We spoke with long-time African correspondent for SRF Ruedi Küng in great detail about Burkina Faso, terrorism and the future of the Sahel region.
We hear about terrorist attacks in the Sahel region. Travelling to Burkina Faso is not recommended. But we actually know little about the current situation in Burkina Faso. What is your assessment? What is happening in Burkina Faso right now?
Ruedi Küng: A large number of jihadist acts of violence, attacks and assaults have been committed in Burkina Faso in recent years. The weekly magazine Jeune Afrique continuously reports on them in great detail. The north and the east of the country were most affected, but the rest of the country was not spared, as documented by the Armed Conflict Event Data Project ACLED 1). Most of the violence is carried out by jihadist militias, but also by members of the army and the police, as well as other armed groups and militias. The victims are villagers of all ages and ethnic groups as well as soldiers and police officers. According to ACLED, more than 1600 Burkinabè have been killed in the past 12 months. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than a million have been displaced from their homes in their own country. And well over 2000 schools were closed as a result of the terror.
What is the state government doing to oppose this violence?
This precarious situation, which is disrupting the lives of so many people, is one of the country’s most pressing problems, so much so that it shaped the presidential and parliamentary elections last November. Newly re-elected President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré wants to continue the military fight against the Islamist terrorist militias, but at the same time, he has created a new Ministry for National Reconciliation and appointed a prominent opposition politician to head it.
Has the situation evolved since then?
At the end of last year, the number of acts of violence decreased. Experts attribute this to a secret agreement between the government and the Islamist organisations concerning the general elections in November 2020, which the government denies. Acts of violence will increase again in 2021. Tread lightly when travelling outside the capital Ouagadougou.
How did the country get into this situation in the first place?
The violence in Burkina Faso is a result of the destabilisation of the entire Sahel region after the fall of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, an event in which French and NATO forces had a hand. As a result, the Sahel was “inundated” with Libyan weapons and experienced fighters who found themselves unemployed. This first impacted Mali. Jihadist forces conquered large parts of the north by taking the city of Timbuktu and quickly moved towards the capital Bamako. Only the massive deployment of French troops was able to stop them.
But not permanently, it appears.
Eight years after the arrival of the French armed forces, the jihadists have been driven from the northern cities, but not from Mali. They have also spread throughout the region and are now present in the southwest of Niger and in the north and east of Burkina Faso. According to ACLED, there was not a single case of violence in Burkina Faso in 2005, yet there were 12 in 2013 and 668 in 2020. One of the most serious attacks occurred on January 16, 2016, when armed men struck the Le Capuccino café restaurant and the hotel Splendide in Ouagadougou. A total of 30 people, including two Swiss, were killed. More than 50 others were wounded and over 170 were temporarily taken hostage.
Who was responsible for the attack?
The perpetration of the attack was claimed by two Islamist terrorist organisations, namely al-Qaida, originally Algerian, in the Islamic Maghreb AQIM, as well as the Malian al-Murabitun, which allegedly wanted to take “revenge on France and the non-believing West”.
What are their goals?
The jihadists don’t merely carry out terrorist attacks. They conquer entire stretches of land, use brutal violence to enforce their rigid Islamic manners and dress codes in the villages, and recruit new followers among the locals. They have created tension and conflicts between different religious and ethnic groups such as the Mossi and the Peul, but also within and among rural communities in Burkina Faso that had previously lived next to one another in good terms for the most part.
How are people in the endangered regions reacting?
Traditional associations meant to protect village communities from criminals, such as the Dozo or Kogleweogo, as well as the volunteer fatherland defenders, or VDP for short, have reacted with violence of their own. This reaction is also out of frustration at the insufficient protection by the national army, which has increased the potential for conflict. This dangerous and complex situation is made even more volatile by the fact that the President has now legally allowed the VDP to recruit volunteers to fight the terrorists. As written in Jeune Afrique, this is how terrorist violence hurts Christians and Muslims.
You lived and worked in African countries for years. Do you draw any parallels with developments in other countries?
Many African societies are now affected by the danger and destabilisation posed by terrorist Islamists. Particularly Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, northern Nigeria and Cameroon, as well as Somalia and northern Mozambique. The jihadist organisations can find favour with the population, especially in societies where important infrastructures such as health services, roads and electricity are inadequate and the state presence is weak.
How does that concretely manifest itself?
Notably, experts from the Crisis Group report that the jihadists have taken on judicial functions when there are disputes in communities in northern Burkina Faso, where the state judiciary is absent. The Islamist extremists continue to successfully recruit fighters among the many young people who are unemployed or have no prospects. In his book Born on a Tuesday, writer Elnathan John describes how this is occurring in northern Nigeria, for example. The main tool of the jihadists, however, remains the brutal violence of terror.
What would have to happen to make a positive transition possible?
The African states affected by the Islamist terrorist organisations face an enormous challenge. France has committed considerable troops (5100 soldiers) and weapons in Mali for years, and this has shown that military means alone will not suffice. With the help of units from the G5 Sahel states of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, the French troops are able to keep the jihadists away from the cities, but not the countryside, where they remain present and active. Moreover, the French troops can do little or nothing to resolve the conflicts between different ethnic groups, which have intensified in the wake of the war against the terrorists.
What do you think it will take for real change to take place?
The example of Mauritania could show us the way forward, as shown in an analysis of the Reliefweb 2). After severe terrorist attacks, a stricter anti-terror law came into effect in 2010. The army and security forces were better equipped, trained and paid. Light, mobile and flexible desert units were created.
So once again, mainly military measures.
True, but they were only one part of the effort. At the same time, information campaigns were carried out to spread the "tradition of tolerance" of Islam to break the ideological radicalism of the terrorists and to promote public support in the fight against extremism. In many places, the supply of water, electricity, schools, health centres, roads and mobile phone networks were improved.
That almost sounds a bit too easy.
Some observers believe that the almost complete disappearance of terrorist attacks in Mauritania is the result of a silent agreement between the Mauritanian authorities and the jihadists. Mauritania’s measures, which we have merely summarized here, cannot simply be transferred to terrorist situations in other countries and regions. But identical or similar measures do not rule out having talks.
Do you think such discussions are possible in Burkina Faso?
In Burkina Faso, as in all of Sahel as well as the French side, it was previously considered impossible to negotiate with the Islamist terrorists. They are believed to be uncompromising fanatics who have no intention of giving up their hostility towards democracy, education, culture and women. There have been recent signs that this attitude could change, though. The possibility of talks with certain terrorist groups is being discussed both in Burkinabè circles and in France. As mentioned, there are rumours of a ceasefire in Burkina Faso because of the general elections. What the new Ministry for National Reconciliation is trying to achieve, and what it is capable of, remains to be seen.
In your opinion, what impact can economic investments or activities have?
Improving the economy, notably through investments that create jobs, is desirable in a fundamental way. Young people can find a place in society and integrate through training and job opportunities. However, there is no guarantee that this will be the case. Islamist ideology addresses not only poverty, but also intangible values such as self-esteem, which can be stirred by the history of oppression and paternalism against people in Africa. The sad reality of the jihadist expansion in Africa is that the Islamist agitators are successfully gaining followers through violent oppression and cultural gagging.
1) ACLED Data Dashboard (accessed on 30.04.2021)
2) Reliefweb: How has Mauritania managed to stave off terror attacks? (accessed on 30.04.2021)
Ruedi Küng has reported on Africa for 40 years and has lived in Uganda, South Africa, Sudan and Kenya for eleven years. As the African correspondent for Schweizer Radio DRS – today SRF – he travelled the sub-Saharan part of the African continent for twelve years. He has been following the developments on the continent with InfoAfrica.ch since 2010 as a freelance specialist, gaining deeper knowledge through continuous research and occasional trips. Ruedi Küng was also a delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross ICRC and an international politics editor at Swiss TV and Radio SRF.
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