Restoring security for its people must top Burkina Faso’s agenda

While tackling the security emergency, civilian protection must drive any strategy to regain territory.

The junta in power in Ouagadougou justified the coup of 24 January 2022 by citing the inability of the Kaboré regime to overcome the security threats in the country. By making security its primary objective, the junta raised people’s hopes of a rapid return to peace and stability. Three months after the putsch, however, this remains a major concern. The military has not been able to reverse the growing insecurity trend and incidents of violence occur almost daily.

Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) figures show 610 violent incidents, mainly involving violent extremist groups, between 25 January and 8 April 2022, killing 567 people. Compared to the corresponding period in 2021, incident numbers have quadrupled and deaths tripled. Insecurity was already rising before the coup and the institutional destabilisation seems to have benefitted extremists, with violence peaking in February.

Chart 1: Monthly violent incidents and victims – October 2021 to March 2022

 Chart 1: Monthly violent incidents and victims – October 2021 to
March 2022
Source: Institute for Security Studies graph, based on ACLED data

(click on the chart for the full size image)

Extremist groups also strengthened their grip on various regions of the country in February, notably the Sahel, North, East and Central-north regions. In the Sahel region, they controlled roads to isolated localities. In mid-February, they imposed a blockade on Djibo and threatened to extend it to Dori. On 11 April, in Centre-north, the Société des Mines d’Or de Taparko, a gold mining company, was forced to close for ‘security reasons.’ 

More people displaced

Insecurity has increased the already-significant number of displaced people. According to the National Council for Emergency Relief and Rehabilitation, numbers rose from 1 741 655 at end-January 2022 to 1 814 283 at end-February, an increase of 4.17%. Thus, Burkina Faso faces the largest forced displacement crisis in the Sahel, accounting for 64% of all displaced persons in the region.

Insecurity has increased the already-significant number of displaced people

Chart 2: The number of internally displaced people in Burkina Faso between October 2021 and February 2022

 Chart 2: The number of internally displaced people in Burkina Faso between October 2021 and February 2022
Source: Institute for Security Studies Graph, based on CONASUR data

(click on the chart for the full size image)

With violence persisting, the euphoria observed in the first hours of the coup d’etat has subsided, gradually making way for criticism of the new authorities’ ability to restore security. Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, president of the transition, said he was aware of people’s expectations, but blamed the lack of progress on the necessary setting up transitional institutions. He said this should serve as a political framework for a more coherent and effective fight against insecurity.

February and March were, thus, devoted to political processes that led to a charter specifying the duration – 36 months – and the organs of the transition, their composition and mandates. The transitional government and legislative assembly were also inaugurated.

However, amid a seemingly endless security emergency and despite justifications offered, the Burkinabè are unwilling to wait any longer. If not properly addressed, their expectations could lead to a new political crisis that would plunge the country further into instability.

Changes in the security apparatus

In this context, in early April, Damiba announced that the first results of the new strategy would be visible within five months. To make this happen, he is counting on decisions recently taken to reinvigorate the state’s response to insecurity.

These measures include major changes to the security apparatus. The heads of the major commands and operational units were replaced. A new national operations command was created and recently-retired military personnel were called in to strengthen security force capacity. The authorities also promised to improve defence and security forces' equipment and living conditions. An audit of the management of the military was announced, the results of which should be used for better internal governance of the institution.

Amid a security emergency and despite justifications offered, the Burkinabè will wait no longer

As increased military action looms, authorities must prioritise the protection of civilians. Data from September 2021 attributed 10% of abuses against civilians to pro-government forces (defence and security forces and ‘volunteers for the defence of the fatherland’). The experience of countering violent extremism across the central Sahel clearly shows that violations of civilian rights amplify the spiral of violence. To avoid repeating past mistakes, speed must not be confused with haste.

Commitment to dialogue

In addition to revitalising the military, the authorities show a firm commitment to dialogue with armed groups. The ministry in charge of national reconciliation and the new ministry of religious and customary affairs will be the main political interlocutors. In his address to the nation on 1 April 2022, the head of the transition said he hoped that such dialogues would involve local committees created for this purpose.

Ad hoc dialogue has been carried out in the past, particularly in 2020 in the Djibo region. This created relative calm during the presidential elections. The current initiative, unlike its predecessors, benefits from clearly defined institutional support, reflecting strong political will, even if the details and content of the dialogue remain to be defined. To maximise its chances of success, the process should be informed by past learning.

The authorities show a firm commitment to dialogue with armed groups

The effectiveness of the responses envisaged by the authorities, whether armed responses or dialogue, will depend largely on their quality of implementation, particularly their synchronisation. Clarifying the sequencing, coordination and articulation of these two components could allow them to be complementary, rather than competitive, within the framework of a coordinated strategy.

In this context, Burkina Faso’s partners should define flexible and pragmatic support strategies, accounting for national and regional changes. These partners include the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union, United Nations and European Union.

Without renouncing the requirement to return to constitutional order within a ‘reasonable’ time, their credibility rests, over and above the strict adherence to processes, on their constructive approach, particularly in supporting Burkina Faso to achieve its security goals. The adoption of economic sanctions, which ECOWAS threatens if the authorities do not revise the transition schedule, could trigger a negative spiral and lead to a break in relations.

Regional and sub-regional organisations could also mobilise the expertise and credibility of traditional legitimacies of neighbouring countries to support local dialogue efforts in Burkina Faso. European partners’ withdrawal from Mali and uncertainties about their support mechanisms for Sahelian states should increase ECOWAS and African Union engagement with sub-regional states plagued by insecurity and political instability.

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