Burkina Faso’s military government struggles to contain violence

Since January’s coup, the number of attacks has increased by more than 23 percent, compared with the five months before.

Burkina Faso President Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba talks to local people, after armed men killed civilians and militaries in Seytenga
Burkina Faso President Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba talks to local people, after armed men killed civilians and military personnel in Seytenga, at airport in Dori, Burkina Faso, June 15, 2022 [Burkina Faso's Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters]

When the mutinous soldiers removed the government last January in Burkina Faso, they pledged to end the country’s crippling security crisis, a task that they claimed elected officials failed to execute.

The man who led the coup, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba justified the takeover by saying there was a need to “fight for [the country’s] territorial integrity, its recovery and its sovereignty”.

And when the 41-year-old Damiba was sworn in as head of state, he reshuffled the army command to tackle the crisis. But he also encouraged local communities to build dialogue with armed groups as part of a peacemaking process to convince the fighters to put down their arms.

But the violence has worsened under military rule.

Since the military takeover in January, the number of attacks has increased by more than 23 percent, compared with five months before the coup, according to the conflict monitoring group, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).

In the latest episode of gruesome violence, at least 100 people were killed in the northern border village of Seytenga last month – survivors said the assailants moved unhampered from home to home, slaughtering inhabitants and torching shops.

It was the second-worst death toll since the violence unleashed by armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) began to spill over from neighbouring Mali in 2015.

Villagers who escaped the massacre said they became targets a day after security forces pulled out of the area.

“How is it possible that in a key and strategic area terrorists can simply carry out barbaric acts over a period of hours without being disturbed,” Alassane Bala Sakande, who heads the People’s Movement for Progress (MMP) party, asked the government.

Military zones

As the military battles for territory with the advancing armed groups, state presence is further shrinking in parts of the country.

After talks with the military government in June, former Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, the mediator appointed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional bloc, said Burkinabe security forces have no control over more than a third of the country.

And that has kept the military government on its toes.

Following the Seytenga attack, it announced the creation of two large military zones and ordered residents in those areas to evacuate.

One zone covers an area of about 2,000 square kilometres (494,200 acres) and borders Mali in the northern province of Soum. The other zone covers about 11,000 square kilometres (2.71 million acres) on the southern border with Benin and comprises mostly national parklands and natural reserves.

Former President Rock Kabore sought to implement a similar plan but could not do so because of the ill-equipped state of the armed forces.

By evacuating civilians, the military is preparing for major operations in these areas against the armed groups that have captured towns by imposing blockades and isolating locals from the rest of the country.

“The plan also aims to cut the sources of supply for terrorist groups which have created corridors in the eastern part of the country to be able to move to refuel, motorcycle, and ammunition,” Mahamoudou Savadogo, founder of capital Ouagadougou-based geopolitical advisory firm Granada Consulting, told Al Jazeera.

With very few details available about how long people have to evacuate or where they should go, Abdoulaye Barry, a Burkinabe researcher at the United Nations’ University for Peace, says there are concerns about the efficient implementation of the plan.

“Does the government have the necessary means to ensure that the message is widely disseminated since the terrorists have destroyed the communication infrastructure in certain areas? What system can the government put in place for the evacuation of populations? What sites are planned to accommodate these populations? So many questions without answers,” Barry told Al Jazeera.

Rida Lyammouri, a senior fellow at Policy Center for the New South in Rabat, is also sceptical about the plan. He says it will further deteriorate, not improve the lives of local communities hard hit by the armed uprising.

“They either have to flee to find safety and access to basic services, or take the risk and remain in their homes but then perceived by state forces as collaborators or supporters of armed groups”, Rida Lyammouri told Al Jazeera. “Subsequently, this could lead to acts of atrocities by security forces against civilians.”

Burkina Faso already has one of the world’s fastest-growing numbers of internally displaced people as 1.9 million have been forced to flee their homes due to the conflict, according to the UN.

Worse still, it has also been listed among the world’s most neglected displacement crises in the world, by the Norwegian Refugee Council. Only 22 percent of overall funding promised this year for the displaced populations has been covered so far.

The displacement of farming communities in rural areas has exacerbated food shortage, which has been deepened by the militias who have blockaded towns and restricted the movement of goods and people. Consequently, about 3.5 million of the country’s 21 million people are currently facing food insecurity while more than half a million are threatened by starvation.

As the multidimensional crisis looms large, Abdoulaye Barry thinks militarising residential areas will not be the panacea that the government seeks to stabilise the country. “This plan puts security at the centre of the debate in the fight against terrorism but unfortunately, it has shown its limits,” Barry said.

Rising discontent

Damiba is also organising reconciliation summits with former presidents in a bid to project social and political unity under his wings in the face of the slowly brewing discontentment over spiralling violence.

But that move has attracted public criticism of the government, even though the coup was welcomed by crowds in the capital.

One of the invited statesmen was former strongman Blaise Compaore, who ruled Burkina Faso with an iron fist for nearly 30 years. Although in exile in neighbouring Ivory Coast, Compaore was recently convicted of complicity in the 1987 murder of his friend and predecessor Thomas Sankara and sentenced to life in prison.

His return to the country has left a bitter taste in the mouth of many.

The Patriotic Front, a coalition of some 20 civil organisations and political parties, said the reconciliation cannot be achieved by establishing impunity or by “making arrangements between politicians”.

Arouna Loure, a member of the transitional parliament, also rejected the idea that Compaore’s controversial return would help build political unity. “If you believe that Compaore is the lion that will come save our country, then you are deeply mistaken because this lion doesn’t have teeth any more,” Loure said.

Source: Al Jazeera