Selected Analysis

Burkina Faso changes tactics in its fight against Jihadist attacks

by Jean Sovon, Global Voices

Marked by armed conflicts and a Jihadist insurrection since 2015, Burkina Faso remains prey to great political and security instability. The Burkina Faso government seems to be trying out a new strategy of inviting Russia to take France’s place as regional peacekeepers, and of issuing appeals for volunteers to defend the country.

A succession of coups

Since the 1980s, Burkina Faso has been marked by political transitions, which have often been violent. In 1987, Blaise Compaoré was swept to power by a coup d’état against the father of the Burkinabe Revolution, Thomas Sankara. Following his fall in 2014, the country has been led by a National Transition Council (CNT), which suppressed another coup attempt in September 2015.

A few months later, in December 2015, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré was elected President in Presidential elections. But this period marked the beginning of a security crisis that has dragged on until today. Kaboré, re-elected in 2020 for a second term, was forced in 2022 to resign under pressure from the army. The country faced a new coup d’état in January 2022Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba took the helm of the country but remained in the post for only eight months as a Transitional President. He was removed in turn by another coup, on led by Captain Ibrahim Traoré.

The new president announced several reforms: one within the army and another reducing the number of political parties. Moving forward, the Transitional Government also wishes to rely on its citizens and no longer solely on its strategic partners, such as France, to bring the security crisis to an end. Despite these measures, for two decades now, the country has witnessed deadly Jihadist attacks linked to the Sahel War being waged against several states beholden to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Burkina Faso, by virtue of its ethnic and religious mix, has been deeply affected by this war. The country contains 20 million inhabitants, divided into 60 ethnic groups. The majority, made up of the Mossi, live mainly in the center of the country. The Fula and the Tuaregs live principally in the North of the country. In terms of religion, Burkina Faso has a majority of Muslims (60 percent), as well as Catholic (23 percent) and Animist (15 percent) communities.

Call for volunteers to defend the country

In October 2022, Burkina Faso launched a campaign to recruit 50,000 citizens to the Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland (VDP), a militia group created in December 2019 to oppose the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, the Support Group For Islam and Muslims and Ansar ul-Islam, all three of which are active in the North of the country.

At the end of November 2022, the authorities announced that they had recruited 90,000. A move heralded by some Burkinabes on Twitter:

Ibrahim Traoré wins his bet. Thousands of Burkinabe join up as Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland (VDP).
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Hats off to the valiant people of Burkina. Who gives a f*** about Sabre, Barkhane, Takuba or the Accra Initiative?

— JPF-ERRY (@Prius_004) November 24, 2022

Sabre, Barkhane, and Takuba are different military operations undertaken by French troops in Burkina Faso since 2009. The Accra Initiative is a mechanism launched in September 2017 by Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo, in response to the growing insecurity in West Africa.

But the VDP deployment is demanding major resources. The Burkina Faso state needs 100,000 million CFA francs (USD 163 million) to send these VDP militia members into action. This objective is far from being achieved to date. Only 432 million (USD 706,000) has been raised, according to the responses of Oumarou Yaro, an expert in Social Performance Management and Inclusive Finance in Burkina, when questioned by West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR).

In this interview with WADR, Yaro gives the reasons for Burkinabes’ reticence to contribute to the fundraising drive:

“(…) the crisis has triggered a great deal of displacement, and some displaced persons have been taken in by families. And this has reduced their spending power. Wage demands on the part of employees have not been met, and there’s the impact of inflation, currently at one of its highest levels. Some firms have preferred to contribute in kind rather than give money. Some Burkinabe are not confident that this fund will be well managed. And this has prompted the government to feed back regularly to the population.

This is taking place in a complex context linked to the recent departure of French armed forces.

The departure of French troops and rapprochement with Russia

In January 2023, the Burkina Faso Government rescinded and eventually ended its agreement from December 17, 2018, “relating to the status of the French armed forces intervening” in the country. The authorities are also requesting the departure of the 400 French troops, who have been present since 2009. The capital Ouagadougou is demonstrating its willingness to diversify its strategic partnerships by opting for Russia, including possible ties with the mercenary Wagner Group.

Some people are jubilant over this decision and openly calling for a rapprochement with Russia, as shown by the remarks of Anicet Ouédraogo, a Burkinabe student, quoted on Africanews.

It’s a great initiative. I’d even say they’ve been dragging their feet. This should have been done right away because at the moment we need honest partners who can really work with Burkina Faso.

This idea is echoed by Apollinaire Kyélem de Tembela, Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister, at the end of an interview with Alexey Saltykov, the Russian ambassador to Burkina Faso, in the same interview:

Russia is a logical choice in this dynamic [and] we think that our partnership should be strenthened.

Russia has indicated it is ready: Alexander Ivanov, one of the representatives of the Russian military instructors in Central Africa, tweeted his support for “sharing the experience” of Central Africa to train Burkina Faso’s army. On a visit to Mali on February 7, 2023, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, promised aid from Russia to the Sahel and Gulf of Guinea countries facing the Jihadists.

Over 10,000 casualties since 2015

Various interests are closely following the toll on human lives in Burkina Faso since the start of the terrorist attacks in 2015. In October 2018, the Burkina Faso Government announced 118 deaths between April 2015 and September 15, 2018: 70 civilians and 48 members of the security services. Agence France-Presse (AFP) claimed, meanwhile, that 400 people had been killed between 2015 and May 2019. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 256 civilians were assassinated by Jihadists in the country between April 2019 and January 2020.

Between April 4, 2015 and May 31, 2020, The Observatory for Democracy and Human Rights (ODDH), an NGO based in Burkina Faso, counted 436 Burkinabe military personnel killed and 310 wounded by the Jihadists, 1,219 civilians killed and 349 wounded by the Jihadists, and 588 civilians killed by the country’s armed forces.

In February 2023, the NGO Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED), estimated that the conflict had left more than 12,000 dead since 2015.

On October 11, 2019, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees reported that the violent attacks in the North had created 486,000 displaced persons, 267,000 of them in the period of July to September 2019, and that most refugees fled to the large towns in the center of the country, whilst 16,000 had gone abroad.

The security situation is a long way from improving: on February 17, 2023, at least 51 soldiers were killed in an ambush mounted by suspected Jihadists in the North of the country, on the border with Mali and Niger. In response to this attack, the national army undertook new operations which have allowed it to neutralize a hundred terrorists.

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