Fighting on two fronts, Burkina Faso’s plight against terrorism as well as the climate crisis

Already torn apart by desertification, Burkina Faso also faces the terrorist threat. Attacks exacerbate inter-communal clashes and drive people to flee. Read the second part of the reportage on a country fighting for land and integrity.

In collaboration with Davide Lemmi

The journey to the Foubé refugee camp in Samantenga province, in northern Burkina Faso, takes several hours. Pickup trucks travel along a gravelly dirt track through desolate, yet fascinating, scenery. Sandy plains stretch on either side of the road, their colours shifting between red and ocra. Every so often a dry-looking tree with bare branches breaks the landscape’s monotony. The hot air in the Sahel muffles all sounds. When the white huts provided by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) suddenly appear on the horizon, they look like a mirage.

Read more: Burkina Faso, the people fighting desertification to save their land

Foubé refugee camp in Sanmatenga province, northern Burkina Faso
Foubé refugee camp in Sanmatenga province, in northern Burkina Faso © Marco Simoncelli, Davide Lemmi

The gendarmerie escort quickly sets up a perimeter around the camp. This area isn’t safe. Multiple terrorist attacks and inter-ethnic clashes have taken place recently within the so-called “red zone”. Since 2015, the escalation of violence has caused over 585 deaths, and almost 500,000 people to flee. The last three months have been especially bad.

Terrorist groups in northern Burkina Faso

This climate of uncertainty, conflict and suspicion would have been unimaginable only five years ago. Located in the western part of sub-Saharan Africa, Burkina Faso – one of the world’s poorest countries – used to be considered stable, notwithstanding the fact that it’s home to 26 ethnic groups and 65 languages are spoken here. In fact, it was considered an exception in a region torn apart by terrorism.

However, something in the ethnic and religious harmony built over decades of dialogue has broken. Islamic extremist groups with ties to the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) cartel have penetrated the country’s northern regions. Ansar ul Islam (Protectors of Islam) is the most active of the jihadists groups, claiming responsibility for most criminal activities in the region. It was founded by a now-deceased imam called Ibrahim Malam Dicko and is currently run by his brother Jafar.

The first attacks occurred in the capital Ouagadougou in January 2016, targeting the Hotel Splendid and a restaurant called Cappuccino, thus giving credence to a threat underestimated by the government. The authorities’ response was sluggish, and the security forces’ inadequacy was evident in their unpreparedness in countering the enemy’s tactics. These include sudden raids (over 400 in the past four years) aimed at military posts, villages and places of worship. Targets are often Westerners and political or religious leaders.

Burkina Faso, Koglweogo self-defence group on patrol
A Koglweogo self-defence group on patrol in the Centre-Nord region © Marco Simoncelli, Davide Lemmi

More frequent attacks

These attacks are becoming more frequent due to law enforcement’s impotence and the lack of interest on the part of the international community. The last month and a half in particular has been a bloodbath. In mid-October, in a town called Salmossi in the northern province of Oudalan, a mosque was attacked and 16 people were killed by armed men while praying. Earlier in the month, 20 people were killed in an attack on a mining site in Soum province. In September, raids in the same area left dozens dead. The same in Barsalogho and Bam province. The military are incapable of doing anything and are even vulnerable to such assaults. On 19 August, the Koutougou military base in Soum province was targeted, leaving 24 soldiers dead and dozens more injured. It was the deadliest attack since the conflict with terrorists began.

Burkina Faso has always been known for tolerance and inter-religious dialogue between Muslims and Christians, who represent 65 and 35 per cent of the population respectively. Communities are often mixed, and the terrorists’ strategy has been to try and shift the conflict on a religious plane. In May and June, moderate imams and Christian communities in the north of the country were targeted by this strategy. El Hadj Abdoul Rasmané Sana, president of the Burkinabe Islamic community, has a clear view on the issue: “These attacks can’t sever the relations we’ve built over so many years. Terrorism hits everywhere, indiscriminately, taking advantage of our youth’s rage and frustration. The causes at the root of it all, tied to poverty and the struggle over resources, must be the first topic to be tackled in the dialogue between our communities”.

Terrorism hits everywhere, indiscriminately, taking advantage of our youth’s rage and frustration.El Hadj Abdoul Rasmané Sana, president of the Burkinabe Islamic community
A man praying in Ouagadougou's central mosque
A man praying in Ouagadougou’s central mosque © Marco Simoncelli, Davide Lemmi

Jihadists have been proselytising in the most economically and politically marginalised areas (the Nord, Centre-Nord and Sahel regions). They’ve been spreading hate, taking advantage of recriminations over unfulfilled obligations and repressed grievances against the authorities. There’s anger against the always-absent State, against the political system that leaves young people without education or work, and also among ethnic groups, at odds because of conflict over resources made scarcer because of desertification.

Thousands of people in the Foubé refugee camp

The situation is exemplified by the Foubé refugee camp, which hosts several thousand people. Most of them are women, children and the elderly, forced to live in a semi-desertic area with minimal assistance. The refugees are all Fula (Peul in French), a majority Muslim ethnic group of semi-nomadic farmers living in western and Sahel-Saharan Africa. In Burkina Faso, they represent 9 per cent of the population. They’ve been forced to flee the northernmost areas, where they used to rely on the transhumance of cattle, because of conflict and the jihadist threat.

A Fula woman in Barsalogho refugee camp, Bukina Faso
A Fula woman in the Barsalogho refugee camp © Marco Simoncelli, Davide Lemmi

At the camp, the women – whose faces are adorned with fulani, ornamental scars – wear colourful jewellery as they try to fashion adequate shelter. They say water and food are scarce, and that they can’t leave because the Koglweogo have their sights on them, accusing them of helping terrorists. An old man sitting by a tree explains: “They hunt us because they want to steal our herds and few remaining pastures. Terrorism is an excuse to exterminate us, and the police are involved too”. Young people are sat around him, staring into nothingness, filled with the frustration of those who have lost what little they had.

They hunt us because they want to steal our herds and few remaining pastures. Terrorism is an excuse to exterminate us, and the police are involved too.Old Fula man

Protecting people from terrorism

The Koglweogo are civil self-defence groups that for several years have expanded in the most isolated rural areas of Burkina Faso, claiming to protect the Burkinabe people from the jihadist threat. Members of these militias are mostly Mossi, the most widespread ethnic group in the country, who are mainly sedentary farmers. The Koglweogo have been accused of human rights violations because of the brutal methods unleashed against the Fula.

Kogleweogo men prepare their weapons at one of their bases in Nementenga province, Burkina Faso
Kogleweogo men prepare their weapons at one of their bases in Nementenga province © Marco Simoncelli, Davide Lemmi

Majority-Muslim nomadic livestock farmers live principally in the northern regions. The same areas where terrorism has taken root. The jihadists’ fundamentalist, anti-Western and anti-State message has proved appealing to many young people with nowhere else to turn. This has been the casus belli, the catalyst feeding violence, rage and inter-ethnic fighting. The Fula community is seen by many as responsible for the extremist presence in the region.

The jihad didn’t reach Burkina Faso by accident

The jihad didn’t reach Burkina Faso by accident. Factors include the porous borders of neighbouring countries like Mali and Niger, its unfortunate geographic location along international routes for the trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings – which the terrorists use to their advantage – as well as the shift in power following the fall of former dictator Blaise Compaoré in 2014. Furthermore, restrictive laws on civil rights and individual freedoms have further unsettled the fragile socio-economic balance and living conditions of local communities. The excessive use of force and consequent human rights violations by security forces exacerbate the conflict, as noted by Human Rights Watch in March.

A Mossi village meets under the shade of a tree in Nementenga province, Burkina Faso
A Mossi village meeting under a tree’s shade in Nementenga province © Marco Simoncelli, Davide Lemmi

Extreme poverty and lack of development in areas with significant population growth have created the right conditions for extremism to take root. Terrorist groups use a destabilising strategy that takes advantage of social unrest, unleashing low-intensity conflict. Civilians always pay the highest price and the cycle is never-ending. And it’s no coincidence that this torment originates in struggles over land and resources, which are being irreparably damaged by human activities and the climate crisis.

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