Burkina soldiers carry the coffin of servicemen killed during an attack in Nassoumbou, in the northern province of Soum, in Ouagadougou on 20 December 2016. AFP/Ahmed Ouoba
Report 254 / Africa

The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North

Jihadist violence in the West African Sahel has now spread to the north of Burkina Faso. The response of Ouagadougou and its partners must go beyond the obvious religious and security dimensions of the crisis, and any solution must take into account deep-rooted social and local factors.

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Long spared by the Sahel’s armed groups, Burkina Faso now faces increasingly frequent and lethal attacks in its north. Although this insecurity in large part is an extension of the Malian conflict, the crisis has strong local dynamics. Ansarul Islam, the group behind much of the violence, which often is portrayed as tied to jihadists elsewhere in the Sahel, is first and foremost a movement challenging the prevailing social order in Soum province, in Burkina’s Sahel region. While military operations reasserted the state’s control in the spring of 2017, the crisis is far from over. Ouagadougou and its foreign partners recognise that their response requires more than military offensives and that a definitive resolution of the crisis hinges in part on the situation in Mali. However, their approach needs to better take account of the local and social roots of the crisis, which are more profound than its religious and security dimensions.

In its early stages, Ansarul Islam, founded by Malam Ibrahim Dicko, a preacher from Soum, is a manifestation of widespread discontent at the province’s social order. For years, Malam promoted equality between classes and questioned the dominance of traditional chiefs and the monopolisation of religious authority by marabout families – religious leaders – whom he accuses of enriching themselves at the population’s expense. This rhetoric earned him a wide audience, especially among young people and socially disadvantaged sectors of the population. His turn to violence lost him many followers, but his movement retains enough support to continue a low-intensity insurgency against local and national authorities. Reports of his death during the spring 2017 military operations have not been confirmed and in any case would not end the crisis.

A product of local socio-political and cultural conditions, Ansarul Islam is at least as much a social uprising as it is a religious movement.

A product of local socio-political and cultural conditions, Ansarul Islam is at least as much a social uprising as it is a religious movement. It is less a group critical of modernity than a movement that rejects traditions it believes archaic. It expresses the grievances of a silent majority that holds neither political power nor religious authority. Ansarul Islam uses Islam to frame its opposition to an ossified social order that breeds widespread frustration. Nor is the movement primarily a self-defence group for Fulani, who are in the majority in the Sahel region. Ethnic and identity-based grievances for now assume a marginal role in its discourse.

The distant relationship between state and populations in Burkina’s Sahel region also fuels the crisis. The contrast between the north’s economic potential and its lack of infrastructure feeds a sense of abandonment amongst its population. As in central Mali, local communities see state representatives and security forces as foreigners trying to enrich themselves rather than state agents responsible for providing services. As a result, Soum inhabitants are reluctant to cooperate with security forces who are often from other provinces and whose behaviour is sometimes brutal.

The northern Burkina crisis is also more than a mere reflection of the situation in central Mali. Ansarul Islam uses Mali as a support base and similarities on both sides of the border exist. But the surge of violence supposedly committed in the name of jihad distracts from conflict’s extremely local and social dimensions and the ability of armed groups to exploit social divides. Insecurity in northern Burkina is due not only to the development deficit, the central state’s failure to understand a territory in its peripheries, or the spillover from its neighbour’s war. It is above all the result of a profound social crisis in the north. Divisions between masters and subjects, rulers and ruled, ancient and modern provide the base upon which Malam Dicko’s popularity grew.

A definitive resolution of the crisis depends in part on Mali’s stabilisation as well as the implementation of effective development plans by the government and its partners. More importantly, though, it requires devising a more balanced social order and for local communities to resolve their differences. In this context, the government’s efforts to address the crisis should factor in the following points:

  • Formulate responses that take into account the social and local dimensions of the crisis. While the local order continues to provoke frustration and conflict, ending the crisis will be hard. The scope for government action in this respect is limited: it should not seek to upend a centuries-old social order. The onus should be on local actors to devise solutions adapted to local circumstances. The government and its international partners can at best encourage intercommunal and inter-generational dialogue.
  • Reduce the gulf between security forces and authorities and the local population. Several measures could help: improving intelligence and providing informants better protection; encouraging security forces and the civil service to recruit Fulani (without imposing quotas); boosting joint civil-military activities; prioritising the appointment of Fulani speakers as civil servants and security officials in the Sahel; and severely punishing abuses by officials.
  • Place greater emphasis in the Sahel region emergency program – the development component of the government’s response – on promoting herding, improving justice provision and fighting corruption. Supporting livestock breeding and addressing the dysfunction in the judicial system and the scourge of corruption in the administration would reduce negative perceptions of the state and show it can be useful to the public.
  • Work toward strengthening, in the long term, judicial and police cooperation between Mali and Burkina. This would facilitate investigations that have ramifications in both countries and the management and prosecution of prisoners and suspects.

Ouagadougou/Dakar, 12 October 2017

In 2015, Burkina joined the group of Sahel countries under attack from armed and criminal groups that are mainly based in Mali but that also operate from several countries in the region. The area most affected by these attacks is the Sahel region, in the north of the country, on the border with Mali and Niger. However, it was only after the attack on Nassoumbou, in Soum province in December 2016, that the Burkina authorities finally understood that the crisis was caused by local dynamics as well as by the crisis in neighbouring Mali.[fn]A counter-terrorism battalion of several hundred men is based at Nassoumbou.Hide Footnote This report focuses on the province of Soum, epicentre of the conflict and birthplace of the Ansarul Islam group led by Malam Ibrahim Dicko, but also examines the situation in other provinces in the Sahel region (Oudalan, Séno and Yagha) as well as along the country’s other borders, which are also vulnerable.[fn]The northern part of Burkina is composed of two administrative regions: the North and the Sahel. The latter is divided into four provinces: Soum, Oudalan, Séno and Yagha. To avoid confusion, this report uses “Sahel region” to refer to this administrative region and “the Sahel” to refer to the area that stretches from Mauritania to Sudan. Similarly, it uses “the north” to refer to the northern part of the country and “the North region” to refer to the administrative region.Hide Footnote

Soum is mainly populated by Fulani, Burkina’s second largest ethnic group. According to the 2006 census, the figures from which need to be treated with caution, the mother tongue of 56 per cent of the Sahel region’s population is Fulfulde, the Fulani language. Several interlocutors estimate that around 70 to 75 per cent of the population in the Sahel region is Fulani.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, inhabitants of Soum, Ouagadougou, May 2017; local authorities, Djibo, May 2017. “Recensement général de la population et de l’habitation (RGPH) 2006. Analyse des résultats définitifs. Thème 2: Etat et structure de la population”, Institut national de la statistique et de la démographie, October 2009.Hide Footnote The main subdivisions of this ethnic group are the noble classes and groups descended from slaves, called Rimaibé. The Rimaibé were originally indigenous population groups who were conquered and assimilated by the Fulani. Today, Fulani and Rimaibé are included in the same Fulani ethnic group. They share the same culture, the same language and often have identical family names. Nevertheless, there is still a clear divide. In the words of one Fulani representative: “Everybody knows their place”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote In Soum, the indigenous inhabitants, the Kurumba, also called the Fulsé, are in a minority. Some Mossi (Burkina’s majority ethnic group) and members of other groups also live in the province.

The Sahel region’s precolonial history explains its current social and political organisation.

The Sahel region’s precolonial history explains its current social and political organisation.[fn]See the work of Professor Hamidou Diallo, “Le foyer de Wuro-Saba au Jelgooji (Burkina Faso) et la quête d’une suprématie islamique (1858-2000)”, in Muriel Gomez-Perez, Islam politique au Sud du Sahara. Identités, discours et enjeux (2009), p. 401; and “Naissance et évolution des pouvoirs peuls au Sahel burkinabè (Jelgooji, Liptaako et Yaaga) du XVIIIe à la fin du XIXe”, in Hamidou Diallo, Moussa Willy Bantenga, Le Burkina Faso passé et présent (2015), pp. 97-114. Crisis Group interviews, historian, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, Fulani herders from the Inner Niger Delta evicted sedentary farmers and established Fulani domination. The new social hierarchy included nobles and royal families, marabout (Muslim preacher) families, artisans, blacksmiths, weavers, griots (West African story tellers), slave descendants, etc.[fn]There are rivalries between the most important marabout families. The Cissé, considered to be the true and legitimate holders of religious authority and the Doukouré, Marka who came from Mali in the colonial period, belong to two rival branches of the Tijanyia brotherhood. Crisis Group interviews, historian, former senior civil servant, Ouagadougou, May 2017. Jean-Louis Triaud, David Robinson, La Tijâniyya: une confrérie musulmane à la conquête de l’Afrique (Paris, 2005).Hide Footnote The Fulani never managed to establish a single political entity,[fn]The region was divided into the emirates of Liptako, Yagha and Jelgooji. The latter, which corresponds to the province of Soum, was itself divided into Djibo and Baraboulé chefferies.Hide Footnote but used Islam as a route to emancipation from animist sedentary peoples. This resembles the current situation in which groups with a Fulani majority are in armed conflict with a central government dominated by the Bambara in Mali and the Mossi in Burkina. The current social revolt in Soum is not therefore trying to restore the Massina Empire, of which they were never part, or the Kingdom of Jelgooji, which never existed as a unified political entity, but rather a continuation of past struggles using other methods and a reflection of the divisions that have troubled the province down through history.

This report, which continues Crisis Group’s research into how to address the increase in violent extremism, analyses the root causes of the crisis, which has its origins in an ossified and unequal social order.[fn]For previous Crisis Group reports on jihadism, see the Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote It emphasises the need to provide a long-term response that is not only military and that takes account of the social dimensions of the crisis. It also evaluates the military response initiated at the beginning of 2017. Although these military operations have reasserted government control, the authorities and their partners have no grounds to adopt a triumphalist attitude. The attacks continue and even if Malam should die, the jihadist groups know how to adapt to the new situation better than the armies that fight them. This report is based on about 50 interviews with members of the security forces, local and national authorities, the government and the opposition, civil society, researchers and the population of Soum. These interviews were mainly conducted between January and May 2017 in Ouagadougou and Djibo.

President of the Centre of Quranic Masters of Burkina Faso (right) and a colleague speak to Crisis Group's West Africa Analyst Cynthia Ohayon in Ouagadougou, on 10 October 2017. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The main protagonist of the crisis in Soum is the founder of Ansarul Islam, Malam Ibrahim Dicko. His real name is Boureima Dicko and he was born into a marabout family in a place called Soboulé, in the province of Soum. He is (or was) about 40 years old. Malam, who is in fragile health, studied at conventional and Koranic schools in Burkina and Mali, and went on to teach in Niger.[fn]According to one of his former colleagues, Malam is frail, like a lost child and incapable of carrying out physical chores. He is also diabetic. “Malam” means “marabout” in the Hausa language. Crisis Group interviews, former elected representative, Fulani representative, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote In 2009, he began preaching in many villages in Soum, where he appointed local representatives,[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote and on two popular radio stations, La Voix du Soum and La radio lutte contre la désertification (LRCD). He preached at a now-closed mosque in Djibo on Fridays.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2012, the authorities officially recognised his association, al-Irchad.[fn]“Comment est né Ansaroul Islam, premier groupe djihadiste de l’Histoire du Burkina Faso”, Le Monde, 11 April 2017.Hide Footnote Malam’s skill as an orator and anti-establishment discourse drew a large audience throughout the province (see section II.B).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, deputy, former elected representative, humanitarian worker, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote He found it easy to fund the almost daily radio broadcasting of his sermons, apparently with external financial aid.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017. Some Burkina commercial radio stations sell broadcasting slots.Hide Footnote Burkina’s transition government blocked funding for the construction of several mosques, which fuelled the resentment of Malam and his followers toward the sons of marabouts and princes of Soum, whom they accused of using their influence in Ouagadougou to prevent the construction of mosques connected to al-Irchad.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representative, opposition member, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

The radical nature of Malam’s speeches led the local, traditional and religious authorities to ring alarm bells, but nobody took any genuine preventative action.

The radical nature of Malam’s speeches led the local, traditional and religious authorities to ring alarm bells, but nobody took any genuine preventative action.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former official, Ouagadougou, January 2017; former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017. A European Union report published in September 2016 mentions a certain “Malam Ibrahima”, a well-known radical preacher in Soum. “Facteurs et acteurs de la radicalisation dans les zones frontalières au Burkina Faso”, Regional European Union Programme for the Prevention of Violent Extremism in the Sahel and the Maghreb.Hide Footnote For a while, Malam was reportedly placed under the surveillance of security services during Blaise Compaoré’s regime, but they probably lost track of him following the destabilisation of the security apparatus caused by the fall of the regime.[fn]Crisis Group interview, official in the former regime, Ouagadougou, May 2017. Andrew McGregor, “Islamist Insurgency in Burkina Faso: A Profile of Malam Ibrahim Dicko”, Aberfoyle International Security, 30 April 2017.Hide Footnote He was arrested by the French Operation Serval in September 2013 in Tessalit, northern Mali, in possession of a large sum of euros, according to some sources.[fn]“Qui est l’imam Ibrahim Dicko, la nouvelle terreur du nord du Burkina?”, Jeune Afrique, 9 January 2017. A security source mentioned the sum of €9,000. Crisis Group interviews, security source, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote After a spell in prison in Bamako, he was released in 2015.[fn]Several hypotheses are circulating about the reasons for his release: the Malian justice system was bribed; he was released because he was ill; influential political leaders intervened to secure his release. Crisis Group interviews, former official, Ouagadougou, January 2017; Fulani representative, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote In Mali, he is reported to have met his mentor Hamadoun Koufa, leader of the Macina Liberation Front, an armed group active in central Mali, during 2015.[fn]Andrew McGregor, op. cit.Hide Footnote

At the beginning of 2016, the emir of Djibo and the grand imam, whose daughter Malam married, disowned him.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representative, humanitarian worker, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote He then repudiated his wife and took to the bush, losing most of his followers in the process. Only a close circle of loyal supporters followed him to Mali for training.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, Ouagadougou, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017. At the end of 2016, rumours circulated according to which Malam’s group proposed to pay its members CFA70,000 (€107) per week for training in Mali. The monthly minimum wage in Burkina Faso is CFA33,000 (€50). Crisis Group interview, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote From there, he tried to eliminate his former comrades.[fn]He ordered the killing of his former right hand man, Hamadoun Tamboura, alias Hamadoun Boly. Crisis Group interviews, local elected representative, civil society representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Ansarul Islam has a strong tendency toward settling accounts, which led one locally elected representatives to fear that a “cycle of vengeance” would be established in the long term.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote The attack on the Nassoumbou military base on 16 December 2016, reportedly led by Ansarul Islam and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) cost the lives of twelve Burkina soldiers and made Ansarul Islam’s existence official.[fn]Officially given its seal of approval by the Islamic State at the end of 2016, the ISGS operates mainly in the so-called three borders zone (Mali, Burkina, Niger) known as Liptako-Gourma, and is led by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, a former dissident member of al-Mourabitoun. His links with Ansarul Islam are unclear but security sources believe that the two groups organised the attack on Nassoumbou together.Hide Footnote

In June 2017, the unauthenticated publication of a Facebook page claiming to be from Ansarul Islam said that Jafar Dicko, Malam’s younger brother, had succeeded him at the head of the movement. This information corroborated the feeling among Burkina security sources that Malam may have died of wounds sustained during the military offensives in the spring. In the absence of formal proof or the confirmation or otherwise by Ansarul Islam, doubts remain.

Whether Malam is dead or alive, his ideas and dissent have swept the province and become firmly established. First, he denounces marabout families for enriching themselves by using their status of sole legitimate holders of religious authority to extort money from the population. This reflected the division between the traditional marabout families, who have historic legitimacy and within which the imamate is passed down on a hereditary basis, and a new generation of Muslim scholars who believe that religious authority should no longer be the prerogative of a minority. Malam challenges the right of the imams from these families to be the only ones authorised to lead prayers or give opinions on religious matters, especially as they do not always have the required knowledge. Mastery of Arabic lends credibility to this new generation of scholars in the eyes of the population. Malam also denounces the all-powerful nature of traditional chefferies (traditional leaders).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, historian, former minister, inhabitant of Soum, Fulani representative, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017; local authorities, political representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote

This challenge to the social order drives the questioning of traditional practices that, according to Malam, are not prescribed by Islam, such as gifts of money to marabouts at ceremonies, dowries or the organisation of costly parties to celebrate marriages and baptisms. A marriage can cost as much as CFA500,000 (€760), ten times the urban monthly minimum wage.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote This rhetoric prompts support from the most disadvantaged because it removes a financial burden. Malam also contests the hierarchical relationships between descendants of masters, the Fulani, and the descendants of slaves, the Rimaibé. Although slavery was abolished in the colonial period, there is still a marked division between these two groups.

Malam justifies his anti-establishment discourse by affirming it is in line with pure Islam and not perverted by tradition. For example, he says social inequalities are contrary to Islam. He uses Islam to challenge an ossified and unequal social order and practices that are no longer in line with the aspirations of the population. In this region, the Muslim religion is more of a tradition than a religious practice per se. It is not uncommon for princes to drink alcohol and it is forbidden to greet anyone by saying “salam aleikoum” in the courts of the chiefs.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representative, former senior official, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Although Malam’s movement is mainly composed of Fulani and Rimaibé, it is not strongly ethnic in character.

Although Malam’s movement is mainly composed of Fulani and Rimaibé, it is not strongly ethnic in character. His discourse certainly calls on the Fulani to defend themselves from the many humiliations to which they are subjected, although he does not openly say this in his sermons. But when he preaches equality between the Fulani and the Rimaibé, he is trying to reduce ethnic divisions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representative, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Moreover, there are not only Fulani and Rimaibé in his movement.[fn]There are also reportedly Songhai, Mossi and Fulsé. A Fulani representative tells how assailants associated with Malam spoke in Mooré, a language that not many Fulani from the Sahel region can speak well. The teacher killed in March 2017, Salif Badini, a Fulsé, was a former member of Malam’s group. Crisis Group interviews, journalist, diplomats, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Most of his followers are Fulani and Rimaibé because his sermons are in Fulfulde and most inhabitants of the Sahel region are from these communities, both of them Fulfulde-speaking. Malam also says “we are the Rimaibé of the whites”, revealing an unsurprising anti-Western dimension.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2009-2010, Malam’s sermons had a considerable impact throughout Soum. A revealing anecdote illustrates his success: an old elected representative of the province tells how a party activist one day suggested postponing their meeting, because “Malam is on the radio”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Malam lost most of his followers when he resorted to violence,[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, political representatives, Djibo, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote which suggests that although his discourse was successful, not many people believe that the armed struggle can provide a solution. Some of his ideas have taken hold in Soum. For example, it is now rare for a marriage to involve a party with dancing, flutes and drums as per the Fulani tradition.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former elected representative, marabout, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

His discourse has proved particularly attractive to young people and the more disadvantaged social sectors because he styles himself as a “defender of the poor” and a “liberator” who wants to lighten the weight of archaic and restrictive traditions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, deputy, Fulani representative, former elected representative, marabout, Ouagadougou, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote The Rimaibé, the lowest social class in Fulani society in Soum, are naturally very receptive to his calls for equality.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, local elected representatives, Djibo, May 2017; Rimaibé marabouts, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote His success reflects a generational division between older people, who are inclined to preserve tradition, and young people, who are ready to challenge the status quo as they seek to find a place for themselves in society. The same former elected representative tells how, during the Tabaski festival, a young follower of Malam criticised the practice according to which imams are the first to sacrifice their sheep. Those close to the imam belittled him and said he should not talk about the imam in this way.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

While Malam was head of the al-Irchad association, it attracted support from government employees, especially teachers. Al-Irchad helped some of them to repay debts as contracting debt is contrary to Islam.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authority, local elected representative, civil servants, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Some teachers were implicated in smuggling illegal goods, which would explain Ansarul Islam’s wish to eliminate them and stop them from denouncing their former comrades.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior civil servant, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote This gives credence to the impression that Ansarul Islam is targeting schools. However, although some schools have been threatened (although there have been no claims of responsibility), the attacks on teachers seem to be reprisals against former comrades (and potential informants to the security forces) rather than a wish to attack Western schools.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior civil servant, Ouagadougou, civil servant, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote The teacher killed at the beginning of March 2017, Salif Badini, was a former al-Irchad member and he had reportedly become an informer of the security forces.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior civil servant, journalist, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

The Ansarul Islam phenomenon is therefore the product of socio-political and cultural realities in Soum. It expresses the grievances of the silent majority that holds neither political power nor religious authority. It is not so much an Islamist challenge to modernity as a rejection of traditions that perpetuate an ossified society that breeds frustration. This phenomenon, which has deep local roots, seems to have attracted support from groups in neighbouring Mali, which gives it regional ramifications.

Local perception of the government as being distant and incapable of providing services also explains the increasing support for Malam’s movement. People feel that the government has abandoned the Sahel region and has not made the best of its economic potential. However, the Sahel region has the second lowest individual poverty rate in the country.[fn]The Sahel region has a poverty rate of 21 per cent, compared to 40 per cent in the country as a whole. “Profil de pauvreté et d’inégalités. Enquête multisectorielle continue (EMC) 2014”, Institut national de la statistique et de la démographie (INSD), November 2015, p. 30.Hide Footnote It is more the contrast between the region’s rich agricultural, pastoral and mining resources and its lack of development that causes frustration.

Poor infrastructure, especially the roads, a limited number of health centres and schools, lack of water and electricity supply make it seem that “all the indicators are in the red”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, Ouagadougou, economic operators, Djibo, May 2017. In 2014, the Sahel region came last in Burkina for access to basic services in less than 30 minutes. The primary school attendance rate is the lowest in the country (32.7 per cent), compared to 73.9 per cent in the country as a whole. “La region du Sahel en chiffres”, Ministry of Economy and Finance, Sahel Region Department, 2015.Hide Footnote The drought and the low water tables hold back the region’s main economic activities, which are agriculture and livestock farming.[fn]Many livestock farmers feel they have to migrate, while others have lost their animals and are employed as herders. This represents a step backwards socially and causes frustration. Crisis Group interviews, security source, opposition member, Fulani representative, former minister, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Djibo, the province’s administrative centre, is home to the country’s biggest cattle market, but the town’s roads have yet to be asphalted.[fn]The road is asphalted as far as Koungoussi. The bad condition of the road means it sometimes takes more than four hours to drive the 95km from Koungoussi to Djibo. Asphalting is under way and should be finished by the end of 2018. The funds for this work were reportedly misappropriated on several occasions. Crisis Group interview, local authority, Djibo, May 2017; Crisis Group email correspondence, Fulani representative, May 2017.Hide Footnote The mining boom showed how foreigners exploit the region’s extensive subsoil resources with no benefits accruing to local people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, deputy, Ouagadougou, June 2016; traditional authority, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Reflecting the feeling of abandonment by the government, several interlocutors in Djibo called for the government to tackle Soum’s remoteness by raising its administrative status from province to region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, economic operators, political representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote These problems are aggravated by the humanitarian crisis caused by the increasing insecurity.

The population of the Sahel region has a negative view of the government.

The population of the Sahel region has a negative view of the government. A former elected representative summarised it in this way: “People are really afraid of the authorities”. They think the government is more inclined to look after itself rather than look after them and that is prepared to use force to do so.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Historically reluctant to send their children to “French” schools, the Fulani often find it more difficult to find their way around an administrative system that is based on the French model and to understand and demand their rights. Few members of the civil service and the security forces sent to the Sahel region have a good command of Fulfulde. The language barrier increases the gap between the administration and the public. Soum’s inhabitants stress the difficulty of obtaining civil status documents and the authorities’ inability to help herders retrieve their stolen livestock.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, economic operators, Djibo, Fulani representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Although civil servants have long perceived the appointment to posts in the Burkina Sahel as punishment, many of them have become rich on the proceeds of trafficking, corruption and racketeering.[fn]For example, a farmer who cuts down a single branch from a tree in a protected forest can incur a fine of CFA50,000 (€76). This money is usually pocketed by water and forest rangers. Crisis Group interviews, deputy, opposition member, Ouagadougou, civil society representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote

In the Sahel region and beyond, there is a sense of victimisation among the Fulani, who are present throughout Burkina. Some complain of under-representation among the political and administrative elite and deplore the fact that, in their eyes, state institutions (justice, administration, security forces) discriminate in favour of other communities whenever there is a dispute.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security source, Ouagadougou, June 2016; Fulani representatives, Ouagadougou, October 2016; opposition member, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

This difficult Fulani relationship with the government complicates the fight against Ansarul Islam. From the start, the security forces found it difficult to secure the cooperation of the public, whether because some of them support the movement, while others refuse to inform on their own people, or because Ansarul Islam has established a climate of terror. The arrival of military reinforcements has gone some way to reassure the population and several interlocutors said that the population was slightly more inclined to help the security forces. For example, the security forces are trying to be more discreet when they contact their informants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, Djibo, former elected representative, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Nevertheless, distrust remains, and Ansarul Islam is still said to have supporters in the villages. The security forces still complain of a lack of public support and cooperation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former elected representative, security source, marabout, Ouagadougou, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017; telephone interview, security source, June 2017.Hide Footnote

People are worried about the way the security forces will behave and these fears may increase now that military reinforcements have arrived. Our interlocutors deplored the arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment of local people, which may strengthen the feeling of injustice and alienation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former official, Ouagadougou, January 2017; Fulani representative, security source, humanitarian worker, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017; local elected representative, religious leader, Djibo, May 2017. A Human Rights Watch report, which denounced human rights violations by the Malian and Burkina security forces in the fight against jihadism, confirmed these fears. “Mali: Unchecked Abuses in Military Operations”, Human Rights Watch, 8 September 2017.Hide Footnote The security forces say they sometimes arrest an entire group to avoid the impression that those who are allowed to go free are informants and therefore stop them becoming targets for Ansarul Islam.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local elected representative, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Whether or not that is true, it is nonetheless the case that the people of Soum feel stigmatised and this represents a real danger.

In some respects, the situation in Soum resembles that in the central region of Mali, a country with which Burkina shares a border of more than 1,000km. The Islamist leader Hamadoun Kouffa and Malam Ibrahim Dicko, who know each other, have had similar careers and have a similar discourse. Both preached in villages and on the radio and criticised the social order, the local elites and the government.[fn]For more on central Mali, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°238, Central Mali: an Uprising in the Making, 6 July 2016.Hide Footnote However, the situation in Burkina is different to that in Mali. Radical groups in central Mali seem to have drawn their support more from free nomadic pastoralists than from the Rimaibé, and they seek to broaden their following by disseminating sermons in other languages as well as in Fulfulde. The crisis in Soum has so far remained at a low intensity. Although it has created a climate of terror, Ansarul Islam has not managed to plunge the entire province in violence. For the moment, the Soum population is generally not inclined to take up arms.

There have been several attempts to establish terrorist cells in Burkina. The Katiba Ansar Dine Sud tried, unsuccessfully, to create a cell in the West, in the area where the attack on Samorogouan (Hauts-Bassins region) took place in October 2015. To the East, members of al-Mourabitoun, a dissident group that split from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, reportedly tried to establish a base in the Tapoa Forest. They failed because they are not so much at home in the forest compared to the desert and because military cooperation between Niger and Burkina works better than between Mali and Burkina (see section III.C.). The failure was also due to the fact that, contrary to in Soum, the populations of eastern and western Burkina are more stable and not ready for war.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January 2017. Al-Mourabitoun was the product of an alliance between the Brigade des Enturbannés, a dissident al-Qaeda group in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and part of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa in 2013. At the end of 2015, al-Mourabitoun rejoined AQIM and in 2017, the two groups joined others to form the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM). See Marc Mémier, “AQMI et Al-Mourabitoun, le djihad sahélien réunifié?”, Etudes de l’Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI), January 2017.Hide Footnote

It would be wrong to interpret the situation in northern Burkina as an extension of the Malian conflict, even though that conflict increases the availability of weapons and provides a safe haven for Ansarul Islam’s men. The crisis in Soum is not simply a mirror image of the situation in central Mali. It is mainly the result of acute local tensions. Several factors make it vulnerable and explain why this province is by far the most affected province in Burkina Faso.

The lack of an alternative narrative and the weakening of religious and traditional leaders are allowing Malam’s rhetoric to gain ground.

The traditional and religious authorities of Soum are not particularly involved in the fight against radicalism.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, political representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Unlike the neighbouring province of Séno, Soum has fewer Muslim intellectuals and scholars capable of combating the ideas that encourage violence and intolerance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, historian, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The absence of a central traditional power, strong rivalries between the three chefferies of Djibo, Baraboulé and Tongomayel and their politicisation further complicate their role.[fn]The emir of Djibo’s brother is the town’s deputy mayor, Oumarou Dicko. Crisis Group interviews, former official, historian, humanitarian worker, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The lack of an alternative narrative and the weakening of religious and traditional leaders are allowing Malam’s rhetoric to gain ground.

Soum suffers from a lack of development and infrastructure. In contrast, Dori, capital of Séno province, received more investment because it is the region’s administrative centre and because the 11 December national holiday was held there in 2013. Dori houses the regional hospital, while the January 2016 abduction of Ken Elliot, a prominent local Australian-Burkina doctor, reduced health-care provision in Djibo.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, Djibo, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, Djibo is closer to the Malian border (about 60km) than Dori (about 160km). Soum also lacks political leaders with a national profile, while Séno has long benefitted from the influence of the charismatic former mayor of Dori, the late Hama Arba Diallo.

Soum’s vulnerability is also due to historical reasons. The division between the Fulani and the Rimaibé is more marked there than in the neighbouring provinces of Séno and Yagha. It is therefore logical that the challenge to social inequalities should find greater acceptance there. The emirates of Séno and Yagha were more homogeneous than that of Jelgooji (now Soum), which was affected by divisions between families and chefferies. In Séno and Yagha, the longer-standing spread of Islam allowed it to better resist external influences.[fn]Crisis Group interview, historian, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Geographical factors also play a part, since it is more difficult to find cover on the great plains of Séno and Yagha than in the forest located between Djibo and the Malian border. Finally, animism prevails in eastern and western Burkina, while 95 per cent of the population in the Sahel region follows Islam. All this helps explain why Islamic discourse has had greater traction in the Sahel region.

At the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, the number of attacks in Soum increased and it looked as though the government might lose control over parts of the North. In the spring of 2017, the security forces began to reassert control, but were unable to eradicate the threat, as shown by the persistence of targeted killings and the increasing number of attacks (see chronology in Appendix C). The slow and problematic reconstruction of the security apparatus following the fall of the Compaoré regime explains the difficulties in providing an adequate response. Strengthening regional cooperation is an essential component of this response.

In the spring of 2017, the government’s decision to send military reinforcements to the North and undertake joint operations with Malian and French forces in Operation Barkhane allowed the Burkina army to gain the upper hand and go some way to reassuring the local population.[fn]The Groupement des forces anti-terroristes (GFAT), which became the Groupement des forces de sécurisation du Nord (GFSN), has between 500 and 1,600 men. Operations Panga (Burkina, Mali, Barkhane) and Bayard (Barkhane) destroyed major logistical bases in Foulsaré Forest and led to arrests. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, security sources, humanitarian worker, inhabitant of Soum, Ouagadougou, May 2017; local elected representative, religious leader, Djibo, May 2017. Operation Barkhane, which involved 4,000 French soldiers, followed Operation Serval in July 2014. Based in N’Djamena, Chad, it fights armed terrorist groups in the Sahara-Sahel Belt.Hide Footnote Visits by several ministers to the region sent a strong signal that the government would not withdraw. Even the opposition recognises the “progress in the fight against terrorism”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opposition member, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote However, it is not clear to the security forces how they are going to maintain the pressure and ensure their long-term presence.[fn]A security source said: “we will be in this quagmire for a long time”, while another recognised that “There is a lot to do”. Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The rainy season, which makes roads unusable and isolates the population between July and October, has not brought the lull that some observers were expecting.

The capacity of jihadist groups to reform, replace an incapacitated leader and formulate new strategies and courses of action should not be underestimated.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Even if Ansarul Islam has been weakened, it might still be able to take advantage of this breeding ground for recruitment. The remaining members might be even more determined. The possible death of their founder could galvanise them and make them more violent and less inclined to compromise. In the words of one security source: “We need to pay attention to how we kill this monster”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The fear and the threat remain, as shown by the increase in the number of targeted killings and attacks that have used a weapon not seen before in Burkina: improvised explosive devices, used for the first time in August 2017.[fn]Some of the people killed in July were members of Ansarul Islam and sought by the security forces. “Meurtres dans le nord du Burkina: Ansarul Islam victime d’une guerre intestine?”, Radio France Internationale (RFI), 26 July 2017; “Burkina: Un véhicule de l’armée saute sur un engin explosif dans le Soum”, Burkina 24, 23 September 2017.Hide Footnote

In addition, sending reinforcements to Soum reduces the number of soldiers available to protect other regions. Armed groups might therefore launch attacks elsewhere. The abduction of civil servants in May 2017 in Oudalan, the attacks on two gendarmerie posts in the West (Djibasso and Toéni) in September 2017, could indicate that the threat has moved to another area, or that new groups might take advantage of the focus on Soum and attack elsewhere.[fn]The lack of troops will be eased by the return of the battalion deployed in Darfur (about 850 men). Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Ansarul Islam is both a local movement and a group that has contacts, albeit problematic ones, with jihadists active in the Sahel.

Ansarul Islam is both a local movement and a group that has contacts, albeit problematic ones, with jihadists active in the Sahel. Although Malam is (or was) close to Hamadoun Kouffa, his links with the new coalition affiliated to al-Qaeda and led by Iyad ag Ghali, the Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin, (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, GSIM), are unclear. Some sources say he has disowned this alliance, while others think the GSIM is not interested in the contact because Malam is not powerful enough.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote There are reportedly divergences between Kouffa and Malam. The former is reportedly jealous of the increasing power of his “young friend” and did not approve of the killing of Malam’s former comrades because of the prohibition of killing Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, diplomats, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The publication on 12 September 2017 of a Facebook page attributed to Ansarul Islam, in which the movement denounced the death of Muslims in the mid-August 2017 terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, suggests there are strong divergences between Ansarul Islam and GSIM. However, this information should be treated with caution, as the Facebook page has not been authenticated.

At the beginning of 2017, Malam seemed to be getting closer to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and they reportedly carried out a joint attack on Nassoumbou.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote Ansarul Islam uses central Mali as a support base and must therefore have contact with groups that operate there.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Ansarul Islam may be plotting a middle course between two tendencies represented by the GSIM and the ISGS.

Ansarul Islam rarely claims responsibility for its actions and has no official channel of communication. It is difficult to blame the group for all the security incidents in the Sahel region. It does not have a monopoly of violence. Banditry and other criminal activities affect the region. Insecurity is exacerbated by the trafficking of light arms from Algeria, Libya and Mali, where Boulikessi, close to the border, is a staging post.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former civil servant, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote A Kalashnikov costs CFA300,000 or two heifers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local elected representatives, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Another cause for concern is the presence of Koglweogo, civilian self-defence groups, in many places in the country. They defend their communities from criminals, insecurity and cattle theft. When they are composed of local villagers, their presence does not seem to pose a problem.[fn]For example, the localities of Pobe Mengao, Aribinda and Tongomayel. Crisis Group interview, traditional authority, Djibo, May 2017. Created in the 1990s to protect the environment, the Koglweogo are now self-defence groups that combat insecurity, crime and banditry. Since 2015, they have become more numerous and spread particularly to the centre, the North region and southern and eastern Burkina.Hide Footnote However, Koglweogo from other regions of Burkina were chased out of Kerboulé (a gold panning site 60km from Djibo) by armed men (possibly connected to Ansarul Islam).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, local elected representative, Djibo, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Clashes between Koglweogo and other armed groups cannot be ruled out. The presence of Ruga, groups of Fulani herders armed with hunting guns and responsible for recovering lost or stolen herds, could further complicate the security equation, even though there is currently no evidence that they pose any kind of a risk.[fn]According to one security source, members of the Ruga were arrested during the operations conducted in spring 2017. Crisis Group telephone interview, security source, June 2017.Hide Footnote

The political unrest in Burkina since Blaise Compaoré’s fall from power in October 2014 disrupted the security apparatus. Compaoré’s diplomacy allowed him to keep many armed groups away from Burkina territory by displaying a benevolent attitude toward some of them. The intelligence service depended more on men and their networks than on institutions. Created in October 2015, the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) is a “big machine [that] has not really got off the ground yet”, even though it had begun to centralise intelligence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The dismantling of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), an elite army unit under Compaoré, also disrupted the security apparatus.[fn]The arms held by the RSP have not always been appropriately redistributed. One security source says that at the time of the terrorist attack on Ouagadougou in January 2016, one of the reasons the Burkina security forces were not able to launch an attack on the Hotel Splendid was because they did not have night vision spectacles. Those held by the RSP were put into storage instead of being distributed to units that would need them. Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote

In the long term, the main challenge facing the Burkina security forces is adapting to new threats. The asymmetric war against non-state armed groups requires resources and strategies that are very different to those required in conventional warfare. The security forces have become accustomed to life in their barracks rather than going out to fight, as Burkina has never gone to war against another country (except for two brief armed conflicts with Mali in 1974 and 1985) and has not suffered a civil war. Promoting a culture of combat and sacrifice, the exact opposite of “a ceremonial army”, is bound to take time.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote However, Burkina soldiers have had experience of combat during deployments in external operations in sometimes difficult terrain (Darfur, northern Mali).

As long as the armed forces are not able to work among the local population like the jihadist groups do, the latter will have an advantage.

Two elements that are lacking but are indispensable in the fight against armed groups are air power and intelligence. Unarmed Burkina reconnaissance planes are only able to signal a threat: in a remote area, it would need several hours to drive to a given place. Combat helicopters are also necessary. But in addition to equipment, it is training that is really needed. The armed forces deployed in the North also lack the motorbikes they need to move around the bush as easily as their enemies. There is still no intelligence system. As long as the armed forces are not able to work among the local population like the jihadist groups do, the latter will have an advantage.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

In addition, the security forces suffer from more deep-seated problems. The generation gap undermines cohesion. Ordinary soldiers, young and dissatisfied with their material conditions, believe the hierarchy still supports the old regime, does not have the motivation to leave their air-conditioned offices and is incapable of tackling the new threats. Young non-commissioned officers deplore the weakness of the general staff’s communications and its limited use of new technologies, in a context in which communication is key to defeating terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Human resources management is another weakness: there are not enough administration officers, they do not have the necessary skills and this causes frustration especially with regard to promotion.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security source, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote The army hierarchy is top-heavy with too many high-ranking colonels and not enough junior officers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, the historic rivalry between the police force and the gendarmerie undermines their effectiveness. These two corps are deployed in both urban and rural areas and their duties overlap.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January 2016, January and May 2017. The tension between police officers and gendarmes within the Republican Security and Protection Group, responsible for presidential security, illustrates this distrust. “Burkina Faso: tensions entre policiers et gendarmes de la garde présidentielle”, Africa News, 7 August 2017.Hide Footnote All these weaknesses, which should be dealt with as part of security sector reform, partly explain why the security forces are finding it difficult to counter the threat posed by Ansarul Islam.

Adapting to cross-border threats involves strengthening regional and international cooperation. While the Burkina military recognise that France’s assistance is indispensable, they want “to sort things out themselves”, because “nobody is going to die in [their] place”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote One sector of public opinion does not trust France. Some people accuse it of playing a double game vis-à-vis armed groups, particularly with regard to the Tuareg of northern Mali. The result is a desire to diversify partnerships and get help from the United States, Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe.

Burkina has strengthened regional cooperation with Mali and Niger. They have finally formalised the right of hot pursuit but this can pose problems because of sometimes inefficient communications and the risk of clashes between armies.[fn]The unwritten rule states that a neighbouring army should not go more than 40km beyond the border. Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The region’s countries, encouraged by France, are trying to strengthen regional cooperation through a G5 Sahel (Burkina, Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania) joint force project. However, Burkina officers are not very enthusiastic about it. They view it as “an endless round of meetings”, according to one security source.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017. The plan for a G5 Sahel joint force was officially announced at the Bamako summit at the start of February 2017. The aim would be to combat insecurity and terrorist armed groups in the Sahel. The five G5 countries were to each provide 1,000 men, deployed along three border zones: Mali-Mauritania, Mali-Burkina-Niger and Chad-Niger. The G5, which was formed in 2014, aims to provide a regional response to a regional problem and to “africanise” security.Hide Footnote The Burkina leadership believes that Chad and Mauritania are too far away to be worried about the same threats.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Besides, funding of the G5 force has not yet been secured.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Ouagadougou, May 2017. The budget proposed for the joint force is €423 million, but this figure could be revised downwards. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Paris, July 2017. The European Union has promised €50 million and G5 members have agreed to contribute €10 million each. In addition to operational and technical assistance, France has promised €8 million.Hide Footnote

The tripartite dynamic between Burkina, Mali and Niger that is emerging with the plan to deploy one of the three components of the G5 force in the three borders zone, known as Liptako-Gourma, provokes greater optimism. The Burkina believe it is more effective to work in three rather than five. The force will be deployed in Liptako-Gourma but will not include Soum, which remains a Burkina-Mali problem.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

The creation of the G5 joint force raises the question of coordination with MINUSMA.

The Burkina military are also sceptical about the effectiveness of the UN mission in Mali, MINUSMA. They feel its mandate is inadequate.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, September 2016, January and May 2017. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2359 (21 June 2017) supported the creation of a joint G5 force to improve security and enable MINUSMA to fulfil its mandate. Resolution 2364 (29 June 2017) prolonged MINUSMA’s mandate and provided for cooperation, coordination and information sharing between the G5 force and the UN mission.Hide Footnote The creation of the G5 joint force raises the question of coordination with MINUSMA, which already has more than 15,000 soldiers and police officers and costs close to $1 billion per year. Moreover, complex overlapping of remits runs the risk of undermining the force’s effectiveness. Besides, the vagueness of the joint force’s mandate, targeting “terrorist groups” and “other organised criminal groups”, further complicates the task.

Cooperation is not going as well with Mali as it is with Niger. Some sectors of the Burkina security apparatus are irritated with their Malian neighbour, whom they accuse of not being effective enough in the fight against the armed groups on their territory, leading to the conflict there spilling over into Burkina.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote One security source deplored the presence of certain armed groups either close to or supported by Bamako along the border with Burkina.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The difficult relations between Burkina and Mali date from the Compaoré era, when members of Malian armed groups, starting with the leader of Ansar Dine, the Tuareg Iyad ag Ghali, were allowed to move freely in Ouagadougou. The Burkina military believe their Malian counterparts are “lazy” and joined the army to get an income and not to defend the country.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote Conversely, they are well disposed toward Niger, because it deploys the resources necessary to prevent armed groups from proliferating on its territory. The Burkina military praise their Nigerien counterparts for their proactive approach and effectiveness.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, May 2017. The good understanding between Burkina and Niger is also based on the special relationship between the Nigerien president, Mahamadou Issoufou, and the president of the Burkina National Assembly, Salif Diallo, who died at the end of August 2017.Hide Footnote

At the start of 2017, after months of denial, the Burkina authorities finally understood the need to go beyond military action and formulate a global response to the crisis. They launched an emergency development program for the Sahel region aimed at building infrastructure and reducing poverty. However, these development efforts will not be enough to resolve the crisis, the causes of which are local and deeply rooted in the structure of Fulani society in Soum. An understanding of the importance of the following measures could help to provide a more effective response.

Formulate responses that take into account the social and local dimensions of the crisis. Ansarul Islam’s ideology is based on its challenge to a social order that breeds frustration and conflict. The government should not seek to disturb socio-cultural dynamics or to upend a centuries-old social order. It is perhaps better to focus on encouraging local actors to find solutions adapted to a crisis that is deeply rooted in local circumstances. The government and its international partners will not find solutions to questions that pertain to the private life of northern Burkina Faso’s society. They can at best encourage intercommunal and inter-generational dialogue that may help them identify solutions to their own crisis.

Reduce the gulf between security forces and authorities and the local population. Strengthening the military presence will not be truly effective for as long as local people refuse to collaborate with the security forces. In the short term, the latter should prioritise the development of an intelligence system and gain access to the community, for example, by distributing mobile phones more generously to enable individuals and units to communicate more easily and by making a special effort to protect them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote Deploying Fulfulde-speaking troops and civil servants would also help to reduce the language barrier.

In the long term, distrust could be eased if more Fulani were recruited into the security forces and the civil service. It is not necessary to impose quotas or to adopt a policy of positive discrimination, which would give unwanted ethnic overtones to the initiative. However, for example, the government could encourage recruitment by making the entrance examinations more accessible, while remembering that the Fulani have not traditionally had a vocation for joining the security forces or the civil service.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017. A resident of Soum who wants to enter the entrance examinations for the army or the gendarmerie must go to Dori or Kaya respectively, both of which are located about 200km from Djibo.Hide Footnote

Boosting the military’s civic activities would help to show that the security forces can make a useful contribution and go some way to reducing public distrust in them.

Boosting the military’s civic activities would help to show that the security forces can make a useful contribution and go some way to reducing public distrust in them.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, arrests should be carried out according to due procedure and should respect human rights. Abusive behaviour by the security forces and civil servants – racketeering, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, physical abuse – must be punished more severely.

Regulate religious discourse to combat intolerant and hateful statements, an area where religious and traditional authorities could play a key role. There is a need to improve understanding of the religious landscape in order to fight against intolerant and hateful statements, give more support to Islamic education and invest in the training of imams and Muslim scholars in order to provide them with tools to combat ideas that encourage violence and intolerance. The legitimacy of religious and traditional leaders is sometimes challenged so this is also about ensuring they are sufficiently representative, avoiding any impression that they support the government or are in its pay and ensuring that young people feel they defend their interests. The authorities could prioritise the establishment in Djibo of a section of the Union Fraternelle des Croyants, an association based in Dori that promotes religious tolerance and dialogue.

Place greater emphasis in the emergency program for the Sahel region on promoting livestock breeding, improving justice provision and fighting corruption.[fn]“Programme d’urgence pour le Sahel au Burkina Faso (PUS-BF), 2017-2020”, final document, June 2017, copy supplied to Crisis Group.Hide Footnote The perception that the government is doing nothing to support livestock breeding, the region’s main economic activity, increases alienation.[fn]There is a widespread feeling in Burkina (and in neighbouring countries) that herding is the poor relation of development policies even though it contributes a lot to GDP. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani representatives, Ouagadougou, October 2016.Hide Footnote As herders are mostly Fulani, this feeling could take on an ethnic connotation. For example, it should increase the size of grazing areas and the number of wells and improve cattle tracks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, religious leader, Djibo, May 2017.Hide Footnote Infrastructure should also be at the heart of development policies. For example, the construction of a regional hospital in Djibo, on the model of the one in Dori, would improve health care in the provincial capital. The failings of the judiciary and the corruption in the public administration are grievances often expressed by the public. Doing more to address these two issues would send a message that the government can have a useful and positive impact on the daily life of the inhabitants of the Sahel region.

Strengthen judicial and police cooperation between Mali and Burkina, so that the authorities of these countries can be informed when one of their nationals is arrested in another country.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, January and May 2017.Hide Footnote It is not enough to arrest members of jihadist groups. It is also necessary to open investigations across several countries and then bring perpetrators to justice. This will prevent them exploiting the lack of coordination between countries and slipping through the net. Although police cooperation has improved, a lot remains to be done with regard to the judiciary.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote

Moreover, the security forces deployed in the North urgently need more motorbikes in order to move around the bush more easily and better means of communication to improve the circulation of information. The Burkina armed forces could also do more to improve their reporting to national public opinion about the progress they are making.

It is still too early to assess the long-term effectiveness of the government’s response. But, already, the lull expected in the wake of the rainy season (July to October), which should have impeded movement and reduced attacks by Ansarul Islam, has not materialised. Several lethal attacks took place in northern Burkina in July, August and September. The weakening of this armed group or the death of its founder will not be enough to resolve the security and social crisis in northern Burkina. The crisis will last for as long as the deep roots that permitted its growth remain and could indeed spread to other provinces if nothing is done.

Ougadougou/Dakar, 12 October 2017

Attacks by extremist groups in Burkina Faso (January-September 2017) UN OCHA
Map of the Mali-Burkina Faso Border Zone. CRISIS GROUP

A timeline of security incidents in Burkina Faso since 2015 is available in the PDF version of this report.

Archbishop Philippe Ouedrago sits at Place de la Nation square in Ouagadougou along with other religious leaders in August 2012. AFP/Ahmed Ouoba
Archbishop Philippe Ouédraogo sits at Place de la Nation square in Ouagadougou along with other religious leaders in August 2012. AFP/Ahmed Ouoba
Report 240 / Africa

Burkina Faso: Preserving the Religious Balance

In a troubled region, Burkina Faso is a rare example of religious​ diversity and​ tolerance​.​ But a perceived discrepancy between a significant number of Muslims and their low level of public representation has created tensions. To safeguard Burkina’s model of peaceful coexistence, the government must address this sensitive issue through careful reforms, particularly in the education system.​

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Burkina Faso’s great religious diversity and tolerance make it an exception in Africa’s sub-Saharan Sahel. Its model of religious coexistence remains solid but could be at risk of being eroded. For several years now, Muslim leaders have complained that Muslims are under-represented in the civil service and that the administration is not always even-handed in its treatment of Christianity and Islam. Meanwhile, the rising tide of religiously motivated violence in West Africa and the Sahel has created a new regional context. As Burkina is recovering from a period of instability following the October 2014 downfall of former President Blaise Compaoré, and faced with a security emergency and strong social pressures, the government could be tempted to ignore these developments. It would be risky to raise the sensitive issue of religion in a country where religious identity is of secondary importance. But the government must take steps now to ease frustrations and regulate religious discourse to safeguard Burkina’s model of peaceful coexistence.

Burkina lies at the crossroads of two large regions in West Africa: the Sahel region, where a fundamentalist form of Islam seems to be gaining ground and armed and terrorist groups are active; and the coastal region, where new Protestant churches sometimes adopt an intolerant discourse toward other religions. Given the porosity of borders and the speed at which ideas circulate, the country cannot remain untouched by the changes that are affecting its neighbours.

Burkina has never suffered civil war or religious conflict. Muslims, Christians and animists are neighbours, live together and inter-marry. However, the January 2016 attacks in Ouagadougou were a shock to both the general public and the ruling class. Isolated incidents of verbal aggression against Muslims were reported in the following weeks. They revealed some degree of stigmatisation and reflected concerns that had not been present until then. Religious matters are taboo in Burkina. Peaceful coexistence is based on religious pluralism and the secondary importance of religious identity. Bringing the question of religion into the public and political arena carries risks, including exacerbation of religious differences and political manipulation of identities. However, in a worrying regional context and as new domestic tensions emerge, it is time to break the taboo.

Muslims have long been frustrated at the discrepancy between their numbers – according to a contested census they represent about 60 per cent of the population, Christians 25 per cent and animists 15 per cent – and their low representation within the political elite and the civil service. They also feel that public administration is sometimes biased in favour of Christianity and does not take their interests sufficiently into account. Frustrations are sometimes exaggerated, but perceptions are more important than reality. In a country long ruled by a mainly Christian elite, this imbalance is not due to intentional discrimination; rather, it is the legacy of colonisation and a multi-tiered education system. Burkina’s authorities must correct the imbalance while avoiding sectarianism. They must upgrade Franco-Arab education, which caters for a certain number of Muslim children and aims to combine Islamic and general education. If they fail to do so, some parts of the population may no longer feel the state is a useful interlocutor and turn to other ways of expressing their feelings.

It is all the more important to maintain the balance between communities given that individual religious behaviours have evolved, though it is difficult to assess the extent of such changes. Some Muslims are attracted to a fundamentalist form of Islam inspired by Wahhabism. Certain Muslim leaders are concerned about foreign influence, especially from Gulf countries, which, although difficult to measure, may contribute to the development of stricter religious practices. Meanwhile, some Protes­tants are attracted by the discourse of new churches, some of which preach values that have little to do with tolerance.

However, the rise in religiosity does not mean a higher risk of violence – a distinction rarely made in the current debate on violent extremism and religious radicalisation. The return to a more fundamentalist Islam does not necessarily involve a greater propensity to violence, as shown by the existence of fundamentalist quietist currents. Similarly, violence that seems to be religiously motivated may in fact be due to other reasons, such as crime, greed and local, ethnic or socio-economic grievances. Changes in religious behaviour may nevertheless be dangerous when they disrupt social relations. Disregard of or refusal to dialogue with other faiths could lead to communities withdrawing into themselves. The authorities must understand the significance of this risk and do more to regulate religious discourse.

Burkina’s technical and financial partners can play a key role in providing advice and support for the necessary reforms, including building the capacities of the Ministry of Local Government, Decentralisation and Internal Security (MATDSI), which is responsible for overseeing religious affairs, and the National Observatory on Religious Affairs (ONAFAR), which is attached to the ministry. Burkina is a small, very poor country with few natural resources. But its position at the heart of the increasingly troubled Sahel region and its capacity to withstand political instability have made it a firewall against religious radicalisation and terrorism in West Africa. Burkina’s religious pluralism and tolerance set a good example. For all these reasons, the Burkinabè government and its international partners should address the tensions that are starting to appear between religious communities and between them and the state.

To ensure a more representative political and civil service elite

To the Burkina Faso authorities:

  1. Improve the representation of Muslims within the political and civil service elite without resorting to the dangerous method of using quotas by:
    1. continuing efforts to upgrade the Franco-Arab education system, especially by requiring high standards in the use of the French language, introducing a national curriculum for all French-Arab schools, and publicising such efforts through the media;
    2. granting equivalent status for degrees awarded by universities in Arab countries and ensuring that graduates are well-informed about the procedures, so as to facilitate their access to employment and reduce their feelings of social exclusion; and
    3. exploring opportunities to facilitate French language learning for Arab university graduates, for example by creating training centres, possibly with the support of technical and financial partners.
  2. Realise the dangers posed by begging and the limited prospects for thousands of children leaving Quranic schools, and release financial resources to remedy these problems.
  3. Give greater status to Arabic in secondary and higher education, for example by offering Arabic courses and re-considering the creation of an Arabic language department at the University of Ouagadougou.

To Muslim leaders:

  1. Improve communication with the public about the government’s efforts to upgrade Franco-Arab education so as to reduce misunderstandings between the government and Muslim leaders and citizens.
  2. Work with the government to reform Franco-Arab education and accept the government’s requirements in this respect.

To ensure visibility of all religions in the public sphere

To the Burkina Faso authorities:

  1. Encourage better representation of the various religions when participation of religious authorities is requested, by giving equal representation to Christians and Muslims.
  2. Guarantee equal status and visibility to all religions in public affairs and in the media, particularly on Burkina Radio-Television (RTB) and during religious holidays.

To improve the regulation of religious discourse and promote coexistence

To the Burkina Faso authorities:

  1. Begin, as far as resources allow, a mapping of all places of worship and their leaders throughout the country, following the Ivorian example where religious leaders have an electronic ID with names, contact details and religious affiliation.
  2. Grant more financial resources to the public freedoms and political affairs department of the Ministry of Local Government, Decentralisation and Internal Security (MATDSI) so that staff are able to work effectively.
  3. Adopt the bill on religious freedom prepared by the MATDSI and then publicise the new law to the general public.
  4. Strengthen the National Observatory on Religious Affairs (ONAFAR) by increasing its budget, recruiting administrative staff to support its volunteer members and providing office equipment.

To religious leaders:

  1. Prepare the next generation of leaders by ensuring greater participation by young people and women in faith associations, and promote unity within each movement and each religion.


  1. Formulate a communications strategy to publicise its role and activities, organise public education campaigns, using the media (especially radio) and, in the long term, set up regional and provincial offices.

To the authorities, religious leaders and the media:

  1. Give greater publicity to examples of religious coexistence using the media, especially radio.

To technical and financial partners:

  1. Increase support to interfaith dialogue initiatives, whether they come from the government or from religious associations, prioritising youth organisations, and consider providing financial assistance to ONAFAR and budgetary support for the reforms that the government must implement (Franco-Arab education, mapping of places of worship, etc.).

Dakar/Brussels, 6 September 2016

Map of Burkina Faso CRISIS GROUP

According to the 2006 census, Burkina’s population is 60.5 per cent Muslim, 19 per cent Catholic, 15.3 per cent animist and 4.2 per cent Protestant.[fn]Statistics are available here. A regional breakdown of figures is available here.Hide Footnote  These figures should, however, be treated with caution. The census was conducted ten years ago; religious mobility is high in Burkina; and many Christians and Muslims adhere to a syncretic version of their religions that draws on animist practices.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analyst, journalist, Ouagadougou, April 2016. Katrin Langewiesche, Mobilité religieuse. Changements religieux au Burkina Faso (Münster, 2003).Hide Footnote  Most families are mixed and it would be unwise to deduce from names or the head of the family’s faith that all relatives are followers of a particular religion.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, priests, Ouagadougou, Ouahigouya, April 2016; minister, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  These figures, though they are disputed,[fn]For example, a minister told Crisis Group that a Muslim was in command of the ministry in charge of the census and that the results were therefore biased. Crisis Group interview, minister, Ouagadougou, January 2016. The economy and finance ministry, responsible for conducting the census, was led at the time by Seydou Bouda.Hide Footnote  give some idea of the situation until the results of the census scheduled for December 2016 are published.

The question of the balance between religious communities differs from region to region: in Ouagadougou, the capital, the religious landscape is varied and more susceptible to external influences; the Sahel, northern and western regions are strongly Islamised; and in the central, southern and eastern parts of the country, Islam either has less of a majority or is in a minority, while animism is still important.

Although, for the moment, Burkina’s model of peaceful coexistence remains robust, it is beginning to be eroded at the margins.

Although, for the moment, Burkina’s model of peaceful coexistence remains robust, it is beginning to be eroded at the margins. Tensions are emerging between the state and religions (neutrality is difficult in a multi-faith context) and between and within the different religious communities. Religious matters are largely taboo in Burkina. Several interviewees recognised that problems exist but preferred not to discuss them, or at least not publicly, for fear that it would create tensions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, young Muslims, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, January, April 2016.Hide Footnote  With typical Burkinabe optimism, others were convinced that there is no threat to the peaceful religious coexistence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, politicians, civil society representatives, Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016; Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016, Dédougou, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Most interviewees nevertheless admitted that tensions are emerging and that they might prove dangerous in the long term. These difficulties highlight the need to start a discussion on these issues, which are sensitive but crucial for social cohesion.

These questions pose a genuine dilemma for the authorities. It is tempting to believe that the country’s model of religious tolerance is strong enough to dispense with a complex discussion on sensitive questions with no obvious solution. Such a debate carries the risk of exacerbating religious identities, or even provoking antagonisms, and could tempt some politicians into manipulation. However, as the regional context is coloured by the rise of religiosity and violence in the name of Islam, combined with longstanding frustrations, it would be sensible to start the discussion.

This report aims to encourage and contribute to the discussion about relations between the state and religions, between the different religious communities and the tensions within these groups in Burkina.

This report aims to encourage and contribute to the discussion about relations between the state and religions, between the different religious communities and the tensions within these groups in Burkina. It is part of a series of Crisis Group reports on the theme of religion, state and society.[fn]For example, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°229, Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism, 3 September 2015, and Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°117, Ethiopia: Governing the Faithful, 22 February 2016.Hide Footnote  The report shows that Burkina’s model of peaceful coexistence remains strong and that countries faced with religious tensions or at risk of facing such tensions can learn from Burkina’s example. However, Burkina’s model, which is the product of the country’s specific history and culture, cannot be exported as it is, especially to countries such as Niger and Mali, where the overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim and the religious context therefore differs. Finally, although it is not a study of radicalisation, this report highlights that relations between religions and the state create frustrations in Burkina, and concludes that interested parties must take these into consideration so as to preserve the model of tolerance. It finally makes recommendations that contribute to a solution.

The report is based on more than one hundred interviews with Catholic, Protes­tant and Muslim leaders, members of youth associations, civil servants, government and civil society representatives, researchers and analysts in Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, Kaya, Dori, Ouahigouya, Dédougou and Fada N’Gourma, mainly in January and April 2016.

Understanding Burkina’s religious diversity requires taking a look at the history of how religions spread across the country. Several factors explain the resilience of the model of religious tolerance, despite recent tensions.

The peaceful progress of Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism explains why religious pluralism in Burkina is so deeply rooted. From the sixteenth century onwards, Yarsé and Dioula traders and Fulani herders helped spread Islam respectively in the north, west and Sahel regions of the territory that is now Burkina Faso.[fn]Issa Cissé, “Islam et économie au Burkina Faso. Relations et enjeux”, History and Archaeology Department, Ouagadougou University, undated; Adrienne Vanvyve, “L’islam burkinabè sous la IVème République”, Cahiers d’études africaines, no. 219, vol. 3 (2015); and Assimi Kouanda, “La progression de l’islam au Burkina pendant la période coloniale”, in Gabriel Massa, Georges Madiéga, La Haute-Volta coloniale: témoignages, recherches, regards (Paris, 1995). Crisis Group interview, specialist on Islam in Burkina, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Eager to boost their business, traders accepted customary power structures. They gradually spread Islam to other groups, particularly the Mossi, but African traditions based on animism continued to carry considerable weight.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher, Ouagadougou, April 2016. Adama Ouédraogo, “Les mosquées de Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso): organisation et fonctionnement”, Revue algérienne d’anthropologie et de sciences sociales, vol. 38, pp. 45-71 (2007).Hide Footnote  After having resisted for a long time, the Mogho Naba, King of the Mossi, converted to Islam in a personal capacity at the end of the eighteenth century. It continued to spread during the colonial period.[fn]“La progression de l’islam au Burkina pendant la période coloniale”, op. cit.; and “L’islam burkinabè sous la IVème République”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  With no political aspirations, Islam long remained under the “triple domination” of customary power, then colonisation and finally Catholicism.[fn]Assimi Kouanda, “Les confits au sein de la communauté musulmane du Burkina: 1962-1986”, in Ousmane Kane, Jean-Louis Triaud, Islam et Islamismes au sud du Sahara (Paris, 1998).Hide Footnote

Catholicism arrived much later, at the start of the twentieth century, with the French colonial administration. The Catholic Church wanted to promote literacy and education, in accordance with the colonisers’ civilising mission, and to produce Burkina’s future elites. The work of Father Joanny Thévenoud, a French priest who arrived in Upper Volta at the start of the twentieth century, was decisive for the establishment and development of Catholicism in the country. His opposition to colonial administration attracted many to Catholicism. After independence, the Catholic Church became a major political force, notably thanks to its close relations with the country’s first president, Maurice Yaméogo.[fn]Maurice Yaméogo received a Catholic education at the Pabré Seminary, nursery of the elites. However, his relations with the Church deteriorated following his second marriage (the Catholic Church does not recognise divorce). The loss of support from the Church contributed to his fall from power in 1966. Jean-Marie Bouron, “Amitiés, inimitiés. Les rapports incertains de l’Eglise catholique avec la Première République voltaïque (1960-1966)”, Civilisations, no. 60, vol. 1 (2011). Ismaïla Kane, “Etats et minorités religieuses: les représentations des catholiques au Burkina Faso et au Sénégal”, thesis, Ottawa University (2015).Hide Footnote  The Church was also active in social and humanitarian work, which helped consolidate its position.

Protestantism was imported from the U.S. at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Church of the Assemblies of God was the first evangelical church to establish itself in Burkina and it remains the main Protestant denomination in the country to this day. Burkina quickly became one of the main targets for evangelisation in West Africa. Protestantism initially grew in rural areas and spread to the towns from the 1980s onwards.[fn]For more on Protestantism in Burkina, see Pierre-Joseph Laurent’s work, especially Les pentecôtistes du Burkina Faso: mariage, pouvoir et guérison (Paris, 2003).Hide Footnote

This brief historical outline helps understand the current situation. There are many Catholics among the political and administrative elites while Muslims, who form the majority of the country’s population, are underrepresented. For a long time, Muslims avoided Catholic schools, which they perceived as instruments of colonial domination and evangelisation. What a Muslim leader called the “massive delay in Muslims’ involvement in the administration of the country” is a result of history.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim representative, Ouagadougou, January 2016. All the Muslims interviewed by Crisis Group recognised that this “delay” was due to their rejection of school during the colonial period and the first two decades after independence. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim representatives, Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, Kaya, Dori, Dédougou, Ouahigouya, Fada N’Gourma, February and July 2015, January, April 2016.Hide Footnote

The situation evolved in the 1970s due to several factors. In 1966, General Sangoulé Lamizana, the only Muslim president of independent Burkina, came to power. This opened a period of diplomatic rapprochement with Arab countries, which provided development aid. At the same time, the return of many Burkinabè from the pilgrimage in Mecca increased the visibility of Islam in Burkina and its inclination to make demands. This “Islamic awakening”, as anthropologist Maud Saint-Lary termed it, took place in many sub-Saharan African countries.[fn]See Maud Saint-Lary’s work on Islam in Burkina, for example, “Le Coran en cours du soir. La formation comme outil de réislamisation des musulmans francophones”, ethnographiques.org, no. 22 (May 2011).Hide Footnote

Muslims gradually became more aware of their identity and demographic weight, and also of their lack of organisation, stark in contrast to the well-structured and organised Catholic Church. This was manifested in 1962 with the creation of the Muslim Community of Upper Volta (now the Muslim Community of Burkina Faso, CMBF), which aimed to represent the interests of all Burkinabè Muslims. From then on, Muslims want to “ensure their aspirations are taken into account while respecting the principle of secularism”.[fn]“Les conflits au sein de la communauté musulmane du Burkina: 1962-1986”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  They believe that only those Muslim elites who are capable of navigating the political and administrative system inherited from the West will be able to defend their interests.

Attending school became indispensable and produced a Muslim elite capable of formulating demands. In the 1970s, competition to this Francophone elite, many of whom had been educated at Christian schools, emerged with Arab-educated intellectuals who had studied at Arab universities with the help of scholarships. This prompted an increase in the number of Franco-Arab schools that aimed to provide a Western education while promoting an Islamic identity.[fn]Issa Cissé, “Les médersas au Burkina Faso. L’aide arabe et l’enseignement arabo-islamique”, in Islam et islamismes au sud du Sahara, op. cit., and René Otayek, “L’affirmation élitaire des arabisants au Burkina Faso”, in René Otayek (dir.), Le radicalisme islamique au sud du Sahara (Paris, 1993). For more on Franco-Arab schools, see section III.B.3.Hide Footnote  For several reasons, however, these changes did not call into question the country’s model of religious tolerance.

Several factors ensure the strength of Burkina’s peaceful coexistence model. All interviewees emphasised that the different religious communities do not simply live side by side, they live together. There are few Burkinabè who do not have a friend, relative or neighbour of a different faith. Even though the religious landscape varies from one region to another, there are no exclusively Christian, Muslim or animist areas, regions, towns or districts.

All interviewees emphasised that the different religious communities do not simply live side by side, they live together.

Religious mobility is high and it is rare for all members of a family (in the broader sense of the term) to practise the same religion. Conversions and mixed marriages are common, and although they sometimes lead to quarrels, families generally accept their children’s choice. Faith is a very personal thing in Burkina, as a Catholic representative summarised.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Catholic representative, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  This great diversity sustains the country’s model of religious coexistence, because, as many interviewees underlined, “one is human and Burkinabè before being Christian or Muslim”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ministers, priests, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, January and April 2016, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  Religion is not therefore a primary badge of identity.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Christians and Muslims draw on animist practices, which tend to bring people of different faiths closer together. In Burkina, as in many other African countries, Sufi Islam and Catholic retention of animist practices, such as sacrifices, has produced religious syncretism.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, minister, deputy, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  The weight of tradition is evidenced by the strong influence of customary chiefs in social relations and politics.[fn]During recent crises (October 2014 insurrection, September 2015 attempted coup), the Mogho Naba’s intervention, at the request of politicians, helped avoid confrontations.Hide Footnote  One legacy of this tradition, the “parenté à plaisanterie”, is a practise whereby members of some ethnic groups can tease and insult each other light-heartedly, without coming across as offensive. This sense of humour helps defuse certain social tensions.[fn]The parenté à plaisanterie is a widespread social practise in West Africa. It is a kind of “inverted politeness” that allows members of lineages, ethnic groups, territories or neighbouring villages to tease and insult each other during meetings and discussions. Among the parentés à plaisanteries most practised in Burkina are those used by the Bobo and the Fulanis and also the Samo and the Mossi. The insults and teasing often refer to eating habits or livelihoods. For example, the Bobo say that the Fulanis destroy their crops with their cattle while the Fulanis say that the Bobo are alcoholics. All Crisis Group interviewees emphasised the importance of the parenté à plaisanterie in maintaining good relations between ethnic groups. This also applies by extension to people of different faiths because it promotes a culture of accepting differences.Hide Footnote

Although the post-independence nation state is still under construction, a sense of national identity facilitates social cohesion amid ethnic, regional and religious differences. This is partly due to the existence of a relatively present administration, even though the state is weak and absent from some areas, as is often the case in developing countries. The sense of national identity is also a legacy of the Sankarist revolution, which intensified patriotic sentiments and political consciousness.[fn]The revolution (1983-1987) was led by the young captain Thomas Sankara whose anti-imperialist ideas, patriotism and integrity had an enduring impact on Burkina’s history, culture and politics. Many young people who demonstrated against President Blaise Compaoré’s attempts to amend the constitution in October 2014, many of whom were born after his death in 1987, claim to follow Sankarism.Hide Footnote

Interfaith dialogue supports peaceful coexistence. Religious leaders are aware of the importance of such dialogue and they play a crucial role, although their sincerity is sometimes doubted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, deputy, minister, Ouagadougou, April 2016. Some people complain about the hypocrisy of religious leaders who say they believe in dialogue. Moreover, some religious leaders tend to proselytise and defend the followers of their own religion. Crisis Group interviews, members of civil society, Ouagadougou, Fada N’Gourma; young Protestant, Dédougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  They are respected, know one another personally and visit one another during religious holidays, which provides a positive, top-down example. Even though this dialogue is not enough to guarantee religious tolerance, it makes an indispensable contribution. In Burkina, Christians and Muslims demonstrated together against the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in January 2015, while in Niger demonstrators burned down bars and churches.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, February 2015; Bobo-Dioulasso, July 2015, January 2016. “Affaire Charlie Hebdo: musulmans et chrétiens récitent les mêmes versets à Bobo”, L’Observateur, 25 January 2015.Hide Footnote

Interfaith dialogue is also a reality at the grassroots level. For example, youth associations of different faiths regularly work together. At university, Joint Interfaith Dialogue Committees (CMDIRs) bring together the Catholic Student Youth (JEC), the Association of Muslim Pupils and Students in Burkina (AEEMB) and the Union of Biblical Groups in Burkina (UGBB).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, JEC, AEEMB and UGBB members, Ouagadougou, January and April 2016. A student in Dédougou told Crisis Group that students from all faiths helped Muslims arrange a prayer area and that all agreed to pause classes at 4pm for Muslim prayer. Crisis Group interview, student, Dédougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Most Crisis Group interviewees shared anecdotes that illustrated the good relations between religions: in Dori, the imam of the main mosque helped the Assemblies of God to obtain a plot of land to build their church; in Dédougou, a private Christian radio station gives Muslims airtime to broad­cast their sermons; in Fada N’Gourma, the bishop offered Muslims the church’s contribution to renovating their main mosque, etc.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, minister, Dori; Christian leader, Dédougou; Muslim representatives, Fada, April 2016.Hide Footnote

The model remains strong, but religious coexistence should not be taken for granted. The regional context, marked by radicalisation of religious discourse from some quarters and a rise of violent extremism that hit Burkina’s capital in January 2016, suggests caution.

The 15 January 2016 terrorist attacks, the first in Ouagadougou, came as a major shock, even though the threat had been palpable for at least several months. The statement issued by the Federation of Islamic Associations in Burkina (FAIB) condemning the attacks showed that Muslims refused to be associated with violence, but also revealed their fear of this conflation.[fn]“Déclaration de la Fédération des associations islamiques du Burkina (FAIB) relative aux attaques terroristes au Burkina Faso”, 17 January 2016. A Muslim student told Crisis Group that Muslims had to condemn the attacks to avoid greater stigmatisation. Crisis Group interview, AEEMB member, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote  Although the attacks fostered solidarity between Burkinabè, who all characterised the attacks as contrary to Islam, there were instances of verbal harassment against Muslims. These incidents remained rare, but caused concern and prompted the government to issue a statement calling on citizens to be sensible.[fn]“Attaque terroriste: des Burkinabè, en colère, agressent des personnes portant barbes”, Xinhua, 18 January 2016. A second statement was issued two months after the attacks, demonstrating continued concern. “Attaques terroristes au Burkina: le gouvernement s’inquiète d’actes de stigmatisation”, Burkina24 (www.burkina24.com), 9 March 2016. For example, an interviewee said his wife, who was wearing a full-face veil, was harassed when she stopped at a red traffic light while riding her motorbike. Another mentioned the case of an acquaintance wearing a full-face veil who was booed in a public place. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders and youth, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote

Most Muslims interviewed after the attacks knew at least one person who had been stigmatised, particularly those wearing visible religious signs (beards, skull caps and short trousers for men, full-face veil for women).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders and youth, Ouagadougou, January 2016, Ouahigouya, April 2016. Some Muslims complain they have been treated differently since the attacks, for example at hospitals. They say that doctors are reluctant to provide care to women wearing full-face veils or insist that they take their veils off when they bring their children to receive health care. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Dédougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Some said that the security forces did not react strongly enough to these incidents and even that some police officers and gendarmes discriminate against Muslims because of their physical appearance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January 2016; Muslim leaders, Ouahi­gouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  A Muslim women representative said that on the day after the attacks, schoolchildren were pointing fingers at Muslim classmates.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim women representative, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote  Most Muslim interviewees denounced the harmful role played by the media. They said the use of the words “jihadists” and “Islamists”, which are general terms for Islamic concepts, to refer to terrorists implicitly accuse the entire Muslim community.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim youth and leaders, AEEMB member, Ouagadougou, January 2016; Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

These were isolated cases, but terrorism is a new phenomenon in Burkina and the climate of distrust that it inevitably generates could pose a long-term threat to peaceful coexistence. Crisis Group interviews with Christian and Muslim youth and leaders revealed fears that fundamentalist Islam and extremism might affect Burkina (see section IV.A).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ministers, Catholic representative, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, January and April 2016, Dédougou, April 2016; Muslim leader and customary chief, Kaya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Many were alarmed at the upsurge in religiosity among Muslims, and at the real or perceived sympathy toward violence of a small minority of Muslims. In Dori, a Christian representative said that some Muslims in the town rejoiced when churches were burned down in Niger in January 2015.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Christian representative, Dori, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Muslims, for their part, sometimes feel that Christians, particularly Protestants, want to convert them and that the government is not always neutral, although there is no evidence of this.

The government faces the challenge of maintaining its neutrality in a multi-faith country where religion is increasingly visible and assertive.

In addition to the new context of terrorism, the government faces the challenge of maintaining its neutrality in a multi-faith country where religion is increasingly visible and assertive. Muslims have long been poorly represented among the political and administrative elites and were initially not particularly interested in politics, but that has changed. A researcher explained that the “historical contract” between the communities, according to which politics was traditionally reserved for Christians while Muslims dominated trade and business, has been broken.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  These changes have led to frustration among some Muslims, who are conscious they form a majority of the population.

These longstanding frustrations could be amplified in the current context. Muslim leaders have been better organised since the FAIB was formed in 2005 and are increasingly expressing their grievances, even though they largely remain a taboo. Muslims have raised these issues at the political level in recent years, for example at the Consultative Council on Political Reform in 2011 and at the forum on secularism in September 2012, but no comprehensive solution has been found.[fn]For example, “Propositions de réformes pour l’enracinement de la démocratie et d’une citoyenneté responsable”, contribution by FAIB, 16 May 2011, document provided to Crisis Group.Hide Footnote

Muslim demands are addressed to the government and the administration, and thus remain within a legal framework. Muslim leaders are not calling into question the peaceful religious coexistence, but are demanding even-handed treatment by a secular state that should regard all religions equally.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Centre for Islamic Study, Research and Training (CERFI), Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote  Muslims are conscious that they form a majority of the population and they believe that the authorities do not always properly take their interests into account. Many interviewees insisted that it is a demand for justice.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016, Ouahi­gouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

These grievances are the product of a collective vision of Muslim interests: beyond individuals, Muslims’ common faith makes them into a community. This feeling is strengthened among some by the perception that they are persecuted throughout the world and are victims of Western intervention, terrorism and their repercussions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Young Burkinabè Muslims increasingly see their grievances against the state through this global lens, which carries the danger of exacerbating tensions. Some Muslim leaders confessed that they are under the impression that the government is deliberately trying to harm Islam and promote Christianity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  Most interviewees did however acknowledge that the imbalanced makeup of the elites is a legacy of colonisation and not the result of official policy, and that the government has shown willingness to respond to pending issues. Nevertheless, many believe that more should be done.

Although this imbalance is not the result of official policy to discriminate against Muslims, the resulting frustration can be dangerous. Unless the authorities start to remedy the situation, some Muslims could feel it is no longer worth talking to the government and turn to other ways of expressing themselves.[fn]Several interviewees highlighted the danger of allowing these frustrations to accumulate. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, February 2015, Bobo-Dioulasso, July 2015, Fada N’Gourma, April 2016; minister, researchers, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  For the moment, there is no sign that such a trend is emerging, but the sense of marginalisation felt by some communities may lead to problems.[fn]Young Muslims told Crisis Group that they are not giving full voice to their frustrations for the moment but that “they shouldn’t be pushed around”. Crisis Group interviews, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote

The question was posed more acutely during the transition that followed the October 2014 downfall of Blaise Compaoré. The creation of transitional institutions provoked friction. Although he was seen as the army’s candidate, the transitional president, Michel Kafando, was initially the choice of the Catholic Church.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Burkinabè politician, Abidjan, August 2015; Muslim intellectual, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  A Muslim leader told Crisis Group that Muslim representatives firmly rejected the idea of appointing the Archbishop of Bobo-Dioulasso, Monseigneur Paul Ouédraogo, as head of the transition. “Fortunately, Cherif Sy [president of the transitional parliament] is a Muslim”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim leader, Ouagadougou, February 2015.Hide Footnote  Muslims requested parity with Christians for posts in the transitional institutions, a demand that was neither feasible nor desirable.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, June 2016.Hide Footnote  In private, many people later deplored the fact that the prime minister, Isaac Zida, a Protestant, appointed many Protestants to posts in the administration. Even if these appointments were not driven by an evangelisation ideology, and were simply nepotism, they gave the impression that “you needed to be a Protestant to get appointed to a post”.[fn]These words, spoken by a young soldier in the former presidential guard, were reported to Crisis Group by an eminent Burkinabè political figure. Crisis Group interview, Ouagadougou, July 2015.Hide Footnote

The government must respond to Muslim grievances while avoiding the dangerous pitfall of sectarianism.

This critical discourse is not without consequences. In a country where religion is only a secondary badge of identity, formulating demands based on religious faith may give religion a more important role than it used to play. Politicising religion carries clear risks of hijacking and manipulation.[fn]In recent years, the Blaise Compaoré regime tended to manipulate religious leaders and take advantage of their divisions. The project of creating a Senate, with the secret aim of introducing an amendment to the constitution to allow Compaoré to stand again in the presidential election, had drawn support from some Muslim representatives who saw it as a means of gaining more political influence.Hide Footnote  The Burkinabè seem to be aware of this. For example, the candidate to the November 2015 presidential election, Ablassé Ouédraogo, caused an outcry when he said he believed his Muslim faith gave him a better chance of winning.[fn]“Burkina – Ablassé Ouédraogo: ‘J’ai toutes mes chances à la présidentielle d’octobre’”, Jeune Afrique, 8 June 2015.Hide Footnote

The government must respond to Muslim grievances while avoiding the dangerous pitfall of sectarianism. It is difficult to find a balance. Many interviewees, both Catholics and Protestants, insisted that the upsurge in identity-based demands might disturb coexistence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Catholic and Protestant representatives, Ouagadougou, Dédougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  This warning betrays their fear of losing their status as the “dominant minority” and of seeing the rules of the game change if Muslims gain more political and administrative power.[fn]Crisis Group interview, priest, Ouagadougou, April 2016. The expression “dominant minority” was used in “Etats et minorités religieuses: les représentations des catholiques au Burkina Faso et au Sénégal”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  However, most of them recognised the need to correct the imbalance in order to preserve social cohesion.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ministers, Ouagadougou, Kaya; Protestant representative, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

With time, demands have become more precise. During the November 2015 presidential election campaign, Muslim representatives presented candidates with a document entitled “Muslim concerns in Burkina Faso”.[fn]“Despite the fact that Muslims are a majority of the population in Burkina, their real concerns are practically ignored by both the political class and public administration”. Extract from the document “Préoccupations des musulmans au Burkina Faso”, written by the Coordination of Islamic Associations of the West, document on file with Crisis Group. Crisis Group interview, Muslim representative, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  These concerns can be divided into three categories: the visibility and representation of religious communities in public and political life; the administration’s treatment of religions; and the crucial issue of education, which is related to representation among the elites.

The grievance most frequently mentioned by interviewees concerned the representativeness of religious authorities relied upon to resolve political or social crises, or appointed to institutions. Usually, when the government requests the participation of religious leaders, each faith – Catholic, Protestant, Muslim – nominates a representative. Muslims deplore the fact that this formula allows them to have only one representative compared to two for Christians, even though Muslims form a majority of the population. They argue that while Catholics and Protestants form two branches of Christianity, Muslims are also divided into several denominations. This problem arose in Bobo-Dioulasso upon appointments to the special delegation, an administrative body designed to replace municipal authorities that were dissolved after Compaoré’s fall. The disagreement was quickly resolved by appointing a second Muslim representative. The same problem emerged in the Economic and Social Council, where it proved more difficult to resolve.[fn]The Economic and Social Council includes three representatives of traditional, religious and customary authorities. In addition to the customary chief, two religious representatives are appointed. Catholics and Protestants say it is difficult for them to appoint a joint representative because of the historical differences between the two faiths.Hide Footnote

The public profile of religions is also a cause of frustration. For the last two or three decades, religion has been playing an ever increasing role in public life. In a multi-faith country, this has resulted in competition between religions and between currents within each religion, leading to a race to build places of worship, quarrels over noise pollution, an increase in the number of religious media, etc.[fn]For example, see, Frederick Madore, “Islam, politique et sphère publique à Ouagadougou”, thesis, Laval University, 2013; and the work of Maud Saint-Lary.Hide Footnote

Some Muslim leaders believe that the airtime given to each religion on the state-owned Burkina Radio-Television (RTB) is not equitable. No evidence has been offered to support this claim. Some deplore the fact that government offices and streets are decorated to celebrate Christian holidays but not Muslim holidays.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim representative, journalist working for a faith-based media, Ouagadougou, January and April 2016.Hide Footnote  There is no Tabaski tree equivalent to the Christmas tree but these are symbolic issues and it should not be difficult to find an adequate response. The government and public administration need to realise that such apparently insignificant details can fuel frustration. For example, school holidays are now called “quarterly holidays” rather than “Christmas holidays” or “Easter holidays”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Burkinabè citizens, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote

The constitution enshrines the secular nature of the Burkinabè state (article 31). Sec­u­­lar­ism does not have the same meaning as in France, however, though the French system inspired Burkina’s constitution. The state subsidises private faith-based education and Muslim pilgrimages, and the government often asks religious authorities to play a role in defusing social and political tensions.[fn]Sponsorship of Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca, the Hadj, often causes controversy. Christians deplore the fact that the government does not fund any Christian pilgrimages. Every year, there are arguments over the management of pilgrimage grants by Muslim associations and over the organisation of the pilgrimage. “Hadj 2015: Des agences de voyage demandent un audit”, Le Pays, 11 January 2016.Hide Footnote  Some Muslim representatives believe that Burkina’s form of secularism favours Christianity. An interviewee even mentioned a “double standards secularism” defined by its opposition to Islam.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim representatives, Ouahigouya, April 2016. For example, weekly holidays are Saturdays and Sundays, while the Muslim day of prayer is Friday.Hide Footnote  Instead of importing a rigid form of secularism from the West, Burkina should find its own definition.

Muslims publicly expressed their frustration at the adoption of the continuous working day (7.30am to 3pm) in September 2015. They repeatedly asked for a meeting with the prime minister to point to the impossibility of attending Friday prayers if lunch breaks are only 30 minutes long, but the prime minister never received them. When the continuous working day was introduced, the Centre for Islamic Study, Research and Training (CERFI) published a strongly-worded open letter, reflecting the anger felt by many Muslims.[fn]“Journée continue de travail: Le CERFI demande la prise en compte de la grande prière du vendredi”, LeFaso.net (www.lefaso.net), 9 September 2015. Crisis Group interviews, CERFI member, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January 2016. Created in 1989, CERFI is a Burkinabè association composed mainly of Francophone Muslim intellectuals.Hide Footnote  The government eventually agreed on a longer lunch break on Fridays, but this episode illustrates Muslims’ perception that secularism is defined by its opposition to Islam and that their interests carry little weight.

Another recurring problem concerns the allocation of plots of land for building places of worship when new housing estates are being developed. When local authorities allocate three plots of the same size for each community, Muslims point out that they are often more numerous than Christians. Tensions also arise when local authorities only allocate one plot of land for all three religions to share.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim representative, Bobo-Dioulasso, young Muslim, Ouagadougou, January 2016. In Orodara, in the west of the country, a dispute over land between Muslims and animists led to the destruction of the Sunni Movement’s mosque in July 2016. “La mosquée des sunnites de Orodara a été saccagée”, LeFaso.net, 16 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Disputes around the allocation of land for the construction of places of worship are common.

As in many other countries, problems have emerged in relation to wearing the veil. The controversy over the partial veil (hijab) in France prompted a debate in Burkina. The hijab is generally authorised in private and state schools but veiled girls are sometimes stigmatised and even expelled from school.[fn]Crisis Group interview, AEEMB member, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote  In 2012, an imam exposed the discrimination faced by Muslim women wearing the hijab at entrance examinations for the civil service.[fn]Imam Ismaël Tiendrébéogo, “Du port du voile lors des concours”, L’Observateur Paalga (www.
lefaso.net), 21 May 2012.Hide Footnote
 These controversies reinforce the feelings of some Muslims that secularism is defined by its opposition to Islam and that their own interests count for little.

The full-face veil (niqab) poses a particular problem in the new context of terrorism. In December 2015, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) recommended member states to ban the niqab in public places on security grounds.[fn]Final Communiqué, 48th Ordinary Session of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government, Abuja, 16-17 December 2015.Hide Footnote  This worries some Burkinabè Muslims, especially followers of fundamentalist Islam, who fear that the government will ban the niqab under the pretext of security. This concern is another illustration of the sense of victimisation felt by some Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sunni Movement members, Ouagadougou, January 2016. Some young Muslims are convinced that the government claimed women were involved in the 15 January terrorist attacks to justify the ban on niqab. Crisis Group interviews, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote

One important demand from Muslims concerns their underrepresentation among the political and administrative elites. Some interviewees mentioned the small number of Muslim government ministers as an illustration of the problem.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim women representative, Ouagadougou; Muslim representatives, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  This is not the result of government policy but is due to historical factors, disparities in the education system and the weakness of Franco-Arab education, which has developed and now attracts many Muslim children, while others attend state or private Christian schools.

According to a researcher, 15 to 20 per cent of children in Burkina attend Franco-Arab or Quranic schools.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher, Ouagadougou, April 2016. Quranic schools are exclusively dedicated to teaching the Quran. Their pupils often endure poor living conditions and are reduced to begging.Hide Footnote  There are more than 1,700 Franco-Arab schools in the country, representing around 70 per cent of private education.[fn]“Ecoles franco-arabes au Burkina: état des lieux et difficultés d’insertion des diplômés”, LeFaso.
net, 29 May 2013. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim representatives, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016; civil servants, Ouagadougou, April 2016. “Plaidoyer pour une réforme de l’enseignement franco-arabe au Burkina”, National Democratic Institute CEPPS program, July 2013. As an illustration, private schools account for about one fifth of all schools (2,279 private schools out of a total of 11,545 schools in Burkina). “Etablissements d’enseignement privé: L’Etat ouvre la voie au désordre”, LeFaso.
net, 21 November 2012. However, these figures must be treated with caution because there are probably many unaccredited and unregistered private schools.Hide Footnote
 The schools were born out of the need to adapt Quranic education to modern-day demands, to allow children to learn about Islam while being prepared for the job market. The schools provide courses in Arabic, religion and general subjects.

However, Franco-Arab schools do not always successfully combine Islamic education with the need to teach general subjects that would give children the same chance of graduating, passing the civil service entrance examinations or finding a job. The schools often lack resources; curricula and diplomas vary from one school to another and fail to follow the state’s program; the level of French is weak; teachers are not always well-trained; their wages are often below average; and the textbooks received from Arab countries do not correspond to local realities.

The government has begun to deal with this problem. The Support for Primary Bilingual Franco-Arab Education Project (PREFA), a CFA7.5-billion (€11.5 million) project launched in 2015 by the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), subsidises some schools and is building new schools in seven regions and 21 provinces.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Franco-Arab school director, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016; civil servants, Ouagadougou, April 2016. See the national education ministry website here.Hide Footnote  In 2015, the government and the FAIB signed an agreement on a CFA400-million (€610,000) state subsidy per year for three years in the form of supplementary payments to 555 teachers. The government has also recruited 40 Franco-Arab schools graduates for a teacher training program, which will give them jobs and staff the schools with competent teachers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil servants, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  There has been some progress on harmonising curricula, but much remains to be done. Joint curricula are currently being prepared, government-designed Arabic textbooks have been distributed to some schools and some examinations are now held jointly.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The government does not bear sole responsibility for the slow pace of progress; Franco-Arab school directors are sometimes reluctant to conform to standards and some of them do not see improving the employment prospects of their pupils as a priority. It is also difficult for the government to act effectively given that it must negotiate with various organisations – each Islamic association has its own schools and curricula, often funded by Arab donors.

Students who received scholarships to study in Arab countries also struggle to find jobs when they return, even those with degrees in subjects like medicine, law and engineering. Their command of the French language is not always strong enough for passing civil service examinations or obtaining highly qualified jobs in the private sector, and their diplomas are not always recognised despite the existence of a National Degree Equivalence Commission. They are not well informed about the procedures they need to follow, and the negative image of Franco-Arab education and Arab universities means that the administration is sometimes reluctant to help them. Graduates educated in Arabic feel devalued because they have studied at an Arab university. Marginalising these young graduates presents clear risks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim intellectual, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016. Several studies have been published on this issue, for example, Sylvie Bredeloup, “Etudiants arabophones de retour à Ouagadougou cherchent désespérément reconnaissance”, L’Année du Maghreb, vol. 11 (2014).Hide Footnote

The reform of Franco-Arab education, which needs significant financial resources, will not happen overnight. However, the lack of communication on efforts to modernise this system seems to constitute the main obstacle. Muslim interviewees said that “the government does nothing for our schools”,[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Fada N’Gourma, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  while others recognised that efforts have been made without knowing exactly what they consist of. Some said the system of subsidies awarded to private schools is unfair and does not reflect the fact that Muslims form the majority of the population. Few were aware that the government owes Catholic schools CFA2.9 billion (€4.4 million) for subsidies promised but not paid for in years.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim intellectual, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January 2016; civil servants, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Apart from the Franco-Arab system, there is another problem related to education. In Bobo-Dioulasso, some pupils are sent to private schools that have agreements with the government because state secondary schools lack capacity. Some Muslim parents are uncomfortable with the idea of sending their children to Catholic or Protestant schools for fear that attempts will be made to convert them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, director and former director of Franco-Arab schools, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  An interviewee wondered whether the government perhaps wanted to “force evangelisation” on pupils, saying they have to go to the schools they are assigned to and that some schools refuse to exempt them from religious education and prayers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former director of a Franco-Arab school, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote

Burkina’s Muslim community is not a monolithic entity and its members have diverse practices and perceptions. The many Islamic associations have not always had friendly relations and the gap between the younger generation and the old guard continues to grow. These divides sometimes make it difficult to address Muslims’ demands.

Islam in Burkina is riven by ideological differences and personal rivalries, including within each branch. The first attempt to unite Muslims produced the Muslim Community of Upper Volta (now the CMBF) in 1962, but this organisation had to deal with personal rivalries and financial scandals. It remains one of the major Muslim associations, along with the Tijanyyia, Burkina Faso’s main Sufi branch, the Sunni Movement, which represents the Wahhabi tendency, and Ittihad Islami, a Tijanyyia branch that aims to unite all Muslims.

The main division within the Muslim community is between Sufi Muslims on the one hand, and Wahhabis and Salafis on the other, who are mainly represented in Burkina by the Sunni Movement. The latter established themselves in the country in the 1970s, but cohabitation with the other branches has never been easy.[fn]For example, see Maïmouna Koné Dao, “Implantation et influence du wahhabisme au Burkina Faso de 1963 à 2002”, in Muriel Gomez-Perez, L’islam politique au sud du Sahara (Paris, 2005).Hide Footnote  Members of the Sunni Movement and Sufi branches often distrust each other: the former believe the latter are “bad” Muslims, who tarnish Islam with African traditions that do not conform to the life of the Prophet, while Sufis describe members of the Sunni Movement as radicals.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim representative, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016; Sunni Movement member, Dori, Ouagadougou, Muslim leader, Ouagadougou, April 2016. For example, the tension is palpable every year with the approach of Maouloud, when Sufis celebrate the Prophet’s birthday, a practice that Wahhabis believe does not conform to Islam. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  So-called modernist and reformist movements, combining Saudi-inspired Islam and an African identity appeared later, with the creation of the AEEMB and the CERFI in the 1980s.

Created in 2005 to strengthen unity, the Burkina Federation of Islamic Associations (FAIB) suffers from these ideological differences but also from personal rivalries. This is especially so after the death of wealthy businessman Oumarou Kanazoé in 2011, an illiterate Muslim who managed to keep the community unified largely thanks to his charisma and personal fortune.[fn]The government allegedly supported the creation of the FAIB so as to have a single Muslim interlocutor. Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker of an Islamic organisation, researcher, Ouagadougou, January 2016. For more on Oumarou Kanazoé, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°205, With or Without Blaise Compaoré: Times of Uncertainty, 22 July 2013, footnote 91, p. 16.Hide Footnote  Ten years passed before the federation organised its first congress, in June 2015. Kanazoé’s death left the Muslim community without a leader. After many quarrels, FAIB members finally agreed that the federation should be led by a presidium consisting of representatives of the four major member associations (CMBF, Sunni Movement, Tijanyyia and Ittihad), with a rotating annual presidency. A sign of its weakness is that the federation does not have local representation. The FAIB still has a long way to go before Muslims, especially young people, see it as a useful tool to defend their interests.[fn]A young Muslim used the term “empty shell”. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leader, young Muslim, Ouagadougou, January 2016. To compensate for the lack of local representation, Muslims in Bobo-Dioulasso formed the Coordination of Islamic Associations in the West. Crisis Group interview, Muslim leader, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote

Members of Muslim youth associations feel their representatives do not sufficiently defend their interests. They believe that the old guard that dominates the FAIB is irrelevant and incapable of making their voice heard, in addition to being corrupt and manipulated by political authorities. Therefore, in 2013, the CERFI and the AEEMB expressed their disapproval following the FAIB’s public statement in favour of creating a Senate.[fn]“Sénat: L’AEEMB et le CERFI se démarquent des propos de Souleymane Compaoré”, LeFaso.net, 16 September 2013. See footnote 49.Hide Footnote  This episode showed the widening gap between older Muslims, who still control most Muslim associations, and young people, who want to play a role in the decision-making process. The closeness of some Muslim leaders to the old regime has discredited them in the eyes of the youth.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim women representative, young Muslim, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulassso, January and April 2016.Hide Footnote

This gap could be dangerous because older Muslims are generally inclined to preserve tradition, including peaceful religious coexistence, while young Muslims may be tempted to question the status quo if they feel that their interests are not taken into account. Many Muslim leaders told Crisis Group that while their ancestors and they have accepted the underrepresentation of Muslims, young people are less patient.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, February 2015; Fada, April 2016; young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January 2016; researcher, minister, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  This generational divide partly explains why Wahhabism is spreading and attracting young Muslims, especially in urban areas.

Religious coexistence and the government’s management of religious diversity provide interesting examples for countries facing tension caused by religious radicalisation and the rise of violent extremism. Studying the relationship between the state and religion requires examining changes in individual religious behaviours, which can have an impact on social relations. The rise of fundamentalist Islam in several African countries has not spared Burkina and can sometimes disturb the balance between communities. The phenomenon of revivalist “born-again” Protestant Churches is not as widespread in Burkina as it is in other African countries, but Protestantism is booming.

In the debate on radicalisation and violent extremism, two often used but poorly defined concepts, it is important to distinguish the rise of fundamentalist Islam from the propensity to resort to violence – two very distinct phenomena. An increase in religiosity does not necessarily lead to violence. Quietist currents preach a return to strict Islamic practices but proscribe all forms of violence to achieve this end. The roots of violence are not necessarily to be found in the rise of religiosity: perpetrators may already be involved in crime, others may resort to violence to defend socio-economic and financial interests or because of local grievances.[fn]See Crisis Group Special Report, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote  However, even if they do not lead to violence, changes in religious behaviours can have an impact on relations between communities and disturb social cohesion.

In Burkina, there is a trend toward an increase in religiosity, with visible signs in the case of Muslims: change in clothing habits (more common use of the full-face veil for women; short trousers, skull caps and beards for men); change in eating habits; increase in the number of mosques, Quranic and Franco-Arab schools; creation of informal prayer and study rooms on university campus, etc. These changes seem particularly evident on the Ouagadougou university campus: a professor said that his lecture theatre empties in time for prayers at 4pm and that some Muslims do not want to attend the grins (informal discussion groups for young people) with non-Muslims – something that would have been unthinkable just ten years ago.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, teachers, members of student associations, Ouagadougou, April 2016. See also Augustin Loada, Peter Romaniuk, “Preventing violent extremism in Burkina Faso. Toward national resilience amid regional insecurity”, Global Center on Cooperative Security, June 2014. The 2016 update of this study concluded that the factors enabling resilience to violent extremism still exist but have been eroded. One of the concerns mentioned in the study is the perception of a “pro-Christian” state by some Burkinabè Muslims. Conference on the prevention of violent extremism, organised by the MATDSI and the Danish embassy, Ouagadougou, 9 June 2016.Hide Footnote

These trends are clearer in urban than in rural areas, where people are more conservative. In towns, young people are more open to ideas imported from abroad and less constrained by traditions, family and community rules.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, researcher, Ouagadougou; priest, Gourcy, April 2016.Hide Footnote  However, the rise of fundamentalist Islam, sometimes advanced by foreign preachers, can also challenge traditions in rural areas.[fn]An analyst explained that practices are changing even in traditionally animist Senoufo country (south-eastern Burkina, near the border with Côte d’Ivoire). Crisis Group interview, analyst, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  The regions along the borders with Mali and Niger, in particular, cannot be entirely impermeable to changes in those countries.[fn]Some population groups in these areas (the north and west of Burkina) could be particularly vulnerable to penetration by certain ideas and movements, notably the Fulanis and the Tuareg Bella, because of the presence of many Fulanis and Tuaregs in groups active in Mali. Crisis Group interviews, deputies, Ouagadougou; priest, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Several studies examine the influence of Wahhabism and reformism in Burkina Faso.[fn]For definitions of these terms, see Maud Saint-Lary, “Du wahhabisme aux réformes génériques”, Cahiers d’études africaines, no. 206-207, vol. 2 (2012). For more on Wahhabism in Burkina, see “Implantation et influence du wahhabisme au Burkina Faso de 1963 à 2002”, op. cit. For lack of reliable statistics, it is difficult to estimate the number of Muslims who practice fundamentalist Islam, all the more so as there are a range of practices between Sufi and Wahhabi Islam. Depending on the interviewees and the locality, estimates vary between 10 and 30 per cent of Muslims. Crisis Group interviews, young Muslim, Ouagadougou; Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016; Muslim citizen, priest, Ouahigouya, Muslim leader, Kaya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  The Sunni Movement, the association that represents this tendency, increasingly attracts Muslims for several reasons.[fn]The Sunni Movement does not claim to be either Wahhabi or Salafist. It believes that Islam is unique and there are no currents, hence the name “Sunni”. Crisis Group interview, Sunni Movement leaders, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  It is fairly well organised and structured, with a national office and regional and provincial representatives; it gives young people the place they deserve, often promoting young imams and preachers; and its intellectuals and scholars, who are fluent in Arabic, give it an aura of prestige.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, young Muslim, Ouagadougou, January 2016; Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016, Kaya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Its declared aim of promoting a pure version of Islam and countering the deterioration in social morals and the corruption of the elites resonates with many Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ONAFAR member, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Confessional and social media, which have played an important role in urban areas during the October 2014 uprising, ensure the dissemination of this message. In addition, unemployment and job insecurity make promises of financial aid attractive. Several interviewees said that “the Sunnis” offer to help young people with their professional endeavours if they adopt their practices.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ministers, Protestant leaders, Ouagadougou, January and April 2016; Muslim leader, Kaya, Muslim citizen, Fada N’Gourma, April 2016.Hide Footnote

However, the rise of fundamentalist Islam is only of concern if it changes social relations, particularly between Muslims and non-Muslims. And that may well be the case. New religious practices can have a big impact on the relations between neighbours. For example, some Muslims no longer share food with their Christian neighbours at Christmas or Easter and forbid mixed marriages, which are very common in Burkina. Some interviewees expressed concerns about a relative or neighbour who became a “Sunni” and distanced themselves from their family circles.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, minister, Ouagadougou; civil servants, Fada N’Gourma and Dori; customary chief, Kaya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

One of the main characteristics of Wahhabism and reformism in West Africa is the belief that “true Islam” requires the rejection of African traditions preserved by Sufism, such as funeral rites, animal sacrifices, the use of rosaries during prayers, the use of amulets and other talismans and the veneration of Sufi saints. Many of these traditions have been preserved by the followers of all religions and bring them closer together.

An intolerant discourse toward non-Muslims, though it appears marginal, does exist. Some fundamentalist versions of Islam distrust non-Muslims and non-practising Muslims, whom they call “heathens”. This discourse goes hand-in-hand with anti-Western rhetoric, which makes perfect sense in a regional and international context marked by military interventions perceived as manifestations of the West’s desire to destroy Islam. This rhetoric appeals to some young Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group interview, customary chief, Kaya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Christianity is presented as a Western religion and this carries the risk of creating divisions between Burkinabè citizens. If these intolerant sermons succeed in reaching and convincing more than a minority, they could eventually pose a threat to religious coexistence.[fn]For example, a Protestant told Crisis Group that he had heard a cassette played at a market inciting Muslims to expel Christians from their courtyards. Another interviewee told how on the day after the January 2016 terrorist attacks, an imam said that casualties at the Cappuccino café deserved to die if they were drinking alcohol. Crisis Group interviews, Protestants, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Several Muslim leaders have expressed concerns about these trends and their distrust of the Sunni Movement. However, the latter is not a homogeneous group. Interviewees in Ouahigouya and Bobo-Dioulasso deplored that the Sunni Movement hardly participates in interfaith dialogue and that some of its members preach ideas that are incompatible with tolerance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016; priest, Ouahigouya, April 2016. Sunni Movement members sometimes feel that they are being asked to renounce some of their practices in the name of interfaith dialogue. For example, it is forbidden for men to shake women’s hands, while handshaking is the most common greeting in West Africa. Crisis Group interviews, Sunni Movement members, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  But in Dori, the Sunni Movement participates in interfaith dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interview, customary chief, Dori, April 2016.Hide Footnote  It therefore seems that a minor radical tendency shuns contact with others, an attitude that is certainly not restricted to members of the Sunni Movement.[fn]Isolated cases confirm that Burkina is not immune to radical ideas. An imam who reportedly provided accommodation for individuals arriving from Mali was arrested in the west. This arrest is said to have provoked the October 2015 attack on the Samorogouan gendarmerie post. A Sunni Movement member in a western town close to the border with Mali was arrested and taken to Ouagadougou prison. An imam in Ouagadougou was arrested following the January 2016 terrorist attacks after arms were found in his home. Crisis Group interviews, young Muslim, civil society activist, Ouagadougou, Muslim intellectual, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote

Some Muslim leaders deplored foreign influence, especially that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Islamic NGO employee, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, January and April 2016.Hide Footnote  Although it is impossible to have a precise idea of the amount of money poured by Gulf countries, including through humanitarian aid, it is certainly happening and it leads to growing ideological and cultural influence of these countries. Burkinabè scholars and preachers trained in the Gulf sometimes return home promoting practices and ideas far removed from the realities of peaceful coexistence in Burkina. Once again, if these ideas find support, it could threaten the balance between religious communities.

For example, an NGO called Qatar Charity built 496 mosques, 60 wells, 21 multi-service complexes, five schools and eighteen health centres between 2009 and 2015.[fn]Document supplied to Crisis Group by Qatar Charity. Crisis Group interview, Qatar Charity employee, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  However, the view of Islamic NGOs as instruments for the dissemination of fundamentalist Islam from the Gulf countries needs qualifying. Building a school or a health centre does not necessarily result in the conversion of the children or patients, all the more so as these NGOs respond to a genuine social need that stems from the government’s inability to provide basic services to the entire population.[fn]For example, imams who officiate at the mosques built by Qatar Charity for the CERFI are selected by the latter and not by the NGO. Qatar Charity says that it builds mosques but does not intervene in their management. Crisis Group interviews, CERFI member, Ouagadougou, January 2016; Qatar Charity employee, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote

These trends are all the more worrying given that the government has little control over religious discourse. Officially, no place of worship can be built without administrative authorisation, but individuals do create secret mosques, for example by converting their yard into a prayer room.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  Moreover, as in many other countries, it is difficult for the government to monitor the content of sermons or the ideas that circulate in mosques or in private. Religious discourse may therefore become radical without it being possible to notice it or assess the extent to which this is the case. The Sunni Movement says it exercises strict control over the sermons preached in its mosques, by asking all imams and preachers to specify their content in advance. That does not seem to be the case in the Tijanyya, which is much less organised.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sunni Movement representative and scholar, Ouagadougou; Muslim citizen, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

However, stigmatising an entire category of Muslims who choose a more fundamentalist religious practice should be avoided; it would be the best way to radicalise some and encourage violence. Some Muslims already feel stigmatised because of terrorism (see section II.C). Changes in religious behaviours and the increase in religiosity among Muslims are only dangerous if they cause a breakdown in social relations and encourage communities to withdraw into themselves.

The increase in religiosity does not apply exclusively to Muslims; it is part of a general trend toward more dynamic religious practice that also involves Christians, particularly Protestants. In several African countries, new Protestant churches, the so-called “born-again” churches, are booming.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism, op. cit., pp. 11-12.Hide Footnote  In Burkina, where traditional Protes­tant churches are in the majority, this phenomenon remains marginal.

Protestantism is the religion with the least number of followers in Burkina Faso, but it is growing quickly. Between 1960 and 2006, the increase in the number of Protestants was five times more important than the increase in the number of Muslims and twice as high as for Catholics.[fn]Katrin Langewiesche, “Le dialogue interreligieux au service du développement”, Bulletin de l’APAD, no. 33 (2011). For statistics on Protestant Churches, see “Eglises et missions évangéliques du Burkina: Compassion internationale fait l’autopsie”, Sidwaya, 18 July 2013.Hide Footnote  The Federation of Evangelical Churches and Missions (FEME), the main Protestant organisation in Burkina, has fourteen member churches, but there are around 120 others.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Protestant women representative, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  The Church of Assemblies of God is the largest denomination and comprises 70 to 80 per cent of Burkina’s Protes­tants. It faces competition from new churches, such as the International Evangelisation Centre (CIE), led by charismatic minister Mamadou Philippe Karambiri.[fn]The CIE presents the typical profile of the new churches. It adopts a proselytising discourse that promises salvation, relies on the minister’s personality, has large financial resources and uses modern media (the CIE has its own television channel, Impact TV).Hide Footnote

New Protestant churches sometimes promote a discourse that is far removed from coexistence. In Burkina, such discourse seems to be marginal, but there are worrying signs. Protestantism is based on the idea that followers who join the path of God are given salvation. The discourse is sometimes Manichaean, offering a dual interpretation of the world as being divided into good and evil.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ONAFAR member, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Protestantism is completely opposed to African tradition, which is a cornerstone of social cohesion in Burkina (see section II.B). The prohibition of mixed marriages, although not always respected, can also prejudice social relations.[fn]A minister told Crisis Group that Protestantism does not tolerate mixed marriages but if two people truly love each other, there is no reason to stop them being together. Crisis Group interview, minister, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Conversions often lead to family quarrels, but these are generally settled with time.

Proselytism, often through humanitarian action, holds an important place in certain Protestant associations, because conversion leads to salvation. Proselytism sometimes provokes fear in other communities. According to a Catholic leader in Dédougou, Protestants approach children on their way to catechism classes and offer them money to come to their church.[fn]Crisis Group interview, catholic leader, Dédougou, April 2016. A young Protestant told Crisis Group that an NGO using church premises provides childcare for all but secretly aims to convert patients to Protestantism. Crisis Group interview, young Protestant, Dédougou, April 2016. A Muslim representative deplored how families quarrel when Muslim women and children, who are looked after by an NGO on a weekly basis, say they want to convert to Protestantism. Crisis Group interview, Muslim representative, Kaya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Some interviewees deplored the fact that Protestants are sometimes reluctant to participate in interfaith dialogue. For example, in Dori, they refuse to formally join the Fraternal Union of Believers (UFC), founded in 1969 by Catholics and Muslims to promote humanitarian action and religious tolerance, even though they occasionally collaborate with the association.[fn]A minister told Crisis Group that Protestants refuse to join the UFC because its internal rules proscribe proselytism, which is the duty of all Protestants. Crisis Group interview, minister, Dori, April 2016. A student in Dédougou said that Muslims and Catholics often work together but Protes­tants are less involved. Crisis Group interview, student, Dédougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote

In addition to a discourse that is traditionally unfavourable to Catholicism, some churches and individuals privately equate Islam with terrorism, fuelling distrust toward Muslims. This discourse is more present in the new churches, which often come from neighbouring countries, like the Winner’s Chapel of Nigeria. The more traditional Protestant denominations have deeper roots in Burkina’s religious landscape and more rarely foster such rhetoric.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Catholic representative, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  A speech that promotes an inward-looking vision can disturb the balance between communities, even if it does not call for violence.

These alarming signs seem isolated for the moment. All interviewees said that the growth of radical Protestantism is much less pronounced in Burkina than in other African countries. It does not at present seem likely that this discourse will have more than a minimal impact.[fn]All interviewees confirmed that the phenomenon of revivalist churches is not as widespread in Burkina as it is in other countries, such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, etc. Crisis Group interviews, Protestants, young Protestants, Ouagadougou, April 2016; journalist, civil society activist, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote  However, vigilance is still required, all the more so because it is easy to create a new church (any individual can set up a church) and build new places of worship. The government and the FEME may find it difficult to keep the discourse under control.

Burkina’s model of religious coexistence faces the challenge of adapting to a new regional environment and changes in relations between different communities. There is no immediate threat to this model: Burkina remains a good example of religious tolerance. It would be tempting to ignore the growing difficulties for fear that opening a discussion about the relationship between the state and religion might lead to the very outcome that it is hoping to avoid. Opening a public debate on religion, particularly about the government’s treatment of religions and representation of the different communities within the administration, and then offering solutions, could give religious identity more weight and even exacerbate differences. The risk of political hijacking or manipulation should not be underestimated.

The authorities and religious leaders could take several measures to correct the inadequacies that are beginning to erode the country’s model of religious tolerance so as to ensure its continued existence.

It is nevertheless more dangerous to continue to ignore problems that are becoming increasingly clear. Rather than turning a blind eye, it would be better to accept and anticipate the risk and take the initiative to avoid the situation deteriorating if circumstances were to change rapidly. The dangers of opening the debate should not be ignored, but if they are known and expected, they can be mitigated. If the issue is dealt with cautiously, in the spirit of seeking dialogue and balance, it may be possible to gradually identify solutions that would reduce emerging frustrations. Burkina’s political class has often shown remarkable capacity to reach compromise, even in the most difficult situations. The authorities and religious leaders could take several measures to correct the inadequacies that are beginning to erode the country’s model of religious tolerance so as to ensure its continued existence.

The underrepresentation of Muslims among the political and administrative elite is not due to deliberate discrimination; rather, it is the outcome of history and of the quality gap between Franco-Arab education and Christian and state schools. In order to respond to frustrations without creating new ones or stigmatising communities, the roots of the problem must be addressed. Quotas are by no means an appropriate fix. They rarely resolve the problem and could lead to dangerous developments in Burkina.

The government must pursue efforts to reform and modernise Franco-Arab schools, especially by requiring higher standards in the French language and introducing a national curriculum for all Franco-Arab schools. This clearly necessitates the cooperation of Muslim leaders and school directors, who must recognise that Islamic education is not incompatible with acquiring academic background and reconcile these objectives. The authorities must be more rigorous and close down schools that refuse to respect the criteria. Muslim leaders must also work with the administration to better communicate to the public on efforts to modernise Franco-Arab education. That would send a positive message to young Muslims and show them that the government is taking their interests into account.

To mitigate the feeling of social exclusion experienced by graduates educated in Arabic, the government should facilitate access to degree equivalence, including by ensuring that students are well informed about the procedures to follow; tackle the prejudiced perceptions within the administration about Arab education; create French language training centres for graduates educated in Arabic to add value to their degrees and enable them to find a highly qualified job or work for the civil service; and give Arabic proper recognition in secondary and higher education by making it an optional language and by reconsidering the creation of an Arabic language department at Ouagadougou University. All this would help Arabic-speaking graduates enter the labour market, increase their self-esteem and reduce negative perceptions of Arab education. Technical and financial partners could contribute to this process.

One of the main grievances of Muslim leaders concerns the representation of religious authorities when the government requests their contribution. Although Catholics and Protestants interviewed by Crisis Group maintained that the proportion of the population each religious community represents should not be the key factor in allocating representatives, most of them recognised that it would not be a problem to add a Muslim representative.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Catholic representative, minister, Ouagadougou; minister, Fada N’Gourma, April 2016.Hide Footnote  This would correct the imbalance and show Muslims that their interests are being taken into account, while avoiding the pitfall of creating new frustrations.

Other more symbolic grievances could easily be dealt with. For example, airtime on RTB could be allocated in a more equitable way. Muslim, Catholic and Protestant holidays could receive equitable public exposure. Greater efforts by the government to ensure Islam has equal status to Christianity would reduce frustrations felt by some Muslim constituencies.

The government should not take religious coexistence for granted and do more to regulate religious discourse. Burkina, like other countries, is undergoing constant change. As an interviewee summarised, “Burkina is not an island” and it would be naive to believe that the country will be able to remain an exception indefinitely.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Catholic representative, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Unlike other countries that have a dedicated ministry, Burkina’s religious affairs are administered by the Customary Affairs and Religion Section of the Department of Public Freedoms and Political Affairs in the local government, decentralisation and internal security ministry (MATDSI). The government should allocate more financial resources to this department to allow its staff to work effectively. If the resources are available, the government should also start mapping places of worship and the people in charge of them. This is a necessary precondition for better regulation of religious discourse. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, imams are listed on a register that contains their name, contact details and place of worship and they carry an electronic card comparable to an identity card.[fn]Crisis Group interview, imam, Bouaké, August 2015.Hide Footnote  Such mapping, covering leaders and places of worship of all faiths, could be a good example for Burkina to follow.

The revival of ONAFAR, decided on at the council of ministers after the January 2016 terrorist attacks, should be implemented. This institution should be allocated an operational budget, administrative staff and office equipment. It should then prepare a communications strategy to publicise its mission and activities. The president of one of the main Protestant youth associations had never heard of the ONAFAR, which underlines how little impact it has.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Protestant representative, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Opening local offices would also help increase its visibility. The existence of an institution dedicated to monitoring religious discourse and interfaith relations would increase the government’s capacity to anticipate risks and limit the spread of dangerous ideas. International partners could contribute to these efforts.

A bill on religious freedoms, which is currently being drafted, aims to fill the legal vacuum regarding how to implement secularism, guarantees of religious freedoms and church-state relations. It contains interesting provisions, especially regulations on the construction of places of worship and the creation of faith associations, and the definition and application of secularism.[fn]“Exposé des motifs de l’avant-projet de loi sur les libertés religieuses au Burkina Faso”, MATDSI document, undated, copy provided to Crisis Group. Crisis Group interview, civil servant, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  The government should include it on its agenda for debate at the council of ministers and then present it to parliament. Once approved, the authorities should make a concerted effort to publicise it.

Everybody must play their part in promoting religious tolerance and publicise examples of peaceful coexistence, particularly in the media.

Religious associations should work toward reducing the divisions between them and promoting greater participation by women and young people. Inter-generational divides risk pushing young people toward more radical and violent ways of expressing themselves than their elders. Women could also make a positive contribution to coexistence and their voices must be heard.

Finally, everybody must play their part in promoting religious tolerance and publicise examples of peaceful coexistence, particularly in the media. Many initiatives exist but they only have limited support and visibility. The government should become more involved and international partners could offer to contribute. A religious leader in Ouahigouya explained, for example, that a weekly radio broadcast to promote peaceful coexistence brings together a priest and an imam but that the latter sometimes finds it hard to cover the cost of the fuel to the radio station. What seem to be small contributions could have a significant impact. Special attention should be paid to initiatives taken by the youth or designed for their benefit and to border zones, especially the Sahel and the northern and western parts of the country.

Burkina Faso’s model of religious coexistence, which draws on a history of civil peace, diversity and tradition, remains robust. Any visitor to Burkina Faso can see that coexistence is a reality and tolerance prevails. Those who highlight the dangers of opening a discussion about these questions and politicising religion have good reasons to do so. Addressing these issues carries risks.

But tensions are beginning to appear and to erode the model of tolerance. This is all the more worrying given the regional and international context and the fact that the government does not seem to be aware that imported ideologies could draw on local frustration. A minority of individuals is enough to cause trouble. In their quest to build a new Burkina after Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year rule, the authorities must acknowledge the difficulties related to interfaith relations and relations between the government and religious communities. At the same time, it must recognise that addressing these issues is a delicate and risky endeavour. Action is needed now to find a new balance and promote lasting religious coexistence.

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