Burkina Faso holds presidential poll in ‘a climate of fear’ amid jihadist attacks

Campaign posters along a street in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso ahead of the November 22, 2020 presidential elections.
Campaign posters along a street in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso ahead of the November 22, 2020 presidential elections. © Olympia de Maismont, AFP

Burkina Faso goes to the polls Sunday in presidential and legislative elections amid a deteriorating security situation. FRANCE 24 interviews an expert on the stakes and challenges of the country's election.

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While much of the world’s attention was focused on the US presidential race, 2020 has been a busy election year for West Africa, with a number of countries going to the polls in elections with high domestic and regional geopolitical stakes.

In Guinea, the incumbent, Alpha Condé, was declared the winner of the October 18 presidential election, granting the 82-year-old politician a third term following a controversial constitutional referendum that reset his two-term limit.

In Ivory Coast, the economic hub of Francophone West Africa, President Alassane Ouattara was also declared the winner – with more than 94% of the vote – of the October 31 poll. Like his Guinean counterpart, the Ivorian incumbent oversaw a constitutional amendment that reset the political calendar, cancelling Ouattara’s first two presidential terms and setting his term counter to zero.

Tiny, landlocked Burkina Faso is the latest to join the 2020 West African electoral cycle, which will end in Niger on December 27.

Unlike its neighbours, Burkina Faso’s presidential election on Sunday is not overshadowed by constitutional disputes. However, the security situation has dramatically declined in this nation of around 20 million people. Jihadist attacks in the wider Sahel region have spread into the north and east of Burkina Faso over the past five years, claiming more than 1,200 lives and forcing around a million people from their homes.

The declining security situation has sparked a nostalgia for the stability the country enjoyed under former strongman, Blaise Compaoré, who ruled Burkina Faso for 27 years before his ouster in a 2014 popular uprising. Compaoré – or "Beau Blaise" (Beautiful Blaise) as he was nicknamed in his youth – has been living in exile in neighbouring Ivory Coast. But his shadow has loomed large over the 2020 campaign trail.

The frontrunner in Sunday’s election, President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, has campaigned on a platform of "peace and victory for our people". But mounting terror attacks and jihadist victories during his five years in office have undermined his election promises.

Kaboré faces a stiff challenge from Zéphirin Diabré, a former Burkinabe finance minister and runner-up in the 2015 presidential election.

The 2020 campaign would have seemed like a 2015 re-run were it not for a newcomer among the 12 presidential candidates. Eddie Komboigo, a 56-year-old wealthy accountant, is standing on a ticket for the CDP (Congress for Democracy and Progress) – Compaoré’s party.

Once perceived as a stable West African nation, Burkina Faso’s fate is now closely tied with that of the wider Sahel region, where 5,000 French troops are deployed under Operation Barkhane, cooperating with a fledgling European Operation Takuba force. FRANCE 24 spoke to Tanguy Quidelleur, an expert on Burkina Faso, at the Institute for Social Sciences of Politics about the stakes of Sunday’s elections. 

FRANCE 24: In 2015, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s election raised a lot of hopes since it seemed like the country was turning a historic page after Blaise Campaoré’s 27-year reign. What’s the situation today?

Tanguy Quidelleur: There’s a kind of disillusionment after having placed so much hope in the post-Blaise Campaoré era. Faced with the deteriorating security situation, the lack of economic prospects, there’s sometimes nostalgia. Some voters who were fundamentally anti-Campaoré are now wondering whether it was worth the effort. The political climate is quite bleak and there’s not much excitement about the polls.

When you talk to Burkinabes on the street, you see a form of resignation and the majority of people have no real hopes of change with this election. They are already struggling to cope with daily life. Concerns revolve around the cost of living and access to basic necessities. There are many [internally] displaced people and that the Covid-19 epidemic has affected many activities.

Roch Marc Christian Kaboré has been criticised for the security situation. He’s also criticised for relying too much on clientelistic networks. He has campaigned on the development of infrastructure and roads, especially in areas where jihadist groups operate. 

F24: The election is being held amid an extremely precarious security situation. Has this affected the campaign?

TQ: During the campaign, ensuring candidates’ security and access to certain areas was extremely difficult. Jihadist groups targeted state officials, civilians, community and religious leaders, which also fuelled tensions between communities.

The campaign was marked by violence and a climate of fear. The campaign was suspended on November 11, when 14 soldiers were killed in a road ambush. An MP’s vehicle was also targeted a few days earlier, killing the driver.

F24: Given this context, could it affect voter turnout on Sunday?

TQ: There’s going to be a divide between urban centres – which are well secured and where voters will be able to go to the polls on Sunday – and the rural areas where, in many places, people will not be able to go to the polls. There are also nearly a million displaced people living in camps.

To alleviate this situation, there has been an amendment to the Electoral Code: in exceptional circumstances, if the election cannot be held in certain polling stations, the ballot can still be validated. 

This amounts to excluding a part of the electorate. People will not feel represented and this raises questions over the legitimacy of the vote.

F24: The other major issue has been "national reconciliation" after the fall of Blaise Campaoré. Despite his physical absence, is the former president still an unavoidable presence?

TQ: The Burkinabe political class was trained and nurtured by Blaise Campaoré. Some political actors do not hesitate to speak of the former head of state’s return to the country as part of what they call "national reconciliation". This is essentially a strategy to seduce those nostalgic for the old regime and siphon off CDP votes. This call for a return is above all symbolic – it’s part of the political game because in reality, the former president will have no choice but to face justice [if he returns to Burkina Faso]. This return and this "national reconciliation" therefore remain very hypothetical.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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