Burkina Faso

Updated December 10, 2020
Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso has become a stark symbol of worsening
Figure 1. Burkina Faso at a Glance
security trends in West Africa’s Sahel region. Since 2016,
Islamist insurgent groups have asserted control over parts of
the country and carried out terrorist attacks in the capital,
Ouagadougou. Some have ties to the conflict in neighboring
Mali, and to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. The government
has struggled to counter insurgent gains despite
international backing and military aid, while state security
forces and militia groups have been implicated in severe
human rights abuses. The conflict has crippled health and
education systems in parts of the country and deepened
food insecurity. Over a million Burkinabè were internally
displaced as of late 2020, nearly double the number a year
earlier, according to U.N. data. The COVID-19 pandemic
has also brought new health and economic hardships.
President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré was reelected in
November 2020 to a second five-year term. Security threats
prevented polling stations from opening in multiple

districts, and opposition leaders initially decried the results
Sources: CIA World Factbook and IMF; 2020 estimates unless noted.
as fraudulent. Despite a comfortable margin of victory,

Kaboré appears likely to face ongoing public demands for
The conflict has primarily affected the north and east, with
greater security, job creation, governance reforms, and
signs of spillover into the countries of coastal West Africa,
accountability. Opposition presidential candidates called for
to the south. Local security forces and civilians have been
peace talks with jihadist groups, which Kaboré opposes—as
the primary victims of insurgent violence. In the north,
does France, the country’s most significant external
Ansarul Islam and JNIM have exploited ethnic tensions and
counterterrorism partner.
perceptions of state neglect, as well as grievances over
corruption, patronage politics, social stratification, and land
Kaboré’s first election to the presidency in 2015 capped a
disputes. The east is a stronghold of the Islamic State-
yearlong political transition that began when protesters,
Greater Sahara (IS-GS), which first emerged as an AQIM
backed by some military commanders, ousted semi-
splinter faction and has reportedly cultivated ties with local
authoritarian President Blaise Compaoré. A towering figure
criminal networks. IS-GS notably claimed the October 2017
in West African politics, Compaoré had come to power in a
deadly ambush of U.S. troops in nearby Niger. Islamic State
1987 coup; his latest attempt to evade term limits by
propaganda has claimed IS-GS attacks as the work of its
changing the constitution sparked the protests that unseated
Nigerian-origin affiliate, the Islamic State-West Africa
him. In mid-2015, a counter-coup by Compaoré loyalists
Province; per U.N. investigators, the two affiliates have a
nearly derailed the civilian-led transitional government, but
“logistical relationship” but remain “operationally distinct.”
protesters and conventional army units ultimately induced
the coup leaders to stand down.
Several factors may explain why conflict spread so quickly
Terrorism and Insurgency
in Burkina Faso despite a history of religious and ethnic
tolerance. Minority Christian dominance of the civil service
In January 2016, gunmen opened fire at a Ouagadougou
and political class had reportedly spurred sectarian tensions.
hotel and coffee shop popular with foreigners, killing 30
Mali-based insurgents appear to have lent support to
people including an American. An Islamist insurgency
Burkinabè allies, and have long threatened to attack
known as Ansarul Islam emerged in the rural north around
countries, such as Burkina Faso, that contribute troops to
the same time, targeting schools, local officials, and
the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali. Compaoré’s ouster
individuals accused of collaborating with the state. Attacks
in 2014, and the decision to dissolve his elite presidential
escalated in 2017 after the terrorist groups that had claimed
guard after the 2015 coup attempt, arguably disrupted the
the Ouagadougou attack—Algerian-origin Al Qaeda in the
security apparatus, which in any case had little prior combat
Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Murabitoun, an
experience. These events may also have interrupted
offshoot—merged with two Mali-based groups to form the
backchannel communications between Islamist militants
Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (aka JNIM). In
and Burkinabè security officials. Compaoré hosted talks
2018, JNIM clamed a complex assault on the national
with Malian armed groups in 2012, and his associates
military headquarters and the French embassy in the capital.
participated in reputedly lucrative hostage negotiations.
U.N. sanctions investigators report that JNIM and Ansarul
Islam are separate groups that are mutually supportive.
Five years into the conflict, state counterinsurgency tactics
also appear to be driving insurgent recruitment and violence

Burkina Faso
in some areas. Human rights groups and journalists have
Opposition candidates conceded to Kaboré despite initially
reported extrajudicial killings and torture by state security
rejecting the 2020 election results as “riddled with fraud.”
forces, militias known as koglweogos (“guardians of the
Polling stations did not operate in about a fifth of the
bush”), and state-recruited “volunteer” fighters. Officials
country due to security threats, affecting some 300,000
have pledged to investigate, but few (if any) commanders
voters out of 6.5 million who registered. Local civil society
appear to have faced repercussions. Abuses have reportedly
observers noted some procedural problems and voter
particularly targeted members of the minority ethnic Fulani
disenfranchisement in conflict-affected areas, but expressed
(alt. Peul) community, who are Muslim and traditionally
satisfaction with the election process overall.
livestock herders. Several Islamist armed factions,
The Economy
including Ansarul Islam, were founded by Fulani
Landlocked with a largely agrarian workforce, Burkina
individuals, and Fulanis are often accused of colluding with
Faso is one of the world’s poorest countries. Food
militants. Perceived collective punishment may, in turn,
insecurity is widespread, and remittances from Burkinabè
further erode state legitimacy and prompt communities to
workers in wealthier Côte d’Ivoire are a lifeline for many.
turn to armed groups for protection and/or revenge.
The government relies largely on exports of cotton and gold
Rights advocates have raised concerns with legislation
for tax revenues and foreign exchange, but global prices are
enacted in 2019 that bars citizens from publishing or
volatile. Annual economic growth averaged nearly 6%
circulating information on terrorist attacks or military
between 2015 and 2019, but the effects of the COVID-19
operations without government authorization, and
pandemic—including domestic lockdown measures in early
criminalizes reports that could “demoralize” the armed
2020 and the global economic slowdown—are expected to
forces. Legal fears and other threats have reportedly
produce a contraction in 2020. The State Department’s
induced local journalists and activists to self-censor.
Investment Climate Statement reports that Burkina Faso
“welcomes foreign investment” but notes a weak judiciary,
Regional Initiatives. Burkina Faso and other member
corruption, and “lack of an effective separation of powers.”
states of the G5 Sahel (Mali, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger)
have pursued joint counterterrorism efforts in border areas.
U.S. Policy and Aid
Donors—including the United States, the European Union,
U.S. engagement has focused on regional security,
and Arab Gulf states—have provided support, but not at the
development, and humanitarian relief efforts. The State
scale that G5 states have solicited, and regional forces have
Department characterizes bilateral relations as “excellent,
struggled to coordinate operations effectively. The
thanks in part to strong U.S. support during the 2014-2015
Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS),
political transition.” U.S. officials and some Members of
to which most, but not all, G5 Sahel countries belong, has
Congress have nonetheless expressed growing concern over
pledged to increase participation in regional security efforts,
reports of abuses by state security forces.
as has the African Union. Some Burkinabè officials and G5
In August 2020, the U.S. Millennium Challenge
Sahel representatives have also sought new
Corporation (MCC) signed a five-year, $450 million
counterterrorism support from Russia in recent years.
compact to enhance Burkina Faso’s electrical power sector.
French Military Operations. Burkina Faso is within the
(This is the country’s second MCC compact to date.) The
scope of Operation Barkhane, a regional counterterrorism
State Department and USAID separately allocated an
mission that France launched in 2014 after intervening
estimated $50 million in FY2020 bilateral aid for Burkina
militarily in Mali. The U.S. Defense Department provides
Faso (not counting food or emergency humanitarian aid),
logistical and intelligence support, as authorized by
largely for health and development activities. In line with
Congress under 10 U.S.C. §331. In 2019, French forces
its global aid budget proposals, the Trump Administration
intervened in Burkina Faso to free two French hostages
requested to decrease such funds to $30 million in FY2021.
who had been kidnapped in Benin and were expected to be
Burkina Faso also receives aid through regional and global
handed to JNIM. The French soldiers, two of whom were
programs, including Sahel-focused development initiatives.
killed in the operation, also freed a South Korean and an
The above figures do not include substantial counter-
unidentified American hostage whose existence had not
terrorism assistance provided by the Defense Department
been reported. France has expanded its military cooperation
under its global train-and-equip authority (10 U.S.C. §333),
with Burkina Faso at President Kaboré’s request. At the
and by the State Department under the Trans-Sahara
same time, the former colonial power’s prominence has
Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP). In July 2020, U.S.
sparked local criticism, including from some state officials.
Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Tibor Nagy asserted
that “U.S. security assistance cannot continue without
The 2015 general elections produced Burkina Faso’s first
action” by Burkinabè authorities to address human rights
ever electoral transfer of power. President Kaboré was
concerns. The concrete implications, beyond legally
reelected in 2020 with 58% of the vote against 12 other
required human rights vetting at the unit and individual
candidates, a margin large enough to avert a run-off. His
level, remain uncertain. The FY2021 National Defense
People's Movement for Progress (MPP) party won 56 out of
Authorization Act (H.R. 6395) would require a “plan to
127 seats in simultaneous legislative elections, with allied
address gross violations of human rights and civilian harm”
parties winning enough seats for a majority coalition. Eddie
in Burkina Faso and three other Sahel countries.
Komboïgo of the former ruling Congress for Democracy
and Progress (CDP) came in second in the presidential race,
Alexis Arieff, Specialist in African Affairs
possibly reflecting Compaoré’s enduring influence as well
as popular nostalgia for a more peaceful era.

Burkina Faso

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