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The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action
The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action
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: Promoting Political alongside Military Action

Rural insurgencies across the Sahel are destabilising the region and undermining local security and governance. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue support for the Alliance for the Sahel and promote local dialogue to buttress law and order.

This commentary on promoting political and military action in the Sahel region is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

The Sahel region faces particularly acute challenges. Rural insurgencies across parts of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are expanding. Jihadi groups exploit local conflicts to secure safe havens and win new recruits. Other militias are being formed, whether to defend communities, conduct criminal activities or both. Sahelian states, supported by Western powers, rely ever more heavily on force. The new G5 Sahel joint force (FC-G5S), encompassing army units from five Sahelian states, must avoid angering local communities and stoking local conflicts. It should be accompanied by local mediation and peacebuilding initiatives, outreach to communities and, where possible, efforts to engage militant leaders.

Mali’s stalemated peace process

In Mali, the epicentre of the Sahel crisis, implementation of the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement that aimed to turn the page on the country’s 2012-2013 crisis, has stalled. Having acted as chief broker of the agreement, Algiers appears to have lost interest in leading the process. No African or other actor has stepped in.

Jihadist groups capitalise on local disputes in rural areas.

Malian leaders’ attention has shifted to the July 2018 presidential election. In parts of the country, particularly central and northern Mali, a credible vote appears a remote prospect, due to insecurity and state weakness. But any attempt to postpone the vote would likely spark street protests: President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has struggled both to restore security and stimulate development, and is increasingly unpopular even in his core constituencies of Bamako and other southern cities.

Nor have state authorities, ousted from much of the north during the 2012-2013 crisis, returned. Security continues to deteriorate in central Mali (Mopti region) and further south (Segou region), fuelling tension among communities. Jihadist groups capitalise on local disputes in rural areas, recruiting new fighters and launching attacks against national and international forces. Their reach is extending into neighbouring countries.

An expanding crisis

Northern Burkina Faso is suffering its own insurgency: notwithstanding spillover from Mali, violence there largely obeys its own logic and feeds off local dynamics. The emergence of Ansarul Islam, a Burkinabe jihadist group that has perpetrated a string of attacks against security forces and state institutions, reflects widespread discontent with the prevailing social order in the country’s north. Ouagadougou and most of its foreign partners recognise that a military campaign alone will not end the conflict, but their response needs to better factor in the deep social roots of the crisis, which means greater efforts to stimulate or facilitate communal dialogue. Ultimately, as militants operate between Mali and Burkina Faso, the crisis also requires that Mali secure its borders and both states deepen their police and judicial cooperation.

In Niger, the October 2017 killing of U.S. Special Forces and Nigerien soldiers near the border between Mali and Niger brought international attention to a long-neglected region that has become the Sahel’s latest jihadist front line. An armed group claiming links to the Islamic State has repeatedly targeted Nigerien security forces. In response, Nigerien authorities briefly backed Malian armed groups as proxy counter-terror forces along the border. Such action can prove counterproductive, adding to the already vast quantities of weaponry in the region and fuelling intercommunal conflict. The large number of armed young men in the border area between Mali and Niger – frequently now with combat experience, including fighting both against and alongside jihadist groups – are a key source of instability. Their demobilisation and reintegration into society is a critical component of any effort to end violence.

Chad is vulnerable to instability in southern Libya, where Chadian rebels have found refuge, and in the Lake Chad basin, where the Boko Haram crisis has spread. President Idriss Deby has positioned his military as a bastion against jihadism. This stance has brought financial and political support from Western powers and largely spared him their criticism, notwithstanding the country’s fragility, growing political and social discontent, and deep economic recession. Many businesses have gone bankrupt. Unemployment, especially among youth, is high. The International Monetary Fund suspended budget support in November 2017 after Chad failed to reach an agreement to restructure loans granted by a mining and oil company. Mounting political and socio-economic challenges pose a grave long-term threat to Chad; left to fester, these problems would till fertile ground for violent actors of all stripes, including jihadists.

Going beyond military solutions

After considerable delays, the G5 Sahel joint force has started to deploy at the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso border. But it is struggling with funding shortfalls and to define its role, particularly in relation to other forces in the Sahel, from UN peacekeepers to French and U.S. counter-terrorism forces. To secure the support of local populations, the joint force should respect the rights of those living in its operations zones. Efforts to de-escalate local conflicts and, where possible, open or exploit existing lines of communication with militant leaders should accompany military action.

Sahelian states remain worryingly dependent on security assistance. Indeed, foreign donor priorities, to some degree, drive the Sahelian states’ security policies: the focus on curbing human trafficking and migrant smuggling in the region in good part reflects European worries about migration and terrorism. Yet overly strict security measures can upset fragile local economies and balances of power between central state and nomadic communities or between local authorities and ethnic or religious groups.

In this light, the Alliance for the Sahel, launched in July 2017 by France, Germany and the EU, and designed to address both security and development challenges in the Sahel region, could be a step in the right direction, if European short-term concerns over migration and terrorism do not trump efforts to reform local governance, especially in neglected rural areas. The EU and its member states should also support government initiatives to strengthen local law and order – again critical in rural areas – through its EU Capacity Building Missions (EUCAP) Sahel Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger.

In particular, the EU, including its special representative for the Sahel, should warn governments against relying on militias as proxy counter-terrorism forces. It should instead encourage regional leaders to promote bottom-up reconciliation through local dialogues, especially in Mali. In Chad, the EU and its member states should not only pursue short-term security objectives but also seek to check, as best possible, the government’s authoritarian impulses so that political space does not shrink further.