A rapid and alarming deterioration of the security situation in Burkina Faso is threatening to spread to its three southern neighbours, a senior US military figure has warned, heralding the potential destabilisation of a vast area of west Africa.
The three coastal nations of Ghana, Togo and Benin were racing to “insulate or inoculate at-risk populations” to try to stop unrest, violence and criminality leaking through their northern borders, the head of Special Operations Command Africa said.
Speaking during Flintlock, the US military’s biggest annual exercise on the continent, Maj Gen Marcus Hicks said an “alarming deterioration” had taken place in Burkina Faso over the past five months.
If militant groups linked with al-Qaida and Islamic State managed to establish a presence in those countries, they would have easier access to major west African ports, providing clearer trafficking routes for weapons and drugs.
Until recently, Nusrat al-Islam (JNIM), Ansarul Islam and Islamic State Greater Sahel (ISGS) were mostly confined to Mali, northern Burkina Faso and western Niger respectively, but they were fast gaining ground in Burkina Faso, mainly through exploiting anger with the government in the most impoverished regions.
The country’s poorest areas in the north and east have been neglected, with the government providing minimal health services, education, jobs and infrastructure. Locals have in response forged links with militant groups, who promised, and delivered, more services than the state, and have taken up arms.
Security has quickly deteriorated across the country, with the authorities unsure who has been behind the attacks. Recently, researchers have also raised the alarm about attacks on police in the south-west.
In the east, locals trained and radicalised by extremist groups have burned schools, slit the throats of sex workers at small-scale gold mines, and punished smoking and drinking alcohol with death. But their principal activity has been attacking any symbol of the state, which has attracted many young men to their cause. Every day, multiple reports of attacks on schools, police and gendarmes posts do the rounds on WhatsApp.
“Their ideology is to destroy the state administration,” said the minister of communication, Rémis Dandjinou.
With a weak army and reluctance to countenance negotiation with the armed groups, the Burkinabé government is stuck. Part of the state security forces’ response has been to summarily execute suspects and make mass arbitrary arrests, according to Human Rights Watch, with those targeted usually ethnic Fulani herdsmen. Fulanis, who have little access to education or political influence, are frequently scapegoated as jihadis with often deadly results: up to 200 were massacred in early January.
In Burkina Faso’s crisis-hit northern neighbour Mali, foreign forces provide some security if not lasting peace, and the country still has a government.
“Mali is standing because of the international community backing the country,” said International Crisis Group’s Rinaldo Depagne, pointing to the thousands of UN peacekeepers and French soldiers in the country, and the EU’s 600-strong military training mission. “In Burkina Faso they [the government] are basically alone with their own problem.”
France is holding back from intervening in Burkina Faso, and the US is unlikely to rush to provide more military support, though it is far from clear that an increased foreign presence would have a positive effect anyway.
“The Americans are Americans,” said a Nigerien officer at Flintlock who requested anonymity. “They don’t really understand us.”
The US is reducing the number of special forces deployed across the continent by a quarter, though this won’t have much of an impact on Burkina Faso, where it has never had a significant presence, but is verbally supporting the government. “Burkina has made some courageous and I think right decisions to put forces in place to improve security,” Hicks said as goats trotted past the flagpole on the arid Camp Zagre. “Some of the violence we’re seeing is a result of the Burkinabé security forces actually contesting [armed groups in] their own country, unlike Mali.”
The current modus operandi of the extremist groups in Burkina Faso is more like an insurgency than textbook terrorism, said observers at Flintlock.
At the military exercise, personnel from 34 countries bonded over rations of macaroni cheese, beef jerky and Tootsie rolls flown in from the US, as well as screenings of Black Panther in the mess tent.
Flintlock is widely viewed as an opportunity for officers to make personal contact and keep on top of cross-border threats. Soldiers staged 52 simulated operations, including one very similar to the Tongo Tongo ambush in Niger in October 2017, in which four US special forces and five Nigerien soldiers were killed, and another like the 2016 Splendid hotel attack in Ouagadougou, in which 29 died.
Flintlock also partly showed a way forward for the G5 Sahel, a multinational African force set up to fight the spread of violence in the Sahel, which has struggled to raise money or carry out operations.