Fear and exodus on front line of jihadist fight in Burkina Faso

Ouagadougou (AFP) –


On the edge of the forbidding Sahara in the dusty northern market town of Djibo, Burkina Faso's battle against jihadism is at its most acute.

This impoverished corner of West Africa has always seemed distant from the central government in Ouagadougou. Today, though, that isolation feels more extreme than ever.

Three years of murders, targeted killings of officials, blasts and kidnappings in northern Burkina Faso have worn down residents' faith in the state's ability to protect them.

Thousands have fled the remote region, and bit by bit the presence of the state is fading away.

According to an official toll, 80 attacks have taken place since March 2015, causing 133 deaths, in addition to a triple assault by jihadists in the capital Ouagadougou in March this year in which 60 people were killed.

Two hundred schools in northern Burkina Faso have closed, leaving around 20,000 pupils and 800 teachers idle, authorities say.

In April, a teacher was kidnapped "because he was speaking French to the pupils", according to the jihadist group the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which claimed the abduction. The same month, students took to the streets, begging teachers to allow end-of-term exams to go ahead despite the threat of violence.

In Djibo, even the courthouse has shut down as judicial staff are too afraid to go to work.

"The schools have closed, the town halls as well, and now it's the turn of the courthouse. Have we lost the north of our country?" asked Kouliga Nikiema from the Union for Progress and Change, an opposition party.

"It's clear that national sovereignty has been badly shaken by this closure," he added of the courthouse shutdown.

"For the people of Djibo, this closure may be viewed as an abandonment by the central state."

Last year, reinforcement of the military presence in the north and joint operations with Mali and France enabled the Burkinabe army to regain control and restore some trust.

- Security forces 'powerless' -

But attacks by the shadowy enemy resumed, and fears have grown.

"Despite many efforts, the lack of personnel and effective military strength are creating a growing risk of losing the region or seeing it become a no-man's-land," said security expert Karamoko Traore.

"The security forces seem powerless dealing with militants who are prepared to die," said Traore, referring to the killing last month of three people, including a traditional local leader.

Burkinabe political analyst Souleymane Ouedraogo said that seven out of the nine administrative areas in the northern province of Soum had been hit by attacks since 2015.

According to figures provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, more than 800 families, or around 5,000 people, have fled their homes to live farther south -- a figure that Ouedraogo says is more likely "14,000 or 15,000".

"The villages are emptying little by little and those who remain there are constantly threatened by Ansarul Islam," he says, referring to a group that has carried out many attacks in the region along the 1,000-km (600-mile) border with Mali.

The government has vowed to fight back. In June 2017, it launched a three-year emergency programme worth 455 billion CFA francs (700 million euros) to improve security, education, health and drinking water in the country's Sahel region.

Security has also been boosted by the internationally backed G5 Sahel, an anti-jihadist group which aims to train 5,000 troops and crack down on militants in Burkina Faso and neighbouring Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

"Burkina will not give up an inch of its territory," Defence Minister Jean-Claude Bouda said at the end of last year. "We will fight tooth and nail to save our country."