Burkina Faso: a weak state on the front lines of fight against Sahel jihadists

Issouf Sanogo, AFP | Troops stand guard outside Ouagadougou's Splendid Hotel on January 18, 2016, following the first of three major terrorist attacks to have rattled Burkina Faso's capital in recent years.

Friday’s attacks on Burkina Faso's military headquarters and the French embassy in Ouagadougou have highlighted the security threat in this landlocked West African nation grappling with jihadist militancy.


A poor country even by regional standards, with a population of 18 million, Burkina Faso is one of a string of fragile states on the southern rim of the Sahara that are battling militant Islamist groups.

The insurgency has caused thousands of deaths, prompted tens of thousands to flee their homes and dealt crippling blows to economies that are already among the poorest in the world.

Friday’s assaults, in which officials say at least eight assailants and seven members of the security forces were killed, mark the third major attack on Burkina Faso’s capital in the last three years.

On August 13 last year, two assailants opened fire on a restaurant on Ouagadougou's main avenue, killing 19 people and wounding 21. The attack remains unclaimed.

In January 2016, 30 people, including 11 Westerners, were killed in an assault on a hotel and restaurant in the city centre. That attack was claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terror network’s North African branch.

“Burkina Faso is the poorest country in the region with possibly the weakest state,” says FRANCE 24’s Catherine Norris-Trent, pointing to recent coups that have rattled the landlocked nation. “It is quite possible attackers see it as a soft target that is easy to infiltrate.”

>> Attacks on French embassies in Africa since 2000

Sahel force delayed

The fact that France’s embassy was targeted on Friday is symbolic, given that French President Emmanuel Macron chose to outline his Africa strategy, including the fight against militants, in the Burkinabe capital last November.

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that “everything suggests terrorist groups were behind the attacks”. He underlined France’s resolve to “fight implacably against terrorist groups who want to destabilise the Sahel, and pose a danger to our own safety and our interests”.

The former colonial power in the Sahel region, France has deployed 4,000 troops and is supporting a five-country joint force gathering Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – known as the G5 Sahel.

Indeed, when a car bomb exploded at the Burkinan military headquarters, “there was a G5-Sahel meeting going on which was perhaps the target”, said Security Minister Clement Sawadogo.

The United Nations also has a 12,000-strong peacekeeping force in neighbouring Mali called MINUSMA, which has taken heavy casualties. Four UN peacekeepers were killed by a mine blast on Wednesday in the centre of the country.

The G5 force aims to train and equip 5,000 troops to restore authority in lawless areas where jihadists have gained a foothold, but it has been hampered by delays in financing and transferring troops from national armies. The regional force has also failed to win support from key player Algeria.

After a series of fund-raising conferences, the last of which took place in Brussels on February 23, a total of 418 million euros has been promised by donors, which include the European Union, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and the United States.

However, until now only 50 million euros of the money pledged has been made available, and Sahel leaders have warned it is needed urgently to deal with an influx of Islamic State (IS) group fighters driven out of Libya and Syria.

A weakened security apparatus

Serge Michailof, an associate research fellow at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), says Burkina Faso’s main problem is the porous 1,400-kilometre northern border it shares with Mali.

“You just cannot control such a border,” he told FRANCE 24, adding that “pickups [carrying jihadist militants] can cross it very easily without following the main roads”.

Northern Burkina Faso has seen an increase in attacks and kidnappings since 2015, mostly targeting security forces. They include an attack in December 2016 on a battalion of anti-terrorist forces stationed in Nassoumbou, near the border with Mali, in which 12 troops were killed.

The country’s vulnerability has also been heightened by the upheaval that followed the fall, in October 2014, of longtime leader Blaise Compaore, after 27 years in power, says Michailof.

“Burkina Faso’s security services were very close to Compaore,” he explains. “The fact that they were purged after his fall means the capacity of Burkina Faso’s secret services is much weaker than it was three or four years ago.”

Critics say the military has also suffered during the recent upheaval, which saw Compaore loyalists stage a failed coup in 2015. During the January 2016 assault on a hotel and restaurant, troops waited for hours before trying to intervene.


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