In a recent development from Burkina Faso, the government has issued a diplomatic order for the full expulsion of French troops from the country. This will effectively end the French military accord, canceling all agreements that allowed over 400 French special forces to be based in the country. Anti-French sentiment is permeating across the region, fueled by perceived historical, political and social grievances; primarily, the systematic failure to combat terrorism, creating a cycle of severe instability across the region placing Burkina Faso among the ten poorest countries in the world.
Since July 2021, the number of internally displaced persons has reached 1.8 million in the wake of jihadi militant threats largely spearheaded by rebels affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State:
- AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb)
- JNIM (Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen)
- The Sentinels (Al-Mourabitoun)
- Boko Haram
- Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS)
- Ansar Ad-din
- Ansaru Islam
- Macina Liberation Front
- Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP).
These groups operate and recruit within Burkina Faso, seeking agency in the region controlling up to 50% of the country via campaigns of jihadi political violence. These actions coerce the Burkinabe government to react against communities that are specifically targeted with messaging campaigns from militant groups.
Similar to Mali, Burkina Faso has experienced systemic political turmoil since September 2022, when Special Forces Captain Ibrahim Traore ousted LTC Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba during a coup on the evening of September 30. The coup—the 8th since Burkina Faso gained independence from France in 1960—was a result of Damiba’s perceived failure to address the growing jihadist insurgency.
‘…even if it takes ten coups, we will find the right solution.’Kisewendsida Sorgho, Coup spokesman via RTB Live broadcast, September 2022.
Abductions, Conflicts & Terrorist Attacks
Burkina Faso has also experienced an estimated 5,000 acts of political violence since January 2022. 400 of those attacks were claimed by JNIM militant group across the Nord, Centre-Nord, Sahel and tri-border area.
In June of 2022, armed militants targeted male civilians in the Seytenga district, killing over one hundred civilians, burning down multiple buildings, and forcing more than 3,000 people to flee their homes. The capital, Ouagadougou, has also witnessed a significant increase in criminal attacks and human rights violations by state and non-state entities.
Throughout this multi-domain power struggle that encompasses the country, widespread violence and conflict are synonymous with the lack of humanitarian aid. Islamic militant-imposed blockades contribute to severe food insecurity, as only women are allowed to travel outside city boundaries. Burkinabe women and children are subsequently routinely abducted by armed assailants outside city boundaries; abductions are often disguised by forcing the women to pretend to shepherd stolen livestock. Recently, Burkinabe Defense and Security Forces (FDS) rescued 66 women and children after they were kidnapped by Islamic militants on January 12, 2023.
Armed militants are switching up tactics, targeting and abducting civilians en masse. 65% of the Burkinabe demographic are under 25 years of age and as an estimated 3,400 schools have closed as a result of widespread insecurity, the JNIM terror group and ISGS recruit children as young as 12 to carry out mass murder. Terrorist control of certain provinces has significantly halted Catholic church outreach services, further eroding Burkinabe ideological resilience.
The Volunteers for Defense of the Homeland (VDP), a state-sponsored defense group, is a subsidiary volunteer fighting force on behalf of the Burkina Faso Defense and Security Forces (FDS). VDP recruits are given just 14 days of training in human rights, weapons, and defensive tactics. However, the VDP has also been accused of unlawful conduct themselves, allegedly abducting groups of suspects and, in some cases, allegedly executing detainees. In a coordinated response to the jihadist threat, Burkinabe Defense and Security forces routinely strike militants across the provinces, taking out terrorist bases via air strikes and night raids. The security force operations are likely to invoke a series of retaliatory strikes from Islamic militants, contributing to a perpetual cycle of violence.
Russia & Iran capitalize on Eurocentric West
Claims from neighboring countries state that in the absence of French military presence, Burkina Faso is mirroring the Malian approach to terrorism and diplomacy, seemingly favoring the Russian PMC Wagner Group. As Burkinabe support for Russia increases, the Wagner Group is likely to be seen as a strong military ally, which may be useful as a combative tool to end the decade-long struggle against terrorism. This provides the Kremlin with a strategic foothold across Africa, along with geo-political partner China. This comes at a time when Burkina Faso Prime Minister, Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla, expressed desires to deepen relations with Tehran during a meeting in which both sides agreed to form a joint commission. This holds serious implications for Western influence in the region at a time where Western political focus remains euro-centric in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
It is believed that partnership with Moscow and Tehran will solidify strategic leverage against the West, leading to speculation that Russia played a co-ordinating role in the September 2022 coup.
Akin to activity in Mali, the Burkina Faso junta’s turn to Russia and the Wagner Group is likely intended to reaffirm its domestic political standpoint with the hopes of combatting terrorism in the near future, but it is highly likely that the Wagner Group will commit further atrocities, as the group seeks to establish combative dominance in the region. The trilateral resentment of neocolonialism in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso makes fertile ground for the Wagner Group and Western adversaries alike to capitalize on and fill the void in this game of geo-political influence against the West. It is likely that the Wagner Group has exploited Burkinabe discontent with the current security situation, mocking the necessity of French military presence in order to justify the apparent requirement for the Wagner Group.
Despite the speculation of Burkina Faso-Russia ties, H.E Mrs Olivia Rouamba has stated: “Burkina Faso has no connection with the private military group Wagner, we seek to find an endogenous solution to counter terrorism.”
With the absence of French forces and the dominant presence of militant groups, the security situation in Burkina Faso remains highly volatile. Outlining an emerging narrative, Ousman So, President for the Citizen and Pan-African Convergence states: ‘Neither Russia, the United States nor France can save us.’
As public confidence in foreign interference continues to deteriorate, Burkina Faso seeks to find a self-sustainable solution to the looming terrorism threat that occupies 50% of the country. It is also highly likely that Burkinabe citizens will experience an increase in influence campaigns from satellite authorities trying to regain a political foothold in the region.