants or even which group is responsible for which strikes, given that only about one in ten attacks is claimed. But the insurgents seem to have succeeded in channelling local discontent arising from decades of state neglect.

A Beleaguered Security Sector

Tackling the serious weaknesses in the Burkinabé armed forces will almost certainly require lengthy and difficult security sector reforms. Structural problems, which have been long apparent, include lack of communication among different ranks; rivalry among agencies; poor training; shortages of aircraft and other forms of transport; and an insufficient number of troops. Manpower shortages, inadequate planning and many soldiers’ refusal to serve in remote areas mean nearly a third of the country’s territory is poorly secured.

Earlier efforts to address some of these problems, prompted by a 2011 mutiny by elements of the military during former President Blaise Compaoré’s tenure, abruptly ended only three years later when his government collapsed. Since then, the government’s dismantling of some agencies has sowed new divisions within the security apparatus. In October 2015, the government officially disbanded the Presidential Security Regiment, which, although arguably the country’s best trained and equipped force, was a symbol of Compaoré’s rule and had attempted a coup the preceding month. Most of the regiment was transferred to other units, but a handful deserted and some officials claim – without evidence – that former presidential guards support the insurgents. Intelligence services, once reporting to President Compaoré’s chief of staff, are now split into three competing and equally ineffective units. As a result, information about the insurgencies is in short supply; security forces struggle to identify enemies who easily blend in with the civilian population.

Despite the fact that in 2018 many insurgent attacks took place in Burkina Faso’s border areas, the G5 force did not carry out a single joint mission that year in these areas.

If rising insecurity reveals shortcomings in the Burkinabé forces, it also illustrates flaws in the regional Joint G5 Sahel Force. That force, of which Burkina will assume command in 2019, contemplates joint operations involving troops from its five members – Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger in addition to Burkina – to secure their borders. Yet, despite the fact that in 2018 many insurgent attacks took place in Burkina Faso’s border areas, the G5 force did not carry out a single joint mission that year in these areas. Instead, the national armies mostly operate separately, allowing armed groups to exploit their lack of coordination to move freely across borders.

Although it hopes to hand over its duties to the G5 force as soon as possible, the French army was compelled to intervene twice in October 2018 in northern and eastern Burkina to curtail militant activities. The EU should support the rapid establishment of a G5 joint border monitoring mission at the border between Burkina Faso and Niger, and foster better cross-border cooperation between Burkinabé and Malian armed forces. This can be done with the assistance of the EU Regional Coordination Cell, a team of European security and defence advisors located in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, who work in coordination with those countries’ interior and defence ministries to support planning, need assessments and liaison among those countries and the G5 secretariat.

The Burkinabé government’s immediate options to improve its security forces’ performance are limited. Reconstruction of an effective security apparatus with a competent intelligence branch and elite commandos will take time, as will improving the G5’s operational readiness. For now, Kaboré’s administration understandably is focused on obtaining more equipment and manpower, although the root problem is likely related as much to the capacity of existing personnel, their organisation and improved intelligence as it is to the lack of adequate gear.

Declining morale in Burkina Faso’s armed forces [...] is a threat to watch in 2019.

One quick step the government could take would be to repatriate the Badenya battalion presently engaged in Timbuktu as part of the UN mission (the Burkinabé contingent is the mission’s largest, with 1,723 men split between two battalions, one of which is Badenya). The redeployment of these seasoned soldiers to eastern and northern Burkina could help shift the balance of force on the ground in the government’s favour. The EU and European governments could support such a bid, pending either the UN’s peacekeeping department finding replacements in a mission that is already overstretched and suffering high casualty levels or the handover of that battalion’s position to Malian forces.

Declining morale in Burkina Faso’s armed forces, whose members are tired of watching comrades die in what seems to be a losing battle against insurgents, is a threat to watch in 2019. Even if rural insurrections are unlikely to threaten the state, they risk heightening disaffection within the army, which in turn could destabilise a country that has experienced six military coups in five decades. The government has taken some steps to address the problem, notably by providing in January 2019 financial aid to civil servants, including soldiers, who are victims of insurgent attacks and by paying bonuses to soldiers deployed in the north. Whether these measures will dispel discontent remains to be seen.

Social Unrest

A final threat stems from broad dissatisfaction among Burkina Faso’s 17 million citizens. Economic woes are at its heart: 40 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, and still more could join them, since the minimum wage is capped at 49 euros per month and the cost of essential goods keeps rising. Almost a fifth of all Burkinabé are food-insecure. The president, facing costly counter-insurgency operations and declining revenue from tourism due to insecurity, is struggling to live up to his December 2015 campaign promise to improve living conditions. In November, the government cited the military effort among its justifications for a 12 per cent increase in fuel prices. The price hike brought thousands of protesters, led by a civil society and trade union movement called the Red Shirts, into Ouagadougou’s streets. The government ultimately agreed to lower the price of petrol on 9 January, but it is liable to impose additional taxes in 2019.

President Kaboré has some time to reverse the country’s economic slide. Popular pressure forced two of his predecessors to leave office (Maurice Yaméogo in 1966 and Compaoré in 2014), but Kaboré can take advantage of a divided opposition that lacks a charismatic leader and so far has been unable to exploit the government’s difficulties. Without a presidential election before late 2020, Kaboré has an opportunity within this window to address protesters’ concerns. The EU and its member states could help defuse public anger by supporting Kaboré’s government financially but also by facilitating dialogue among it, the opposition and civil society.

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