Updated October 23, 2019
Burkina Faso has become a stark symbol of worsening
security trends in West Africa’s Sahel region, due to an
armed conflict that began in 2016. Islamist insurgents—
some of whom have ties to the conflict in neighboring Mali,
and to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State—have asserted
control over parts of the country and carried out several
large attacks in the capital. State security forces and tacitly
state-backed militia groups have been accused of severe
human rights abuses during counterterrorism operations,
including torture and extrajudicial killings.
The conflict has caused a burgeoning humanitarian
emergency, exacerbating longstanding development
challenges. Per U.N. reports, insurgent attacks and ethnic
violence had forced nearly 500,000 people to flee their
homes as of October 2019 (compared to about 80,000
reported to be displaced at the start of the year) and crippled
the health and education sectors in parts of the country.
The rising violence—some playing out along ethnic lines—
has subsumed the initial optimism of the country’s recent
democratic transition. The election of President Roch Marc
Christian Kaboré in late 2015 was the culmination of a
political transition process that began in 2014, when
protesters, backed by several military commanders, ousted
President Blaise Compaoré. A towering figure in West
African politics, Compaoré came to power in a 1987 coup;
his latest attempt to change the constitution to evade term
limits sparked the protests that unseated him. In mid-2015,
a counter-coup by elite military forces loyal to Compaoré
nearly derailed the civilian-led transitional government, but
civilian protesters and conventional army units ultimately
induced the coup leaders to stand down.
A former Compaoré ally turned opposition figure, President
Kaboré has since struggled to respond to demands for rapid
job creation, reforms, and accountability for former regime
abuses. In January 2019, the entire cabinet resigned amid
rising insurgent attacks, including kidnappings of
foreigners. Elections are due in 2020, but whether conflictaffected areas will be able to participate is uncertain.
Terrorism and Insurgency
Ouagadougou experienced its first large terrorist attack in
January 2016, when gunmen opened fire at a hotel and
coffee shop popular with foreigners, killing 30 people—
including an American. The assault was jointly claimed by
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM, an Algerian-led
regional network) and an offshoot known as Al
Murabitoun. Around the same time, an Islamist insurgency
known as Ansarul Islam emerged in the north, where it has
targeted schools, state officials, and individuals accused of
collaborating with the security forces. Attacks escalated in
2017 after the merger of several Islamist armed groups
active in Mali—AQIM’s Sahel branch, along with Al
Murabitoun and two Malian-led groups—under the banner
of the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (JNIM
after its transliterated Arabic name).
Figure 1. Burkina Faso at a Glance
Source: CIA and IMF public databases; 2018 estimates unless noted.
While remaining active primarily in Mali, JNIM has
claimed several attacks in Burkina Faso, including deadly
simultaneous assaults on the national military headquarters
and the French embassy in Ouagadougou in March 2018.
According to U.N. terrorism sanctions monitors, JNIM and
Ansarul Islam cooperate but remain distinct. Militants have
conducted several attacks on churches, though they appear
to tolerate Christians in some areas they control. Mosques
have also been attacked. Unlike in Mali, Islamist armed
groups in Burkina Faso do not publicly claim responsibility
for most attacks, for reasons that are unclear.
The conflict has particularly affected the north and east,
with signs of spillover into the countries of coastal West
Africa to the south. In the north, Ansarul Islam and JNIM
appear to have leveraged inter-ethnic frictions, grievances
stemming from corruption, patronage politics, social
stratification, land disputes, and state neglect. The east has
emerged as a stronghold for a different AQIM splinter
faction that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and
is known as the Islamic State-Greater Sahara. The group
notably claimed the October 2017 deadly ambush of U.S.
troops in Niger. Militants in the east appear to have sought
ties with cross-border criminal networks and exploited
grievances over restrictions on poaching and logging.
The reasons and timing behind Burkina Faso’s vulnerability
to civil war are a matter of debate. Sectarian tensions have
reportedly risen in recent years despite a history of peaceful
coexistence, in part stemming from continued minority
Christian dominance of the civil service and political class.
Mali-based Islamist insurgents have long threatened to
attack countries, such as Burkina Faso, that contribute
troops to the U.N. peacekeeping mission there. Under
Compaoré, security officials apparently maintained
communications with Mali-based militant factions and
participated in lucrative hostage-release negotiations.
Compaoré’s ouster and the transitional government’s
decision to dissolve his elite presidential guard after the
2015 coup attempt arguably disrupted the security
apparatus, which in any case had little prior experience in
active combat or counterterrorism.
Today, state counterinsurgency tactics may be driving
conflict dynamics in some areas. Security forces and
militias known as koglweogos (“guardians of the bush” in
the local Mooré language) have allegedly carried out
extrajudicial killings during ostensible counterterrorism
operations in the north, predominantly targeting members
of the minority ethnic Fulani (alt. Peul) community.
Ansarul Islam, like a central Mali Islamist faction to which
it reportedly has ties, was founded by a Fulani, and Fulanis
are often accused of colluding with militants. Abuses may,
in turn, erode state legitimacy and further encourage Fulani
recruitment as community members turn to armed groups
for protection and revenge.
Regional Counterterrorism Initiatives
Burkina Faso belongs to the G5 Sahel (along with Mali,
Chad, Mauritania, and Niger), an ad-hoc partnership that
has pursued joint counterterrorism efforts in border areas.
The G5 Sahel has struggled to coordinate and sustain
operations. The United States, the European Union, and
Arab Gulf states—have pledged support, but not at the scale
that G5 members have solicited. West African leaders
convened an emergency summit in September 2019 in an
effort to broaden the regional fight against Islamist
militancy and garner increased resources.
French Military Operations. Burkina Faso is within the
scope of France’s Operation Barkhane, a regional
counterterrorism mission launched in 2014 after France’s
military intervention in Mali. The U.S. Defense Department
provides logistical and intelligence support. President
Kaboré has pursued additional external counterterrorism
aid, and France has pledged to expand military cooperation
since 2018. At the same time, increased engagement by the
former colonial power has sparked criticism from some
government officials and local activists.
U.S. Hostage Rescue. In May 2019, French special
operations forces freed two French hostages that an Islamist
armed group had kidnapped in Benin and moved into
Burkina Faso. The French forces also freed two additional
hostages (an American and a South Korean) of whose
existence they had reportedly been unaware. Two French
soldiers were killed during the mission. U.S. authorities
have not disclosed the name of the American hostage or the
conditions of her kidnapping, citing privacy restrictions.
The November 2015 general elections were arguably the
most open and competitive in Burkina Faso’s history, and
produced the country’s first electoral transfer of power.
President Kaboré won 53% of the vote and his People’s
Movement for Progress (MPP) won a slim plurality in the
National Assembly (55 seats out of 127), later forming a
majority coalition with smaller parties. The MPP again
performed well in municipal polls in 2016 that were
generally assessed to be well administered, although voters
in some areas were unable to vote due to security threats.
Zéphirin Diabré came in second in the presidential race and
heads the political opposition; his Union for Progress and
Change (UPC) holds 33 seats in parliament. Ex-President
Compaoré, in exile in Côte d’Ivoire, appears to retain
influence over his former ruling Congress for Democracy
and Progress (CDP), now the third-largest party in
parliament with 18 seats.
Although political freedoms and civil liberties have
expanded in some ways since 2014, the parliament and
government enacted legislation in mid-2019 criminalizing
reports that could “demoralize” the armed forces,
potentially imposing a significant constraint on press
freedom. Islamist militants have also sharply curtailed
citizens’ rights in areas they control.
Landlocked and with a largely agrarian workforce, Burkina
Faso is one of the world’s poorest countries. Endemic food
insecurity affects much of the population. Economic growth
has averaged nearly 6% annually over the past decade, per
International Monetary Fund (IMF) data, but has not always
outpaced population growth. The formal economy relies
largely on exports of cotton and gold, for which global
prices have fluctuated. Remittances from Burkinabè
residing in wealthier neighboring Côte d’Ivoire are a
lifeline for many. The State Department’s 2019 Investment
Climate Statement reports that Burkina Faso “welcomes
foreign investment” while identifying challenges such as
limited access to information, a weak judiciary, corruption,
and “the lack of an effective separation of powers.”
U.S. Policy and Aid
The State Department characterizes bilateral relations as
“excellent, thanks in part to strong U.S. support during the
2014-2015 political transition.” According to the
Department, U.S. policy is focused on Burkina Faso’s role
in regional security and stability, while also seeking to
promote democracy, human rights, and development.
U.S. bilateral aid appropriations totaled $46 million in
FY2018, for health programs ($29 million), Food for Peace
under P.L. 480 Title II (FFP, $16 million), and military
professionalization ($0.5 million). Burkina Faso receives
additional USAID regional and global aid that seeks to
improve food security, mitigate conflict, and counter
violent extremism. The country also has received sizable
security assistance through State Department regional and
global programs, as well as counterterrorism training and
equipment under the Department of Defense’s “global train
and equip” authority (10 U.S.C. 333), which are not
reflected in the figures above. Burkina Faso is developing
proposals for a second U.S. Millennium Challenge
Corporation (MCC) development aid Compact, having
completed a five-year $481 million Compact in 2014 that
sought to improve land use, agricultural productivity, road
infrastructure, and primary school completion for girls.
The Trump Administration has proposed to decrease
bilateral aid for Burkina Faso to $25 million in FY2020,
partly reflecting a proposal to end FFP aid worldwide. The
FY2020 budget request would also decrease funding for
USAID’s regional programs in the Sahel and West Africa,
which have supported activities in Burkina Faso. Congress
did not adopt similar proposals in FY2018-FY2019.
Alexis Arieff, Specialist in African Affairs
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