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The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
Supporters of President-elect Roch Marc Kabore watch election results at Kabore's campaign headquarters in Ouagadougou, 1 December 2015. REUTERS/Joe Penney
Briefing 116 / Africa

Burkina Faso: Transition, Act II

Burkina Faso’s democratically elected new government faces great challenges to deliver on justice, socio-economic needs and regional security. To succeed, authorities must resist the temptation to establish a new one-party hegemony. Instead, they should engage in social dialogue and political reconciliation, military reform, and friendly relations with neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.

I. Overview

Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s victory in the 29 November presidential election shows that Burkinabes aspire as much to change as to continuity. A former heir apparent to Blaise Compaoré, Kaboré symbolises both the stability of the former regime and, given his split from Compaoré, the desire for change. The new government must deliver on many challenges: major socio-economic needs, demands for justice, the fight against corruption and impunity, army reform and growing regional threats. The government will have to refrain from triumphalism, recognise the formidable challenges ahead and, most importantly, resist the temptation to recreate a Compaoré-like system of one-party hegemony. Without this, Burkinabes will massively return to the streets, as in October 2014 and September 2015, which could plunge the country back into crisis.

For now, however, a sense of relief is in order: the long and fragile transition was completed peacefully. By organising the free and fair 29 November elections, the transition fulfilled its principal purpose. It did not, however, manage to resolve all outstanding issues of the Compaoré years: economic crimes and acts of violence committed under the former regime have gone unpunished. The September 2015 attempted coup allowed the country to rid itself of at least the presidential guard (RSP). While the RSP’s dissolution is another step toward dismantling the Compaoré system, it does not solve the thorny issue of the future of the former regime’s partisans. The real transition – the one that should lead to the consolidation of democracy and the introduction of a new form of governance – begins now, with the installation of the new authorities.

The grace period will not last. Dire budgetary realities mean the new president will struggle to meet immediately the population’s high expectations, especially their socioeconomic demands. The presence of violent extremist groups in neighbouring countries is another threat. The October 2015 attack on a gendarmerie post in the west of the country, the first of its kind in Burkina Faso, is evidence of the worsening security environment. The inauguration of new authorities could be followed by a rapid deterioration of the social climate, which, combined with regional security threats, could create an explosive cocktail and block the new government’s scope for action. Furthermore, the September coup attempt demonstrated that the armed forces remain a key actor in the country’s political life. The military’s ability to interfere in political affairs, a constant feature of Burkina Faso’s history since 1966, did not disappear with the RSP’s dissolution.

The political class will eventually have to solve its own disputes. It will be particularly difficult for some of Compaoré affiliates to accept the accession to power of their ex-comrades-turned-enemies of the Movement of People for Progress (MPP) – founded in January 2014 as an outgrowth of the former ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) party. This animosity could generate further tensions, especially if the new government succumbs to the temptation of a witch hunt against members of the former regime, and if some Compaoré followers choose destabilisation as their strategy to demonstrate that they remain a force to be reckoned with.

If Compaoré associates decide to use neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire as a rear base, as was allegedly the case during the September coup and the foiled attack against the Ouagadougou military prison last December, relations between Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire could rapidly deteriorate. The bone of contention between the two countries has grown over the last two months. In addition to the suspected involvement of some Ivorian dignitaries in the September coup, the Ivorian authorities have so far ignored an arrest warrant against Compaoré issued on 4 December by a Burkinabè military court.

The October 2014 uprising that ousted Compaoré after 27 years in power marked a major upheaval in Burkina Faso, and the September 2015 coup was the first aftershock. Despite the peaceful elections, the country is not immune to future trouble as it opens a new chapter of its history. Many short- and long-term measures could be adopted to reduce the risk of future instability.

  • The new authorities should organise a constructive dialogue with unions, and quickly adopt social appeasement measures, focusing on youth and the country’s poorest regions.
  • The new authorities should rapidly begin to reform the army and develop a global defence and security strategy through the publication of a white paper. Army reform should be carried out under parliamentary supervision and the commission in charge of it should include civilians and retired military officers.
  • The role of the National High Council of Elders should be constitutionalised, as was recommended by the reconciliation commission, so that its function as an institution supporting the resolution and prevention of social and political crises is fully established.
  • Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso should continue to strengthen their relationship as part of the 2008 Friendship and Cooperation Treaty. Ivorian leaders should move past their political ties with former Compaoré regime officials and make Burkina Faso’s stability a priority, if necessary by cooperating with Burkina Faso’s courts.
  • Burkina Faso’s international partners should stay mobilised to provide adequate financial assistance, in particular to help the government deal with social demands. This support is particularly important given Burkina Faso’s position as one of the last islands of stability in an increasingly troubled region.

Dakar/Brussels, 7 January 2016

Commentary / Africa

The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat

With jihadists and armed groups exploiting political and security vacuums across the Sahel, Mali and neighbouring states will continue to face insecurity. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to rethink international development strategies and to support local government initiatives that combat radicalisation.

 

This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

Despite significant international sweat, the Sahel remains on a trajectory toward greater violence and widening instability. Jihadists, armed groups and entrenched criminal networks – sometimes linked to national and local authorities – continue to expand and threaten the stability of already weak states. Across the region, citizens remain deeply disenchanted with their governments. International actors must review their current strategies, which tackle the symptoms of the Sahel’s problems without addressing their underlying cause: central governments’ long-term neglect of their states. In particular, they should act urgently to prevent the collapse of the peace process in Mali – a genuine danger this year that would have serious implications for security across the Sahel.

Widening Cracks in Mali’s Peace Process

At the heart of the Sahel’s instability is Mali’s long-running crisis. It is spilling over into Burkina Faso and spreading to fragile Niger and more stable Senegal. Twenty months since the government and armed groups signed the Algeria-brokered Bamako peace agreement in June 2015, implementation is faltering and the deal’s collapse is a real possibility. Despite publicly claiming to support the process, Malian parties lack confidence in a deal that was signed under international pressure and has serious shortcomings. It does little to tackle the violent war economy in which prominent businessmen rely on small private armies to protect trafficking routes. It also fails to restore a viable balance of power between northern communities and leaders who compete for resources, influence and territory.

Map of Sahel. International Crisis Group

The recent fracturing of the main rebel coalition, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), has seen the creation of new community-based armed groups, such as the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad and the Congrès pour la Justice dans l’Azawad, and may further aggravate insecurity. More worryingly, the appointment of interim local authorities and the launch of mixed patrols comprising army soldiers and former rebels in the north have failed to demonstrate much positive impact at the local level.

Meanwhile, jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Eddine and al-Mourabitoun, remain active. Having been chased out of major towns, rather than trying to hold urban areas they are striking provincial and district centres from rural bases. Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the bombing on 18 January that killed 61 personnel of the mixed unit in Gao region.

Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas.

At the same time, insecurity is rising in areas long neglected by the state such as central Mali, which is not included in the northern Mali peace process. Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas. Bamako still has no effective response to the jihadists’ strategy of threatening or killing local authorities or civil society members that stand against them. In addition, the rise of a new group, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and the possible influx from Libya of defeated Islamic State (IS) fighters are further sources of concern.

Jihad Sans Frontières

Despite international military intervention including by UN peacekeepers, jihadists are making inroads into other Sahelian countries. In late 2016, jihadist fighters based in central and northern Mali launched attacks in western Niger and northern Burkina Faso, underscoring the region’s vulnerability and the serious risks of overlapping conflicts across the greater Sahel. On 6 February, the G5 countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) met in Bamako to announce the creation of a regional force to tackle terrorism and transnational crime. It remains to be seen how effective this ambitious project will prove.

Mali’s neighbours are right to point out that Bamako is responsible for failing to prevent radical groups using its territory. However, they should also pay closer attention to their own internal dynamics. These include years of state neglect and poor political representation of certain communities – especially nomadic Fulanis in the region of Djibo in Burkina Faso and Tillabery in Niger. Chronic resource limitations hobble Sahelian states’ ability to respond effectively: Niger’s state revenue, for example, is €1.7 billion, about as much as France invested in stadiums to host the 2016 European football competition.

In 2016, Burkina Faso suffered eight attacks originating in Mali and it remains the most vulnerable of Mali’s neighbours. The ousting of former President Blaise Compaoré in 2014 left the security apparatus in disarray. National authorities have been slow to rebuild the intelligence system and they lack a defence strategy to help security forces adjust to rapidly evolving threats. Despite recurring attacks, military posts in the country’s northern Sahel region remain poorly protected. With limited resources the government will struggle to meet demands for significant social development, which partly drove the October 2014 uprising, and, at the same time, increase spending to revamp the security forces. Should Burkina be tempted to use the social welfare budget to plug security holes, it could face new protests.

Reviving the Malian Peace Process

International forces have been slow to adjust to changing ground realities and for now there is little appetite in Bamako or the region for a major course correction. However, further deterioration – such as jihadist groups expanding westwards into Ségou region in the centre – would require a response. The European Union (EU) and its member states should anticipate this and encourage Malian parties and the Algeria-led mediation team to meet again before the process loses all credibility. New talks would offer all parties an opportunity to express their concerns about the implementation of the Bamako agreement and reenergise it. They should agree on additional appendices that include a new timetable and mechanisms to ensure that each party respects its commitments. To limit the risk of further armed group fragmentation, discussions should also focus on ways to bring splinter groups into the process. This could mostly be done by integrating them into one of the existing coalitions, the CMA or Platform.

The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure.

To avoid the further spread of violence in Mali, the EU and its member states should encourage and support central government and local authorities to mediate local conflicts. They should also assist local authorities, through training and direct support, to provide public services and ensure the equitable sharing of natural resources. Such peacebuilding support should not be framed as preventing or countering “violent extremism” (P/CVE) as these concepts lack clarity, mask the complex dynamics of jihadist recruitment and risk stigmatising communities that receive such assistance.

Vital too is the need for a shift in international development strategies. The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure. The EU and member states should pay particular attention to assisting the state’s local-level redeployment through programs that support public services. They should encourage and assist the government to improve its draft “Plan for Central Mali” and make it a useful tool to coordinate government efforts.

They should also ensure that the EU’s capacity-building mission, EUCAP Mali, closely collaborates with authorities at both central and regional levels to make Mopti region in the centre a pilot site to test policies aimed at improving local security, and specifically reforming the local police. Lessons drawn from here could be applied in northern Mali and other Sahelian regions.

Halting Jihadists’ Cross-border Spread

The EU and its member states should pay more attention to Burkina Faso, which faces a real threat from armed groups. In particular, member states with a military presence in Mali should deploy forces near its border with Burkina Faso, and provide the Burkinabè security forces with helicopters so that they can conduct aerial surveillance of the long shared border. Although the link between underdevelopment and radicalisation is complex and indirect, increasing aid in health, education and professional training particularly in areas affected by attacks, could potentially improve relations between state authorities and communities and therefore undercut an important grievance that extremist groups often exploit.