Burkina Faso: Notes on HRW’s Latest Report on Jihadist Abuses

Human Rights Watch is out with a new report entitled “Burkina Faso: Armed Islamists Kill, Rape Civilians.” The subtitle is equally important – “Army, Militia Respond with Summary Executions, Enforced Disappearances.” The contents of the report will not be shocking to long-time watchers of Burkina Faso, but the report is a vital update. There were a few points that stood out to me:

  • The report’s focus on rape highlights, once again, the wide gap between jihadist ideology and jihadist practice. The jihadist promise is one of a utopian counter-order based on their version of justice, which includes the idea that a jihadist state will bring safety and fairness for ordinary Muslims. In practice, jihadist predation and crimes of opportunity occur frequently: “A nurse from a village near Dablo said she had treated over 55 women who had been raped by armed Islamists between September and December 2021. ‘The women came from 11 villages,’ she said. ‘The terrorists attacked Muslims, Christians, and animists alike. They cried – they couldn’t eat or sleep and were too ashamed to tell their families what happened.'” Much research has been conducted on rape and gender-based violence as a “weapon of war” (and see more on this below), including the use of rape as a tool for punishing and driving away perceived outsiders, but use of that weapon obviously narrows whatever political appeal Burkina Faso’s jihadists may have for civilians in the country’s conflict zones.
  • Relatedly, the HRW report points to a high degree of deliberate displacement by jihadists: “The attacks, said security analysts, appeared designed to compel widespread displacement from towns perceived to support the government, thereby consolidating armed group control from their strongholds in northern Burkina Faso to the central regions. Humanitarian workers expressed alarm at the dramatic pace of deterioration. Said one, ‘Civilian life is being suffocated as roads are mined; villages blockaded; markets closed; and water points, telecommunication, and electricity infrastructure sabotaged.'” If this is indeed the strategy – reduce the population, and then rule over what remains – it does indicate to me that there’s some exhaustion of the jihadist political project, an admission that they cannot win over the majority. On the other hand, it takes some level of political support to have the recruits necessary to execute such a strategy.
  • The closing sections of the report, focusing on abuses by the army and by civilian fighters in the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (French acronym VDP), confirms earlier trends – collective punishment, ethnic profiling of the Peul, and government empowerment of the VDP but simultaneous VDP mistrust of the government (“describing one incident [of a VDP unit ethnically profiling and then killing accused jihadists], a VDP member said, ‘We used to turn suspects over to the gendarmes, but they always released them, so we decided to sort this problem out ourselves’…) Notably, although the report focuses on dynamics in the conflict zones rather than on macro-politics in Ouagadougou, the report conveys a sense of continuity of military and VDP practice before and after the January 2022 coup; in other words, the report describes abuses both in the last quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022. Current military President Paul-Henri Damiba has alluded vaguely to a new approach, but on the ground it does not appear that much has changed.

An Attack in/on Togo: Serious, But Not Necessarily A Game-Changer

Reuters:

Eight soldiers were killed and 13 wounded in an attack in northern Togo on Wednesday, the government said, marking potentially the first deadly raid on its territory by Islamist militants who have killed thousands in neighbouring countries.

Before dawn, a group of heavily armed gunmen ambushed an army post in the Kpendjal prefecture near the border with Burkina Faso, the government said in a statement.

The Togolese government’s statement is here.

As the statement mentions, the attack targeted soldiers in a Togolese border security mission called Operation Koundjouare, which was launched in 2018 (the most information I could find about it was here).

Kpendjal (map) is the northwestern-most prefecture in Togo. From Kpendjal, it is almost twice as far to Togo’s capital Lomé as it is from Kpendjal to Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. In other words, this is a remote part of Togo. Notably, an earlier attack in Kpendjal was also reported in the Togolese press in November 2021, also targeting the security forces, although that attack was attributed to “bandits” rather than “terrorists.”

Assuming that one or both of those attacks were by jihadists, that would be worrying – and any attack is worrying, even “just” by bandits. But I think the concerns about the spread of jihadism into the coastal West African countries – Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin, and possibly Senegal – need to be right-sized. On the one hand, sporadic attacks can signal the beginning of a more substantial incursion, as areas such as central Mali, northern and eastern Burkina Faso, and western Niger have tragically discovered. There are already credible fears about a jihadist presence in northern Benin, and Cote d’Ivoire has suffered attacks since at least 2020. On the other hand, even in the worst conflict zones of the Sahel (and the Lake Chad Basin), the degradation of insecurity and the onset of multi-sided civil war took considerable time to occur. Moreover, there are serious potentials for self-fulfilling prophecies – counter-jihadist units tend to get attacked by jihadists, government efforts at rooting out cells tend to lead into counterproductive collective punishment, foreign interventions and heated rhetoric tend to turn up the temperature, etc.

Meanwhile, I think one should be hesitant about drawing any connections between national-level politics and what are, ultimately, very local dynamics that are necessary for insurgencies to gain traction. Would Togo appear to be remarkably brittle and potentially full of resentments, having been ruled by the same family since 1967? Definitely. Does that mean that jihadists are going house-to-house in Kpendjal riling up sentiment against President Faure Gnassingbé? I doubt it. I think where jihadists choose targets or see footholds (and sometimes I think they stumble into opportunities rather than seizing them), I don’t think who the head of state is figures largely in their calculations. Or, if one wants to feel very grim, one could say that the majority of the coastal states (with the exception of Ghana and Senegal, in my view) are brittle at the top. But as I mentioned above, it’s a long way from Kpendjal to Lomé.

Comparing the Prime Ministers of the Sahel

Who are the current prime ministers of the five core Sahelian countries, and what do their careers and approaches tell us about Sahelian politics? A few basic patterns emerge. In education, a combination of domestic government schoolings, STEM specializations, and some overseas training helped to fast-track their careers. In the first phases of their careers, employment within the civil service and particularly within state-owned enterprises was the means of ascent; often simultaneously, these men (they’re all men) either built parallel political careers within political parties, or at least (from within the civil service) weathered major shakeups in the political scene around them. The pivotal decade, in all cases, appears to have been the 1990s – in their 30s and 40s, they solidified positions as insiders that they have maintained ever since.

In the current political environment, the default model is that of a military head of state with a career politician or civil servant as prime minister; Niger is the only fully civilian-civilian lineup, in the sense that the head of state there is neither a current nor retired soldier. Two additional takeaways: (1) military heads of state have deep benches of technocrats and career civilian politicians to draw on when forming governments, even in some of the world’s poorest countries; (2) military heads of state in the region prefer civilian to military prime ministers, even if soldiers sometimes take up other key ministries in governments; and (3) in some cases, there are political rewards for the ability to strategically tack back and forth between the ruling party and the opposition, just as there are rewards for repeatedly seeking the presidency even if one doesn’t win it. None of those patterns are particularly unique to the Sahel, of course. One other interesting detail is that all three of the prime ministers in the core conflict zone of the Sahel – Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso – hail from the conflict zones themselves. Such origins, however, don’t necessarily give these men any particular advantage in attempting to manage or resolve those conflicts.

Here are the biographical sketches:

Mauritania – Mohamed Ould Bilal Messoud (b. 1963, Rosso): Ould Bilal Messoud is a technocrat and engineer with a background in hydraulics and business administration; parts of his education were in Algeria, Senegal, and possibly Europe. Since 1991, he has risen through the ranks of the state bureaucracy. Political turbulence in Mauritania between 2005 and 2009 clearly did not hurt his career, which continued to advance after the coup of 2005 against longtime ruler Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya; he then moved into his first ministerial position (as Minister of Facilities, Urban Planning, and Housing) under the short-lived civilian administration of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi; he then headed up several state-run enterprises after the coup of 2008 and the coming to power of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (military head of state 2008-2009, civilian head of state 2009-2019). In 2020, Ould Bilal Messoud became prime minister after allegations of corruption brought down his predecessor, Ismail Bedde Ould Cheikh Sidiyya. From what I observe, Ould Bilal Messoud does not have a particularly big profile, perhaps by choice.

Mali – Choguel Kokalla Maïga (b. 1958, Tabango): Maïga is another engineer, in this case with a specialty in telecommunications; he graduated with a doctorate from the Moscow Telecommunications Institute in 1987/1988. Politically active as a supporter of Mali’s then-military ruler Moussa Traoré, Maïga built a career from 1990-2002 at the Mali Telecommunications Firm (Société des Télécommunications du Mali), rising through the ranks there even as Traoré fell in 1991. Meanwhile, Maïga became the leader of the Patriotic Movement for Renewal (MPR), a successor party to Traoré’s party the Democratic Union of the Malian People; under the MPR banner, Maïga ran for president in the open elections of 2002, placing seventh with under 3% of the vote. He again placed seventh in the open elections of 2013 and then scored eighth in the 2018 elections, each time receiving a slightly lower percentage of the vote. Maïga was appointed transitional prime minister by Mali’s current junta in June 2021, after the junta perpetrated its second coup (the first was in August 2020, the second was in May 2021).

Burkina Faso – Albert Ouedraogo (b. 1969, Dori): Ouedraogo has a background in management sciences, having received a doctorate in that subject in 1999 from Caen-Normandy University in France. From 1996-2002, he taught at the University of Ouagadougou, and then fashioned a long and apparently extremely successful career in the private sector (including at Deloitte) and then as a government consultant on a wide array of technical projects. His previous overt political experience was limited to some student activism, but when the Burkinabè junta (came to power January 2022) was seeking a transitional prime minister, Ouedraogo may have appealed to military ruler Paul-Henri Damiba not just because of Ouedraogo’s technocratic credentials, but also because he is close to Damiba’s uncle Pierre Claver Damiba, the first president of the West African Development Bank.

Niger – Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou (b. 1954, Amaloul Nomade): Mahamadou has a background in economics and public administration, having studied in Togo, France, and the United States. A career civil servant from 1979 to 1991, he was also a founding member of the Nigerien Party of Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) in 1990; the PNDS is the party of Niger’s immediate past President Mahamadou Issoufou and the current President Mohamed Bazoum. During the 1990s and 2000s, Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou was in and out of the Nigerien government while also taking up major posts at the regional and international levels. He served twice as minister (Mines, Energy, Industry, and Crafts from 1991-1993, and Finance from 2011-2012), once as chief of staff (to Issoufou, 2015-2020), was elected twice as deputy from his home Tahoua Region (2011 and 2020), with stints at the Economic Community of West African States, the African Development Foundation, and other such organizations along the way. He was appointed in 2021 as Bazoum’s first prime minister, replacing Issoufou’s longtime prime minister, Brigi Raffini.

Chad – Albert Pahimi Padacké (b. 1966, Gouin; more biographical details here): At least in my research so far, I have not found details of Padacké’s biography between his birth and 1990, when he entered government. Since 1990, under the rule of Presidents Idriss Deby (1990-2021) and Mahamat Deby (2021-present), Padacké has been a major civilian figure associated with the regime, holding ministerial posts on and off: Finance, Commerce, Mines, Agriculture, Justice, Communication, etc., before being appointed Prime Minister in 2016. The post of prime minister was abolished in 2018, but then was resuscitated under the transitional military regime of Mahamat Deby, who appointed Padacké as his first and so far only PM. During the 2000s and up through the 2021 election (won by Idriss Deby just days before his death), Padacké was a frequent candidate for president (2006, 2011, 2021). In 2011 and 2021 he was a distant runner-up, scoring 6% to Deby’s 89% in 2011, and scoring 10% to Deby’s 79% in 2021. If one feels cynical (I do), one could say that Padacké was not a convincing opposition figure, given how many times he served in Deby’s governments – including, by some accounts, serving during the 2006 elections. Mahamat Deby would not have made him PM, it seems to me, if Padacké was not an insider through and through.

Four Recent Pieces on Russia in Africa/The Sahel

A lot of analysts and journalists are writing “Russia in Africa” pieces these days, and the quality – and the politics – of those pieces varies considerably. Here are four:

Jalel Harchaoui and John Lechner, “How Russia’s War in Ukraine Affects Its Meddling in Africa” (Lawfare, May 1). This is a good and straight-shooting piece that avoids hyperbole and sensationalism while still taking very seriously Russia’s (negative) role in several of Africa’s conflict zones. The piece also convincingly calls out Washington as talking tough but doing little to really push back on Russian influence – and then, refreshingly, calls not for tough actions but for judicious and continued engagement with African governments. An excerpt:

Punishing poor African governments, like those of CAR or Mali, for their Russian connections by reducing U.S. and European aid will not alter their behavior or protect civilians. It will only amplify Russian influence and erase U.S. leverage, while bringing further harm to populations already in the grips of a severe food crisis caused in large part by Russia’s war on Ukraine. The United States should avoid this type of overreaction given that security deterioration in those territories, along with the growth of actors more toxic than the Russians, might well force the United States to come back asking for cooperation from the same local authorities in the medium-term future.

Mucahid Durmaz and Murtala Abdullahi, “‘White hands’: The Rise of Private Armies in African Conflicts” (Al Jazeera, April 28). As the title indicates, this piece is not merely about Russians or the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, but it is useful for thinking about Russia in Africa. It is not “whataboutism,” in my view, to consider that other mercenaries from the “global north” and beyond – including French, British, Israeli, and South Africa – also operate in Africa and get into their own scandals involving corruption, abuses, child soldiers, usurpation of state functions, etc. On one level, the “Russia in Africa” story is just that; on another level, it’s a story about the hollowing-out of African states and the opportunities that opens for multiple private-sector plays to cash in.

Carley Petesch and Gerald Imray, “Russian Mercenaries Are Putin’s ‘Coercive Tool’ in Africa” (Associated Press, April 23). This piece represents the now-standard narrative; worth a read, but more as a reflection of the dominant view in Washington and Paris than as adding much new to conversation. On Twitter, Durmaz (co-author of the previous piece) called the AP piece “full of lazy, unimaginative, uncritical, sensationalist and biased reporting on African countries’ complex ties with rest of the world.” Harsh but not unwarranted.

Danielle Paquette, “He’s Pro-Russian, Anti-Zelensky and Rallying for Putin in West Africa” (Washington Post, April 21). I actually found this piece the worst of anything I’ve read on the topic recently. The article is a profile of a 30-year-old Burkinabè man whom the journalist condescendingly presents as an absolute dupe, someone completely brainwashed by Russian disinformation; basically, the guy showed the journalist a few sites he likes, and it becomes a story about how Russia is winning in Africa. It’s not that journalists need to be political scientists (heck, I’m not even a proper political scientist), but to extrapolate so much from a sample size of one (!!) is ridiculous, as is the idea that Russian propaganda is the most significant variable at play in shaping how this man thinks. After all, it turns out “he indulges in scrolling perhaps three times each week, he said, which is how much data he can typically afford.” That’s not much. And what is the effect of the propaganda on his political action? He ultimately attends a pro-Russia demonstration where “only a couple dozen men had gathered.” The piece also glosses over France’s failures in the Sahel, implicitly poo-pooing the kind of frustration this man feels; I’m not saying he’s right to be pro-Putin, but in the hands of some Western journalists and policymakers, the “Russia is taking over Africa” narrative easily becomes a means of grossly oversimplifying how the situation in the Sahel got so bad.

Two Important Pieces on Dialogue with Sahelian Jihadists

The issue of whether and how to dialogue with jihadists in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger is a central issue in the region’s politics now. Here are two important pieces on the subject:

At The New Humanitarian, Sam Mednick interviews Burkina Faso’s Minister for Social Cohesion and National Reconciliation, Yéro Boly. A key portion:

The New Humanitarian: How is the current dialogue in Djibo progressing?

Boly: If [you] go to Djibo this morning, [you] will see that the situation is beginning to change…The chief of Djibo was in Ouagadougou [and] the jihadists asked to see him. He left with a 22-person delegation. The chief of Djibo was the head of the delegation of those who went… and Jafar [Dicko] was the chief of the jihadists. So, it was at a high level. It went well, with a good atmosphere. But [both sides] told a lot of truths. It was tense.

[Community leaders] asked us to help them get to Djibo, for those who were in Ouagadougou. The army dropped them in Djibo by helicopter. It’s the first time that the people from Djibo asked us for help. Since Djibo is inaccessible and there are leaders who were in Ouagadougou who had fled, [they wanted] help. 

One thing to note is the multiple and shifting meanings that the word “dialogue” takes on, even in the mouth of a single speaker, such as Boly. The interview really gets at that – is dialogue about rehabilitating individual fighters? community-level agreements? high-level deals? All of the above? Five years into the conversation about dialogue in the Sahel (counting from Mali’s Conference of National Understanding in 2017, which made a dialogue a formal recommendation), the parameters of what dialogue does mean and could mean are still very much up for grabs.

A second important piece is Luciano Pollichieni‘s “Rétablir le cycle : précédents historiques et avenir potentiel des négociations de paix au Mali,” a contribution to the Bulletin FrancoPaix. Pollichieni places the question of dialogue into the wider historical “cyclical tradition of uprisings and negotiations” in northern Mali, with a clear-eyed look at the shortcomings of past negotiations. To me, the most interesting portion of the article had to do with arguments for negotiating with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS); even pro-dialogue commentators usually assume (including me) that when we’re talking about dialogue, we’re talking about the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (Arabic acronym JNIM; French acronym GSIM), which is under al-Qaida’s banner. Pollichieni makes a strong case for negotiating with ISGS (p. 5):

Enfin, il est important de noter que la branche locale de l’État islamique, l’État islamique au Grand Sahara (EIGS), est également présente au Mali, et, considérant ses capacités militaires et le fait que ses combattants sont des membres des communautés maliennes participant à l’insurrection, elle devrait être incluse dans les négociations. L’EIGS est particulièrement actif dans la région des trois frontières, particulièrement au Niger. Par conséquent, l’influence politique dont jouissent les autorités maliennes à l’égard de ses dirigeants est limitée par rapport à celle du gouvernement nigérien qui a récemment entamé des négociations avec les djihadistes. Ensuite, par rapport à d’autres acteurs armés de la région, l’EIGS est plus fragmenté : l’assassinat de son chef Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi a engendré une crise de leadership qui, de facto, affecte son programme politique. Au-delà de l’appel idéologique à une interprétation draconienne de l’islam, le type de résultats qui pourrait émerger de ces négociations potentielles n’est pas clairement défini. Cependant, l’EIGS et le GSIM sont en compétition, entraînant parfois des conflits ouverts. Ainsi, négocier avec l’EIGS pourrait nuire à un accord avec le GSIM. Malgré tout, la branche du califat reste une partie importante de l’équation à résoudre pour stabiliser définitivement le pays.

To summarize: ISGS should be included in negotiations in Mali because it represents a significant number of people and has significant military capabilities; Niger may be better placed to negotiate with ISGS, as Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum has at least gingerly tried to do; ISGS is ultra-hardline but also currently fragmented; and negotiating with ISGS could help bring about an accord with JNIM/GSIM, given the competition between those two groups. I’m persuaded.

Burkina Faso/Mali: The Politics of a Visit from One Junta to Another

Burkina Faso and Mali are both under the control of military juntas – Burkina Faso since January 2022 and Mali since August 2020. Both juntas are under pressure to transition back to civilian rule, especially Mali’s. Since January, Mali has been under sweeping sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is attempting to compel a rapid transition after the Malian junta missed the initially agreed-upon eighteen-month window. Burkina Faso’s relations with ECOWAS are better, for the moment, because the Burkinabè junta is newer; but the junta there recently missed ECOWAS’ April 25 deadline for setting a rapid transition timetable (ECOWAS does not accept the Burkinabè junta’s 36-month plan).

From the moment of the coup in another West African country, Guinea, in September 2021 and especially since the coup in Burkina Faso in January, there has been a certain solidarity between West Africa’s three overt juntas (that solidarity does not extend in the same way to Chad, I would say, where the dynamics are quite different – although still a junta! Nor does it fully or necessarily extend to Mauritania which is arguably still under quasi-military rule). When sanctions hit Mali in January, Guinea’s military leader Colonel Mamadi Doumbouya made a point to declare that those two countries’ land border would remain open, calling Mali a “brother country” and evoking “the pan-Africanist vision.” Moreover, as journalists’ profiles of these figures often emphasize, there are generational similarities (born in the 1980s) and professional similarities (colonels, often from elite units) among the new West African coup-makers.

In this context it is interesting to see a delegation that Burkina Faso’s military ruler, President Paul-Henri Damiba, sent to Bamako to meet the Malian junta on April 22. The delegation included three top officers who are in Damiba’s “inner circle”: Serge Thierry Kiendrebeogo, Damiba’s chief of staff; Yves-Didier Bamoun, national theater operations commander, and Daba Naon, head of national firefighters’ brigade. The delegation met senior members of the Malian junta, including Malian President Assimi Goita, Defense Minister Sadio Camara, and National Transition Council* President Malick Diaw, all three of them key members of the junta. Separately, the Burkinabè delegation met Chief of Army Staff Oumar Diarra and Director of Military Security Moussa Toumani Koné.

The delegation’s main purpose, according to the official readout, was to “reaffirm their will [i.e., the will of the Burkinabè authorities] to continue military and security cooperation with Mali and to reinforce it especially through the intensification of operations on the ground.” Notably, the Burkinabè presidency mirrored recent rhetoric from the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) about FAMa’s “increase in power” (montée en puissance – see an example of that phrase’s usage by FAMa here). The official readout says, in part, “The ambition is to anticipate security problems that could cause a retreat of armed terrorist groups into Burkinabè territory, due to the increase in power of the Malian Defense and Security Forces in the struggle against terrorism, thus the interest to develop synergies for countering the forces of evil.” One could read a lot into these phrases. There is a cozying-up to the Malian junta, obviously, especially in the context of severe Malian-French tensions and the Malian junta’s keenness (desperation?) to prove itself militarily capable amid the partial French withdrawal from Malian territory. Yet there is also obviously a note of concern from the Burkina Faso side – there is no shortage of jihadist activity in Burkina Faso already, but it seems the Burkinabè authorities are indeed anticipating that the escalating brutality and outright massacres conducted by Malian forces and Russian mercenaries may cause some blowback for Burkina Faso. Then, finally, I suspect part of the politics of the visit involves Burkinabè authorities preparing for a future scenario where they, too, might be under full sanctions from ECOWAS, including the closure of land borders with all of their neighbors except, of course, Mali.

In another official readout, the Burkinabè delegation emphasized two other policy points. First is the idea that the transition back to civilian rule must go in the following order: “security – return of the displaced – elections.” That’s a message to ECOWAS, obviously. The second is the idea, highlighted by Damiba recently as well, that Burkina Faso’s security policy now rests on two main planks – counter-jihadist operations and a dialogue-based off-ramp. Here is the latest piece of reporting on the dialogue front by The New Humanitarian, which has been following that issue closely.

*This is the transitional legislative body in Mali.

Burkina Faso: President Damiba’s Visit to Troops in Barsalogho and Djibo

On Easter Sunday, Burkina Faso’s military ruler, President Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, visited troops in Barsalogho (Center-North Region; map) and Djibo (Sahel Region; map). Both sites are deep in the country’s conflict zone – Barsalogho is the site of intermittent clashes with jihadists (recent example), and Djibo has been in and out of a jihadist-imposed blockade. Damiba’s visit appears intended to boost morale and make a show of authority.

Damiba, for context, took power in a coup d’état on January 23-24 of this year, overthrowing civilian President Roch Kaboré (elected 2015, re-elected 2020). He was declared president on February 16. The coup responded, in large part, to the severe insecurity and attendant displacement crisis that have bedeviled the country since 2016. One likely proximate trigger for the coup was the November 2021 attack on a gendarmerie outpost at Inata (map), a mine northeast of Djibo. If insecurity has been a justification cited by Sahelian coup-makers, however, current juntas’ records in dealing with insecurity are poor so far.

I have not found the text of Damiba’s remarks on these visits to Barsalogho and Djibo. According to the official readout from the presidency, at both stops he discussed the “two complementary pillars” of his administration’s strategy for combating insecurity. These pillars are “the military offensive against radical groups and the creation of a mechanism for dialogue with those who are in the frame of mind to reestablish dialogue with the Nation.” Coverage in the press adds little detail; most reports that I’ve seen are essentially rewrites of the presidency’s readout.

Dialogue with jihadists is a huge topic for Burkina Faso and for the Sahel as a whole. The best reporting I’ve seen on that topic has come from The New Humanitarian – see one of their pieces from late 2021 here. In general I think dialogue is a good idea. In this case I find Damiba’s remarks (or at least as paraphrased by the presidency) still quite vague. His inaugural address was similarly vague, including on the security brief. A strategy of applying pressure while presenting an off-ramp makes sense in the abstract, but much depends on who is viewed as suitable for dialogue – in one sense, Damiba’s strategy could be read as an analogue of Nigeria’s strategy of attempting to crush Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa Province while holding out the military-run de-radicalization and surrender program “Operation Safe Corridor” as the offramp. That strategy has absorbed a good number of surrendering individuals, but has not transformed the conflict itself.

Meanwhile, the Burkinabè armed forces have conducted a recruitment drive to increase their ranks, currently estimated at 15,000-20,000 personnel, and have called up reservists. The immediate future, I think, still looks grim though.

Roundup on Conflict Issues in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger (12/2/2020)

There’s a lot of news and reports coming out that probably each deserve their own post, but given end-of-the-semester stress, it’s wiser for me to just do a roundup today. A few things that have caught my eye recently:

  • Dan Eizenga and Wendy Williams, “The Puzzle of JNIM and Militant Islamist Groups in the Sahel,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, December 1. An excerpt: “JNIM’s structure functions as a business association on behalf of its membership, giving the impression that it is omnipresent and inexorably expanding its reach. The characterization of JNIM as a single operational entity, however, feeds the inaccurate perception of a unified command and control structure.”
  • Danielle Paquette and Henry Wilkins, “An American moved to Burkina Faso for ‘a better life.’ He was shot dead outside a military base,” Washington Post, December 1. This is a very sad story, and some of the saddest parts actually relate more to the United States than to Burkina Faso.
  • AFP reports (December 1, French) on a tenuous peace initiative in Ménaka, Mali.
  • France24 has a roughly 16-minute video report (November 27, French) by the journalist Cyril Payen, who embedded with Nigerien special forces.
  • This is a good interview (November 24) with Guillaume Soto-Mayor about Sahelian security issues.

First Thoughts on Burkina Faso’s Legislative Elections Results

Burkina Faso held presidential and legislative elections on November 22. Incumbent President Roch Kaboré won the presidential elections, but I need to gather a bit more data (and gather my thoughts a bit more) before attempting to say anything substantive about that side of the results. So today I’ll speak briefly to the legislative picture.

Heading into the elections, according to Wikipedia, the three largest parties in the 127-member unicameral legislature were as follows:

  • Kaboré’s People’s Movement for Progress (French acronym MPP): 55 seats
  • Zéphirin Diabré’s Union for Progress and Change (UPC): 33 seats
  • The former ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP): 18 seats

The results from the 2020 legislative elections leave the MPP’s share of seats effectively unaltered – the party gained 1 seat for a new total of 56. The CDP gained 2 seats and also moved into the second spot in the National Assembly, because the UPC lost 21 seats, falling to just 12 seats, and actually slipped into fourth place in the legislature. The new third-place party is called New Time (or perhaps New Era or New Moment) for Democracy, NTD. It won just 3 seats in the previous elections in 2015, and now has 13. No other party holds more than 5 seats.

Two initial observations:

The first observation is that although the MPP does not hold a majority, its near-majority and the fragmentation of the opposition should make it relatively easy for the presidency and the MPP to pass major legislation. Several indicators – among them the lopsided 107-9 vote in favor of a revised electoral code last August; as well as the speed and apparent equanimity with which opposition candidates congratulated Kaboré following his win – suggest to me that the MPP’s strength in the legislature and in Burkinabè politics goes beyond what the numbers alone might indicate.

The second observation, and this requires more data and analysis to flesh out, is that the MPP held its own, electorally, in Burkina Faso’s conflict zones. Just looking at the Sahel Region, the deadliest conflict zone in the country, the MPP did not do too badly. Sahel has four provinces, and here is how the MPP did (based on numbers aggregated here, which may be an unstable link since it’s a live results roundup):

  • Ouadalan: 1 out of the 2 seats
  • Séno: 1 out of the 2 seats
  • Soum: 1 out of the 2 seats
  • Yagha: 0 out of the 2 seats

The MPP did better in the Sahel Region than any other party (NTD won 2 of the Sahel’s 8 seats, the UPC won 1, and minor parties won 1 each). If, again, the Wikipedia page is to be trusted and if I am reading it correctly, then in 2015 the MPP won 1 seat in each of the 4 provinces of the Sahel Region, meaning that in 2020 it held 3 seats and lost 1 (in Yagha). I can’t speak yet to the impact of voter disenfranchisement (de facto or de jure), potential issues of fraud, etc., but on superficial examination the conflict does not appear to have cost the MPP electorally in 2020. And recall that even if the MPP lost 1 seat in the Sahel Region, it held 3 there while gaining 2 elsewhere in the country.

The 2020 legislative results deserve much deeper examination but one implication could be that electoral politics is not, in the Sahel (now referring not to one region in Burkina Faso but to the wider, multi-country region of Africa), generating the incentive structures it is theoretically supposed to around the world: the MPP, it seems, has no major electoral incentive to pay closer attention to the conflict zones.

Roundup on the Eve of the Vote: Analyses and Reports on Burkina Faso’s Electoral Landscape

Burkina Faso will hold the first round of presidential and legislative elections on November 22. If no candidate clears 50%, then there will be a second round within about six weeks, if I understand correctly, based on the electoral code’s provisions pertaining to various steps regarding the validation of the first round results.

There are thirteen candidates for the elections, including incumbent President Roch Kaboré, the last election’s runner-up Zéphirin Diabré, the former ruling party’s candidate Eddie Komboïgo, and the former transitional Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida. I expect Kaboré to win, possibly on the first round.

For general background, see International Foundation for Electoral Systems, “Elections in Burkina Faso – 2020 General Elections – Frequently Asked Questions” and the Trans-Saharan Elections Project‘s country page for Burkina. The website of Burkina Faso’s Independent National Electoral Commission is here, and the Constitutional Council’s website is here.

Here are a few recent analyses and reports:

Ornella Moderan, “Burkina Faso’s Voters Should Be Offered More Than Security,” Institute for Security Studies, 18 November. A quote:

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.

See also, from ISS, Ibrahim Maïga and Habibou Souley Bako, “Lessons from Mali as Burkina and Niger Head for the Polls,” November 10.

Rida Lyammouri, “Burkina Faso Elections, Another Box to Check,” Policy Center for the New South, November. An excerpt (p. 7):

The November 22 national elections take place in a context marked by the increased importance and expansion of vigilante groups, namely the Koglweogo and the newly formed VDP [Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland]. Representatives of both groups stated in interviews conducted in August 2020 that they are apolitical, and their objective is to secure areas [where they are present] and to help establish peace in the country. Simultaneously, they also pointed out that each member is free to support a candidate or a political party of their own choice. One of the key criticisms of Koglweogo and VDP is that they are ethnically based and don’t necessarily represent all communities. Participants in the interviews agreed that ethnic affiliation has a significant influence when it comes to choosing the political leader and/or political party. When asked if presidential and parliamentary candidates would use ethnic affiliation to generate support, the answer was automatic: “Of course, ethnic affiliation matters. We have parents who are running in the different elections, we are not forcing our communities, but the majority of our votes will go to these people. They know our realities and our challenges and will therefore know how to defend them for us”.

Sam Mednick, “Burkina Faso moves ahead with vote despite extremist attacks,” Associated Press, November 18. Two few key paragraphs:

The National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) used helicopters to reach places inaccessible by road and registration was extended after coronavirus movement restrictions temporarily halted the process in March. Despite the challenges, Yacouba Bambyam Ouedraogo, communications director for CENI said that 95% of the country was covered adding more than 1 million voters.

But local officials say the more than 1,000 villages that were not reached, is where most of the population lives. Four of 11 communes in Sanmatenga province weren’t fully covered and a lot of people were missed, Youssouf Ouedraogo, president of the municipal electoral commission in Kaya told the AP.

Sophie Douce, “Elections au Burkina Faso : en « zone rouge », une campagne sous le signe de la menace terroriste,” Le Monde, November 18. A translated passage:

Several days out from the elections, the candidates hold more and more meetings across the country, a third of whose territory is in a state of emergency. Mined roads, risk of kidnapping or targeted attack… Certain sectors remain inaccessible to the authorities. On November 8, the driver of a candidate in the legislative elections was killed on the Gorom-Gorom route (in the north). “When you move from one zone to another, you find yourself in a no man’s land and if you don’t alert the authorities in advance, what happened before could happen again,” warned Ahmed Newton Barry, the president of the Independent National Electoral Commission, after the attack.

Amaury Hauchard, “In Jihadist-Hit Burkina Areas, No Elections — and No State,” AFP, November 18.

“The victory of the jihadist groups is not so much a military one as having installed a fear that makes people’s lives extremely difficult,” Rinaldo Depagne of the International Crisis Group said.

[…]

“It’s only around the towns that the soldiers are present. In the camps in the bush, there are none left, everybody has gone,” [Burkinabè analysts Mahamoudou] Savadogo said.

“The state has no more control there. Whole tracts of the country will be unable to vote.”