Burkina Faso: A Delicate Atmosphere Around Inter-Religious Coexistence

From the beginning of Burkina Faso’s current wave of insecurity circa 2016, there have been concerns that the violence would undo the country’s longstanding patterns of inter-religious and specifically Muslim-Christian coexistence and harmony. In 2016, International Crisis Group opened a report on the topic by saying:

Burkina Faso’s great religious diversity and tolerance make it an exception in Africa’s sub-Saharan Sahel. Its model of religious coexistence remains solid but could be at risk of being eroded. For several years now, Muslim leaders have complained that Muslims are under-represented in the civil service and that the administration is not always even-handed in its treatment of Christianity and Islam. Meanwhile, the rising tide of religiously motivated violence in West Africa and the Sahel has created a new regional context. As Burkina is recovering from a period of instability following the October 2014 downfall of former President Blaise Compaoré, and faced with a security emergency and strong social pressures, the government could be tempted to ignore these developments.

For further context, Burkina Faso has a clear Muslim majority of perhaps 61%, according to this estimate, and a substantial Christian minority of around 30%.

Amid the ongoing insecurity, there have been tragic and frightening moments where it has seemed religious coexistence might begin to unravel. Specifically, there have been attacks on churches in the conflict zones in 2019 and 2020. Yet, even as exceedingly grim scenarios are coming to pass in terms of displacement, the tenacity of the insurgency, and escalating levels of violence, the country has – at least in my view – so far avoided the worst-case scenarios in terms of specifically Muslim-Christian violence.

That does not mean there are no tensions – including far outside the conflict zones. One news item that caught my eye recently was a visit on October 3 by the president of the National Assembly, Alassane Bala Sakandé, to the Pazani/Pazaani neighborhood of the capital Ouagadougou. He was there following the destruction of a mosque complex – the mosque itself, another building, and six classrooms – connected with a legal dispute over the land the complex was on. Sakandé called for “dialogue, peace, and tolerance.” The visit also got a fair amount of coverage in local and national media. I think all this points to how delicate the atmosphere is – in other circumstances, the destruction of the mosque might have rankled and caused a neighborhood-level conflict, but in the shadow of the insurgency, it takes on much greater potential significance. It’s good that Sankandé made such a public visit to the site.

See some pictures of the visit here: