Burkinabè Presidential Campaign: Roch Kaboré and Tahirou Barry in Dori (Sahel Region) [UPDATED]

Scanning the news out of Burkina Faso yesterday, I was struck by two brief articles about candidates campaigning in Dori (map), the capital of the Sahel Region – the most violent region within Burkina Faso‘s multi-sided conflict, and the second-most violent region within the Sahel (now meaning the multi-country region, rather than the unit of Burkina Faso) as a whole. Among the four provinces that make up Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region, Séno (where Dori sits) is somewhat less affected than Soum (whose capital is Djibo), the epicenter of the conflict in the north. Nevertheless, Dori is highly affected by the multi-faceted crisis that involves not just violence but also massive displacement, economic disruptions, public health impacts, and food insecurity.

On October 31, official campaigning began in advance of the first round of the presidential elections, scheduled for November 22. Incumbent President Roch Kaboré, who took office in 2015, faces twelve competitors, including several formidable politicians.

Kaboré was in Dori on November 10, meeting with some of the key figures in the Sahel Region such as the Emir of Liptako, Ousmane (whose backstory I recently wrote about here) and the Emir of Yagha, Boureima Ly. In addition to reinforcing his relationships with elites, Kaboré’s trip also seems to have been about delivering a two-fold message: a promise to restore security, but a related promise to end “stigmatization” – in other words, to end the ethnic profiling of the Peul/Fulani, and perhaps other groups as well. How those promises are received, I couldn’t say; the insecurity has increased, tragically and rapidly, over the course of Kaboré’s first term, and the collective punishment of Peul (a feature of the conflict not just in Burkina Faso but also in Mali) has been, in my view, systemic (see some discussion of that dynamic here).

It’s interesting to contrast Kaboré’s messaging in Dori with the messaging of Tahirou Barry, a serious but frankly not top-tier candidate, who was in Dori on November 6. Barry’s party is the Movement for Change and Renaissance (MCR). A former minister of culture and tourism and a parliamentary deputy, Barry is himself Peul but has emphasized his and his family’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural character (his own family is from Gaoua, in the southwest, and his wife is ethnically Mossi, the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso). In Dori, then, Barry’s emphasis was on the economic development of the Sahel Region, with promises to expand Dori’s livestock market and make the Sahel Region into a center for processing milk. Barry talked about the insecurity in his remarks, but placed that in a larger context of what he calls the abandonment of the region by central authorities.

Which message appeals more? I really couldn’t say – I don’t see opinion polls coming out for this race, for example. But it is striking to see how differently these two politicians are framing the same overall situation. And it is tempting to say that Kaboré is pursuing a kind of top-down strategy while Barry is attempting something bottom-up, but that’s also probably too simple. I also, admittedly, may have missed reports about other candidates’ swings through Dori; other kinds of messaging are possible too. [Update, November 13: A senior colleague alerted me to this poll, which shows that a strong plurality of respondents to this poll (nearly 43%) say they plan to vote for Kaboré, and some 27% are undecided or are keeping their intentions confidential, suggesting he has a decent chance of winning on the first round. Nearly 66% of respondents, meanwhile, say they are concerned about insecurity – the most common concern among respondents.]

Anecdotally, meanwhile, I wonder how many people this Dori resident speaks for:

“I watch the politicians parade and do their things, but this is not my concern,” said Oumar Cissé, from Dori, a town in the northern Sahel region – the epicentre of the violence – that is seeing a daily influx of internally displaced people. “Our real concern is that security comes back first, and after that we can think about elections.”

And then there are the physical obstacles to voting. An August 2020 law, and the realities of the conflict, will likely mean that thousands of voters cannot vote, and that the results of the elections will be accepted regardless, domestically and internationally. The campaigning in Dori is a reminder, to me at least, that the vote is likely to proceed in many major towns and administrative centers within the conflict zones, and that it is rural voters above all who stand to be disenfranchised.