Security in Burkina Faso has steadily deteriorated since 2015. Seeking to address the spiraling violence, the Burkinabé government enacted a state of emergency in nearly one third of all provinces in the country by the end of 2018. Yet, so far, 2019 in Burkina Faso is on track to be the most violent and deadliest year on record, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). Violent crime and small-scale attacks are on the rise in previously peaceful areas of western and southern Burkina Faso. Meanwhile, a region known as Liptako-Gourma, comprising parts of northern and eastern Burkina Faso, risks becoming a growing focal point of militant Islamist activity in the Sahel. According to ACLED, militant Islamist groups have more than tripled their attacks over the last year in this region, demonstrating that they are increasingly entrenched across Liptako-Gourma. Who are the groups behind these attacks? What so far have been the state’s responses? And, what reasons to hope for peace and stability exist, if any, amidst this worsening situation?
A set of maps produced by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies displays the activities of different militant Islamist groups over time in the Sahel. The maps underscore the increase and expansion of activity, and, also importantly, the diversity of actors engaged in destabilizing the region. In Burkina Faso, a few developments deserve special attention.
Along the border with Niger, in the north and east, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has expanded its activities by exploiting a lack of border security, as well as by inflaming local grievances against the state. Led by Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi, ISGS maintains ties in the region to groups affiliated to the Islamic State as well as Al Qaeda, demonstrating the opportunistic style of this particular group. ISGS has profited from long standing smuggling routes that connect the Sahel to North Africa and to Europe. By generating instability across a wide swath of these borderlands, ISGS facilitates the illicit trafficking of drugs, arms, and people. Since the renewal of the state of emergency in the Burkinabé provinces bordering Niger in July, Operation Otapuanu led by Burkinabé forces appears to have diminished ISGS’s activities. However, the possibility that insecurity in eastern Burkina Faso may spread farther south, threatening coastal countries, continues to capture the attention of leaders in the region. The May 2019 kidnapping of foreigners traveling in northern Benin, who were recovered during a French military operation in northern Burkina Faso, substantiates many of these fears.
In northern Burkina Faso, violence has escalated steadily since 2015. Initially, this violence centered around Djibo, the capital city of Soum province, and was claimed by the group Ansaroul Islam. Led by the radical Burkinabé imam Ibrahim Malam Dicko, Ansaroul Islam sought to stoke grievances against traditional hierarchies to gain followers and supporters in and around the province. However, after the death of Dicko, it is widely believed that Ansaroul Islam fractured into various smaller groups that joined other groups or opted to pursue other forms of criminality. The sustained presence of Burkinabé security forces through Operation Ndofou, and pressure from the French counterterrorism operation Barkhane, may have also contributed to Ansaroul Islam’s apparent decline in 2019.
However, by mid-2019, attacks on security forces had seen a surge in the northern regions. For instance, on August 19, Burkinabé armed forces based in Soum province at Koutougou fell under attack by militant Islamists. The attack on the Koutougou base resulted in dozens of casualties—the deadliest single attack suffered by Burkinabé security forces in the country’s history.
This attack and others suggest that the remnants of Ansaroul Islam may have reorganized or joined a larger, well-coordinated effort by other militant groups. It is unclear which groups are responsible for this attack or others that have taken place recently in the Liptako-Gourma region. However, groups linked to Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) have been responsible for large-scale attacks in the past and may be attempting to exert a stronger presence on Burkina Faso’s northern front.
Many of the violent events in Burkina Faso that have captured international attention are attributed to JNIM or its affiliates. Operating as a loose network of militant Islamist groups, JNIM is officially led by Iyad Ag Ghali, the Tuareg leader of Ansar al Dine which is primarily active in northern Mali. However, JNIM also includes the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) which is responsible for much of the violence in central Mali and at times, violence in north-central Burkina Faso. With the apparent decline of Ansaroul Islam, JNIM may be seeking to expand its influence by incorporating combatants familiar with and already in northern Burkina Faso. This may pose an increased threat to Ouagadougou. JNIM, or groups linked to the terrorist network, targeted the capital using attacks on soft targets in 2016 and 2017 as well as simultaneous attacks on the French Embassy and Burkinabé Military headquarters in 2018.
In addition to the continued threat of violence in Ouagadougou, large-scale intercommunal violence in the outlying provinces of Burkina Faso poses perhaps the most serious threat to stability in the country. The stigmatization of the Fulani community, because of their perceived association with militant Islamist groups, has aggravated social tensions throughout the Liptako-Gourma region. Similar to the violence seen in central Mali, Mossi self-defense militias known as Koglweogo have at times exacted vigilante justice on Fulani communities in northern and central regions of the country because of their alleged connection to “jihadists.” This is a relatively new phenomenon in Burkina Faaso which, historically, has exhibited peaceful relations between its diverse communities. Security forces must begin to reassert control over this situation and reign in the Koglweogo militias to prevent vigilante justice from further spiraling out of control. The risk of widespread and unprecedented ethnic clashes throughout the central plateau of Burkina Faso currently presents one of the most worrying threats to reestablishing peace in the region.
Despite the increased violence and insecurity, it is important to recognize that the political situation in the country has remained remarkably stable. In 2014, a popular insurrection overthrew the former regime and ousted former president Blaise Compaoré after he had held onto power for 27 years. That event could have completely destabilized the country, resulting in years of political instability in addition to the insecurity and violence observed over the last few years. Instead, political leaders, civil society and the military in Burkina Faso successfully established an inclusive transitional government. During 2015, transitional authorities navigated a series of challenges to successfully return the country to democratic civilian rule.
The current government has struggled to address the security situation in the country, but political institutions have persisted despite these challenges. Widespread insecurity in the northern and eastern regions of the country have not degenerated into a full-blown political crisis, as it may have. Instead, political parties have followed the processes articulated within the constitution and the armed forces continue to support civilian leadership. Indeed recently, opposition parties and the parties in the presidential majority agreed on a reform of the electoral code, smoothing the pathway forward to presidential elections scheduled for 2020.
The resilience of Burkina Faso’s political stability underscores the hopes for peace and stability in the country. Empowering the Burkinabé government to further pursue the reestablishment of security will be crucial for the fulfilment of these hopes. This will inevitably require large commitments from the Burkinabé security forces and their partners. If security can be restored, the political will and coordination to expand the state’s ability to deliver governance will be necessary for enduring peace. Unlike some other countries in the region, the political leadership demonstrated in Burkina Faso at least displays the hope that such an outcome may be possible.
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.