Just days before campaigning closes ahead of Burkina Faso’s 22 November presidential and parliamentary elections, candidates are still overwhelmingly focused on security challenges. This is a legitimate area of public concern, but doesn’t reflect the security, development and humanitarian issues that define the country’s current crisis.
The electoral campaign was an opportunity for parties and candidates to clearly articulate their plans for addressing the full range of problems affecting millions in Burkina Faso. But most of them missed the boat.
Their inability to confront the complexity of the situation and propose holistic responses doesn’t bode well for the policy changes the country needs. Rather it reveals the piecemeal mindset that has underpinned government’s overly securitised responses to the crisis for years – an approach that has shown its limits.
Burkina Faso sits at the heart of a Sahel region hit by one of the fastest growing humanitarian crises in the world. And yet electoral competitors seem to overlook it. An unprecedented 13.4 million people, representing over 20% of the region’s population, are currently in need of life-saving assistance and protection. This includes 7.4 million who face acute levels of food insecurity – three times more than a year ago.
Since 2018 the number of internally displaced people in the region has jumped from 70 000 to 1.6 million. This more than 20-fold increase is largely due to the situation in Burkina Faso, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the Sahel’s internally displaced people.
The inability of electoral authorities in Burkina Faso to accommodate the displacement crisis that affects a considerable portion of voters arguably stems from the same general failure of the country’s ruling elites to address the bigger picture.
The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate due to spiralling violence and insecurity, and is compounded by the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health measures that restrict mobility and lead to border closures, have substantially reduced economic activity and taken a toll on the most vulnerable.
According to the World Food Programme, food insecurity increased by more than 50% between March and August, exposing 3.3 million Burkinabé to acute food insecurity. Available data suggests a correlation between violence against civilians, food insecurity and forced displacement. The country’s northern regions, along the Mali border, are most affected. Now we can add electoral exclusion to this.
The Sahel region of the country – which is most severely affected by all three phenomena – accounts for 55% of the villages where electoral operations won't take place due to insecurity and ‘exceptional circumstances,’ as the August review of the electoral law calls it.
Election authorities have acknowledged the difficulties of organising an inclusive poll in this context. But they haven’t set up any special measures to facilitate voting for the country’s over one million internally displaced people. Although those who are displaced are officially authorised to vote from wherever they are relocated, most lost all civil documentation while fleeing for their lives, which effectively excludes them from the process.
The few who have managed to keep their documents might be able to participate in the polls. But it’s unclear how much appetite they would have for participating in elections after a campaign that largely ignored them. The effects on local conflict dynamics also need to be monitored, especially if the votes of displaced people were to overturn the outcome of parliamentary elections in particular districts.
Various forms of marginalisation have long been major drivers of tensions and conflicts in Burkina Faso, and feelings of exclusion are routinely exploited by armed groups to exacerbate violence cycles. In this context, an election that leaves large numbers of citizens behind risks aggravating an already fragile situation.
Irrespective of their political background, the next elected administration in Burkina Faso will have to design better national strategies for mitigating the crises. The same goes for Niger, where local, parliamentary and presidential elections are planned in December; and for Mali, where the National Transitional Council urgently needs to be set up.
Drawing lessons from recent experience, the next National Assembly of Burkina Faso will have to reconsider the securitisation of the national budget, which overemphasised military responses. The country’s increased investment in hard security has not delivered the expected return on peace and stability. Instead, basic social services such as health, education and water supply have been vastly underserved at a time when COVID-19 has heightened these needs. Meanwhile, violence against civilians rises.
Policy change under a new administration and legislature requires a conversation that must begin now. Citizen groups and civil society organisations must expose the blind spots of campaign manifestos that fail to address the humanitarian, developmental and security dimensions of the crisis.
Governance systems in Burkina Faso are weak which means citizens may have limited influence over politicians after they’re elected. Now is the time to demand clarity and agree on mechanisms to monitor the implementation of campaign commitments.
Meanwhile, humanitarian actors must hold the incoming administration to the promises of their predecessors. This is especially true of those made at the 20 October high-level humanitarian event on Central Sahel and the 8 September Senior Official Meeting that preceded it. This includes financial and political commitments on key issues such as humanitarian access and principles, strengthening basic services, and respect for the Kampala Convention as a key legal instrument to protect internally displaced people.
There is no better time than elections to remind candidates that effective responses to the humanitarian side of a crisis cannot be treated merely as a technical issue. It must be decisively owned by national political leadership.
Ornella Moderan, Head, Sahel Programme, ISS Bamako
This article was produced with support from the UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands.
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