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Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence
Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence
Briefing 112 / Africa

Burkina Faso: Meeting the October Target

Burkina Faso’s faltering transition faces elections in less than four months amid political tensions and social agitation. A controversial electoral code could inject the poison of exclusion into a country that is attached to multiparty politics. It is time for political and civil society actors to begin a formal dialogue to reduce the risks.

I. Overview

With less than four months to go, the transition in Burkina Faso must focus all its efforts on the October elections. In a context marked by political tensions and intense social agitation, the new electoral code, which bans representatives of the former regime from contesting the forthcoming elections, will open the door to interminable legal arguments and threaten compliance with the electoral calendar. It will sideline a whole segment of the political establishment. If members of the former regime cannot express themselves through the ballot box, they could be tempted to do so through other means or try to sabotage the electoral process. It is not too late to reduce the risks of this happening. The government can still clarify the electoral code by decree. Political and social actors on all sides must maintain dialogue, ideally by creating a framework for discussion. The Constitutional Council, which has the last word on the eligibility of candidates, must remain faithful to the text and inclusive spirit of the transition charter and the constitution.

Burkina Faso, la marche aux élections

Dans cette vidéo, Cynthia Ohayon, analyste principal pour l'Afrique de l'ouest pour Crisis Group, analyse le processus électoral au Burkina Faso et recommande aux acteurs politiques et à la société civile de s’engager dans un dialogue formel. CRISIS GROUP

After the October 2014 popular uprising, which ended the 27-year rule of President Blaise Compaoré, it was illusory to believe that things would easily return to normal. The transitional government has for the moment succeeded in keeping Burkina afloat. It survived the “mini-crisis” of February 2015, caused by controversy over the future of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), Compaoré’s former presidential guard. But the adoption of a new electoral code in early April put the transition in a difficult situation. This electoral code sanctions the ineligibility of those who supported the bill amending the constitution to allow Blaise Compaoré to run for another term.

The electoral code is a threat not only to the forthcoming elections but also to the future, by injecting the poison of political exclusion into a country that is attached to multiparty politics and dialogue. Potential appeals against the eligibility of candidates will be submitted from early September. The Constitutional Council could find itself submerged in petitions only one month before the election, which could delay voting. If the electoral calendar is not respected, Burkina will enter unchartered territory. Members of the transitional government, notably those drawn from the army, could argue that they should stay in power for the sake of stability. To avoid this scenario, it is crucial to hold the elections on time and to guarantee that the results will be accepted by all.

The new electoral code was adopted in a context in which some transitional institutions have been weakened. The prime minister, Yacouba Isaac Zida, formerly second-in-command of the RSP, is finding it increasingly difficult to provide the government with a clear sense of direction and to calm popular discontent, a task complicated by the budget crisis and the economic downturn. The transitional government is caught in its own trap. It has made many promises without being able to satisfy them. The public is still waiting to see justice served for the economic crimes and murders committed under Compaoré. However, investigations have come up against a brick wall in the form of the RSP, some of whose members are accused of being involved in such crimes. There can be no final resolution of the question of the RSP’s future without destabilising the country. The transitional government is too weak to tackle their future role head on and seems to have decided to leave it to the new authorities.

With less than four months left before the elections, the transition has no more time to begin reforms and must focus on organising the ballot and promoting a peaceful climate. The elections are essential not only because they should end a transition that is taking place in an uncertain legal framework but also because they provide an opportunity for a democratic and peaceful change of government through the ballot box for the first time since independence. Several measures should be taken to facilitate this process:

  • Political and civil society actors on all sides should begin an inclusive, formal political dialogue, which could take the form of a framework for discussion chaired by one or several consensus figures, so as to keep channels of communication open. Otherwise, they should maintain and develop informal contacts at the highest level.
     
  • The Constitutional Council should remain faithful to the text and inclusive spirit of the transition charter and the constitution when applying the electoral law.
     
  • The transitional government should prioritise the organisation of the presidential and legislative elections and reduce the uncertainty around the electoral law by issuing a decree clarifying the criteria for deciding who supported the constitutional revision.
     
  • The representatives of the former majority should take on the role of constructive opposition, resist the temptation to obstruct the electoral process and resume dialogue with the National Reconciliation and Reform Commission (CRNR).
     
  • The transitional authorities should continue the discussion about the future of the RSP, by focusing on devising a new name for this elite corps and relocating it well away from the presidential palace. They should also be more transparent on this issue, which will need to be included in a more general reform of the army.
     
  • International partners should encourage all Burkina actors to maintain dialogue, and send a clear message that the electoral law should be enforced in a restrained and intelligent manner. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should also provide financial support to help cover the deficit in the electoral budget.

Dakar/Brussels, 24 June 2015

Burkinabé soldiers patrol the army's headquarters in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on 3 March 2018, a day after dozens of people were killed in twin attacks on the French embassy and the country's military. AFP/Ahmed Ouoba
Commentary / Africa

Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence

Attacks on the Burkina Faso army headquarters and the French Embassy on 2 March 2018 were better organised, involved heavier weapons and were more sustained than anything seen so far in Burkina Faso. In this Q&A, our West Africa Project Director Rinaldo Depagne says the jihadist assault further exposes worrying weakness in the Burkinabé security forces.

What do we know about the 2 March attacks in Ouagadougou?

The attacks represent an alarming escalation for Burkina Faso in terms of organisation, lethality of armaments and length of engagement. The attacks were claimed on 3 March by the Group to Support Muslims and Islam, known by its Arabic acronym JNIM, which is part of a wider coalition in the Sahel linked to al-Qaeda.

Operations were carried out by two groups of at least four to five assailants each. While the incidents were confined to the city center, they hit two symbolic targets at the heart of power in the country: the army headquarters and the French Embassy. The official death toll is sixteen, including nine assailants. Reliable sources indicated more than 30 dead. The number of wounded is around 85.

At the army headquarters, it seems up to five men in a vehicle either used a grenade or rocket-propelled grenade to blast their way through the entrance gate, where they then shot at soldiers in the courtyard and detonated a vehicle full of explosives by the main building. This version is confirmed by two different French and Burkinabé security sources.

Long spared by the Sahel’s armed groups, Burkina is now part of the wars of the [region].

At the French Embassy, a group of at least four men tried to force their way into the embassy. Unable to enter, they took up positions nearby and exchanged heavy fire with Burkinabé security forces. French soldiers, who have played a leading role in Burkina Faso’s security for decades, quickly reinforced the building with men lowered from helicopters. Shooting continued for several hours.

Burkinabé forces relied heavily on French support to respond to the attacks. A French military source told Crisis Group: “Burkinabé forces were crushed at the beginning. We helped them”. Even so, compared to the previous two attacks in Ouagadougou in 2016 and 2017, the response time and organisation of the reaction seem slightly improved.

Violence in the Sahel long seemed to spare Burkina Faso. How has Ouagadougou become a target?

It is not only Ouagadougou that has become a target; so has the north of the country. Long spared by the Sahel’s armed groups, Burkina is now part of the wars of the Sahel.

Since January 2016, the country has experienced several deadly attacks from regional and international terrorist networks. Nineteen people were killed and 25 others injured when suspected jihadists opened fire on a Turkish restaurant in central Ouagadougou on 13 August 2017. Thirty people were killed in similar circumstances in January 2016, not far from the Turkish restaurant, in an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Since 2015, northern Burkina Faso, which borders troubled Mali, has also experienced 80 attacks that are increasingly frequent and lethal. These attacks are mostly done by Ansarul Islam, a group founded in December 2016 that is locally rooted, albeit with ties to other groups in Mali.

One reason why Burkina Faso has become an easier target may be the weakness of the country’s security apparatus. Since the departure of former President Blaise Compaoré in October 2014, the army is significantly less organised. The special forces unit known as Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) under Compaoré was dismantled after his departure, and no equivalent has replaced it. Intelligence gathering appears to be weak, judging by the failure to detect or disrupt the major attacks that happened on Friday. Two teams totaling at least eight men were able to cross the city center carrying heavy weapons and driving a car full of explosives without being spotted.

Burkinabé authorities declared that they suspect some army members of helping Friday’s attackers, leaking key information.

Under Compaoré, intelligence capacities were based on strong individuals. Spymaster Gilbert Diendéré, Compaoré’s personal chief of staff, headed an impressive regional and international intelligence network. Those individuals have left. It is taking time to rebuild efficient institutions in their wake.

Is the attack in Ouagadougou a purely domestic affair, or linked to broader violence in the Sahel region?

The relationship between the Burkinabé government and the various armed groups of the Sahel has changed. From the mid-2000s to 2012, Compaoré’s regime cut deals with armed groups, allegedly providing them with logistical support in exchange for their neutrality. This evolved with the 2012-2013 Malian crisis. Thousands of Malian refugees fled from their homes to the Burkinabé border, raising fears in Ouagadougou that war would spill over. New armed groups appeared, with which Compaoré’s regime had less established relations.

Compaoré therefore revised his strategy, slowly switching from arrangements with armed groups to more direct military intervention. Burkina Faso deployed 1,000 troops along the Malian border after January 2013, and 650 troops in Mali as part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This may have put Burkina Faso in some jihadists’ firing line. In February 2013, a spokesperson for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the groups that controlled northern Mali for almost a year in 2012, said: “Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey are targets for our suicide bombers”.

Where do the Ouagadougou attacks fit into the context of jihadist violence in the Sahel, and the regional response to it?

This attack happened at a moment when the level of violence in the Sahel is very high. On 3 March, the Group to Support Muslims and Islam (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the Ouagadougou attacks. Part of a wider coalition linked to al-Qaeda, JNIM comprises several jihadist factions, including groups formerly known as Ansar Eddine, al-Mourabitoun, and the Macina Liberation Front. It is headed by Iyad ag Ghali, a Malian Tuareg. JNIM said the attack was in retaliation for a French airstrike on 14 February, which killed several leaders, including al-Mourabitoun deputy leader al-Hassan al-Ansari, and Malick ag Wanasnat, a close associate to Ghali.

This French airstrike was part of a surge in military operations in neighbouring Mali, conducted by either the Malian armed forces (FAMA), the French counter-terrorism force known as Barkhane, or a combination of both together with the support of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The Malian and French operations aim to reverse a rising tide of jihadist attacks and jihadists establishing control of swathes of territory. They also aim to pave the way for presidential elections in Mali in July 2018. The main jihadist groups on their target list include: the JNIM itself; a faction of the JNIM previously known as the Macina Liberation Front, which operates in central Mali under the leadership of Hamadoun Kouffa; and a local affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS) that operates in Menaka along the border with Niger, led by Adnane Abou Walid al-Sahraoui.

At the same time, progress is being made toward the operationalisation of the G5 Sahel joint force, formed between Burkina Faso, four of its neighbours, and backed by France. Launched in February 2017 and analysed in a 12 December 2017 Crisis Group report, the G5 has secured funding, begun formal planning for its relationship with MINUSMA, and has now conducted two operations in the border areas between Mali, Niger and Burkina. According to the Burkinabé minister of security, a meeting on the G5 may have been in progress at the army headquarters when the attack happened. In its statement, JNIM wrote that it wants to discourage the “Burkinabé regime and others that raced to join the G5 and fight on behalf of the French”.

With targets attacked including the army headquarters, is there a possibility that the attackers may have been helped by some Burkinabé army members?

Burkinabé authorities declared that they suspect some army members of helping Friday’s attackers, leaking key information. Attackers at the army headquarters wore Burkinabé military uniforms and most of them were Burkinabé nationals. As a retired colonel of the Burkinabé army put it on Friday in a local TV interview: “Terrorism is a multi-facetted issue and we shouldn’t rule out any hypothesis”.

[T]he less the government spends on development, the less it is able to answer strong social demands for better public services and governance that emerged after Compaoré’s departure.

The retired colonel noted that 566 members of the army and air force were summarily dismissed in 2011. Some of these men, who have been barred from rejoining the army for the rest of their lives, became bandits or joined Islamist groups in Mali, including Malian al-Qaeda offshoots, as discussed in Crisis Group’s 22 July 2013 report Burkina Faso: With or Without Compaoré, Times of Uncertainty. Also, other members of the former Presidential Security Regiment have been sacked or dispersed to other units, and they are very frustrated.          

Many Burkinabés, including some senior members of the current government, privately suspect that former collaborators of Compaoré could be behind these terrorist attacks due to the links those individuals built with armed groups. There is, however, no direct evidence to support those suspicions. In its statement, JNIM referred to those past good relations. It said the previous Burkinabé government’s position of non-interference meant it avoided “falling into a swamp of blood".

Some former Compaoré allies, who allegedly built and maintained those relations, are now living abroad. Others, accused of supporting a short-lived 2015 coup against the current post-Compaoré order, should have been on trial in Ouagadougou last week. The trial was suspended after their lawyers protested it would not have been impartial. No direct evidence supports accusations of their involvement in Friday’s attack.

How does Friday’s attack affect Burkina Faso’s stability?

If information of possible help from security forces to the attackers is confirmed, it will further divide and disrupt an already fragile army. This will also harm popular confidence in the government and military. Relations between current authorities and the former Compaoré-era political elite will become tenser and increase the climate of suspicion in the country.

The attacks could, in any event, have significant economic and social consequences. The more Burkina Faso is under attack, the more the government will be tempted to spend on the military. As Crisis Group pointed out in its 12 October 2017 report on The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, the less the government spends on development, the less it is able to answer strong social demands for better public services and governance that emerged after Compaoré’s departure. Its continued failure to meet those demands risks provoking street protests and perhaps even riots.