Thursday, May 23, 2019

Militants destabilise Burkina Faso; but whose proxies are they?

-- by Elizabeth Kendal

Terror incidents 2018.
Africa Centre for Strategic Studies
Terror attacks have been escalating at an alarming rate in Burkina Faso, from 12 attacks in 2016, to 33 in 2017, to 158 in 2018 (BBC).  Furthermore, the insecurity is no longer confined to the capital, Ouagadougou and the northern provinces bordering Mali. Since early 2018, violence and terror have also become a feature of life in the east. 

On 31 December 2018, after a surge in terror attacks and high profile abductions, President Kaboré declared a state of emergency in several northern provinces bordering Mali. On 18 January, after months of spiralling insecurity, Prime Minister Paul Kaba Thieba resigned, along with his entire cabinet. Christophe Joseph Marie Dabiré has since been appointed Prime Minister.

More than 150,000 people have been displaced since July 2018. In the regions most effected by violence, 1111 out of 2869 schools have closed, affecting the education of more than 150,000 children.  The country is facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

What is clear is that Islamic terror group are infiltrating and destabilising Burkina Faso. What must be remembered is that terrorists/jihadists are merely proxies. What is not clear, in the case of Burkina Faso, is whose proxies they are, although seasoned observers are increasingly pointing in the direction of ousted president, Blaise Compaoré.

Terror in the North
-- targeting of churches may portend a new and disturbing trend and strategy.  

On Sunday 28 April, around a dozen unidentified gunmen attacked an Assemblies of God church in Sirgadji village in Burkina Faso’s northern Soum province. They swept in on motorcycles at about 1p.m., firing their weapons in the air, as believers were mingling in the grounds after the worship service. Six believers were martyred that day, executed for refusing to convert to Islam. The day after the massacre, the gunmen returned, reportedly in search of more Christians. Locals describe them as “young men who have been radicalised”. [See, Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) 501, Burkina Faso: Church Targeted for Terror, 8 May 2019.]

Then, on the morning of Sunday 12 May, up to 30 Islamic militants attacked a Catholic church in remote Dablo, not far from Silgadji. They killed the priest and five other worshippers before torching the church and several properties in the town, including the health clinic and pharmacy.

On Monday 13 May, unidentified gunman ambushed Catholics in nearby Singa, destroyed as they carried home a religious statue after a religious procession; after dispersing the minors, the gunmen executed four adult believers.

Fr Père Joël Yougbaré
Further to these killings, on Sunday 17 March a Catholic priest disappeared in Soum province.  Fr Père Joël Yougbaré, the local priest in Djibo, travelled to Bottogui to celebrate Mass there, but did not return. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown

The targeting of churches may portend a new and disturbing trend and strategy aimed at shattering Burkina Faso’s historical social cohesion. The church massacres come in the wake of Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the Easter terror attacks in Sri Lanka and al-Baghdadi’s declaration that Islamic State will target “crusaders” to avenge the Caliphate’s territorial losses in Iraq and Syria.

Terror in the East

On 22 April, The Guardian published a feature article entitled “Kalashnikovs and no-go zones: east Burkina Faso falls to militants” by West Africa correspondent, Ruth Maclean.

Reporting from Ouagadougou, Maclean writes that much of eastern Burkina Faso is ruled not by the government, but by local militants backed by West African “extremist groups”. The locals, she explains, have taken up arms against the government, which they accuse of exploiting the mineral wealth of the region while giving little back in return. They attack security forces, schools and other state symbols, and execute suspected government spies.

The violence began in 2018. Since then, teachers have fled and rangers have been chased out by militants who, after moving in, planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around occupied areas.

According to Maclean, “Much of the east has been carved up under several local leaders, allied with Ansarul Islam, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS), and Mali’s al-Qaida affiliated Nusrat al-Islam (JNIM).”

Interestingly and unusually, “There appears to be no conflict between the factions; according to [Burkinabé researcher Mahamoudou] Savadogo, they use the same techniques, meaning they probably have common trainers.”

A resident of the eastern town of Bartiébougou told Maclean that while many residents have fled, the Fulani militants – formerly local farmers and herders – have actually revitalised the town. “The groups give people maize, medicine and money – a $600 (£459) monthly salary for those who work with them (triple a standard teacher’s salary), plus a $800 bonus for those who carry out attacks.”

 “These groups are successful,” explains Crisis Group’s Rinaldo Depagne, “because they have a double narrative. Hardline Islam, but also the social speech: ‘We are going to give you a much more egalitarian system and bring services the state doesn’t give you.’” [Actually, this is reminiscent of how al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar Dine took control of northern Mali in April 2012. See: Religious Liberty Monitoring, 11 April 2012]

Maclean writes: “In Bartiébougou, like in many parts of the east, the militants are hardline about some things and not others. ‘At 6pm, everyone has to go to the mosque, then home,’ said the resident, describing conditions reminiscent of those in ISIS-controlled Raqqa or Mosul. ‘In the middle of the night, you must go and listen to sermons. You’re forbidden to criticise them. Women have to cover their heads. There’s no talk of cigarettes, alcohol or music, no celebrations.’

“Punishments are harsh, he said: ‘If you smoke, at first they just tell you not to. The third time, they kill you. They’ve forbidden prostitution in the mines – they slit their throats. They kill someone about once a month, I’d say, and it’s always people they’ve warned. Except the prostitutes. They don’t warn them. They just kill them.’ School is banned.”

Interestingly and surprisingly, Maclean reports (22 April), “Christians – who make up a third of the population in traditionally tolerant Burkina Faso – are left alone”. A pastor from occupied village in the east told her, “We see them [the militants], we know them, but they never do anything to us. Every Sunday we hold a service. We can even sing.”

How long this remains the case remains to be seen. It should be assumed that Burkina Faso’s Christians are imminently imperilled.

Whose Proxies?

While it is clear is that Islamic militants and terror groups are infiltrating and destabilising Burkina Faso, what is not so clear is whose proxies they are and what agenda is being pursued. Many suspect, but cannot yet prove, that the terror groups and criminals destabilising Burkina Faso are being aided or even facilitated by ousted president Blaise Compaoré and elements loyal to his regime.

The timeline is telling:

On 31 October 2014, Blaise Compaoré – Burkina Faso’s president since 1987 when he seized power in a coup – stepped down from office in response to a tsunami of unrest.

As the BBC noted at the time, Compaoré had no-one to blame for his downfall, but himself.  An opposition coalition had urged him not to seek re-election in the 2015 presidential poll on the grounds that anger and discontent were rising and the people were yearning for change. Rather than heed the warnings, Compaoré and his ruling party moved to push a bill through parliament that would have amended the constitution and paved the way for Compaoré to run for his fifth term as president.

Protesters burn down Parliament House.
Images: The Atlantic, 30 Oct 2014
The public was having none if it!
Resistance was swift, determined and merciless.

With the assistance of colonial-power France, Compaoré fled to Ivory Coast, into the arms of his long-time allies President Alassane Ouattara and former-rebel leader, now President of the National Assembly, Guillaume Soro.

[France and Compaoré supported Ouattara and Soro in the civil war that divided Ivory Coast and ultimately in the regime-change operation that brought Islamists to power in Ivory Coast. For background see Religious Liberty Monitoring, label: Ivory Coast.]

Burkina Faso’s interim government requested Compaoré be extradited so he might face charges of murder; it was however in vain. Compaoré was instead honoured and protected with Ivorian citizenship.

Like all self-interested and megaomanic dictators, Compaoré had maintained his own personal security. Known as the Régiment de sécurité présidentielle (RSP, Regiment of Presidential Security) it was led by General Gilbert Diendéré.

Joe Penney, an expert on security in the Sahel explains: “As a special unit of roughly 1,300 soldiers with separate living quarters, equipment, training, and pay from the regular army, the presidential guard protected the interests of the party in power, rather than the country at large. The RSP was particularly potent, too — it had its own counterterrorism unit that received training from both France and the U.S.”

Of course, the ousting of Compaoré left this elite military unit out of work. Consequently, the interim/ transitional government formulated a plan to completely dissolve the RSP.

The RSP was having none of it!

On 16 September 2015, just a month before Burkina’s elections (slated for 11 October) were to be held, the RSP staged a countercoup in the capital, Ouagadougou. They stormed a cabinet meeting of the interim government at the presidential palace, which is close to the RSP camp, taking the interim president and his prime minister hostage. After a night of confusion, the RSP declared the transitional government dissolved. They then set up a new body, the Conseil national pour la démocratie (CND, National Council for Democracy), headed by none other than Gen. Gilbert Diendéré.

The people were having none of it!

As news of the countercoup spread, the people poured onto the streets, setting up barricades and massing for demonstrations. Unions declared indefinite strikes. Women took to the streets in large numbers.

The RSP responded with deadly violence.

Despite coming under direct attack, radio stations and social media resisted all RSP efforts to shut them down.

While not initially aiding the protesters, the nation’s Armed Forces did not intervene to stop the protests.

Eventually, on 21 September 2015, the Army Chief of Staff made an unequivocal statement condemning RSP violence against civilians. Amidst loud and growing international condemnation of the RSP’s violent countercoup, Ivory Coast’s silence was deafening.

Ultimately the countercoup was put down by the people and the Army; the coup plotters were arrested. [Report: The People Take on the Putschists, Africa Confidential, 24 Sept 2015.]

An international arrest warrant was issued for former rebel leader and now president of Ivory Coast’s National Assembly, Guillaume Soro, who stands accused of aiding the coup against the transitional government in Ouagadougou.

As Stratfor Intelligence noted at the time, “Soro’s likely role in the Burkina Faso countercoup traces back to the Ivorian civil wars of the 2000s. During that time, he led the New Forces, a [Muslim] rebel group that took control of much of northern Ivory Coast from the government of Laurent Gbagbo [a Christian], effectively dividing the country in two. As the group’s commander, Soro procured arms, financing and political support from abroad, much of which he received from Burkina Faso, just to the north. Compaoré’s support was crucial” to affecting regime-change in Ivory Coast.

Roch Marc Christian Kaboré
On 29 November 2015, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré – described by The Guardian as a “devout Catholic” – was democratically elected as president of Burkina Faso. 

On 15 January 2016, terrorists from al-Qqeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM’s) al-Murabitoon attacked Ouagadougou. After detonating several car bombs, they laid siege to the Splendid Hotel and nearby Cappuccino cafe in the centre of the city. On 16 January, as the siege was under way, ransom-seeking jihadists from another AQIM-linked group, Ansar Dine, crossed into Burkina Faso from Mali and kidnapped Australian missionaries Dr Ken Elliot (then 81) and his wife Jocelyn from their home in Baraboule, near Djibo in Soum province. [See RLPB 341 (27 January 2016).]

The war had begun.
Since then, violence has spiralled at an alarming rate.

On 26 February 2019, Gen. Gilbert Diendéré (who is being held in a maximum-security prison on charges of treason), former Foreign Minister Mjibril Bassolé and 82 others appeared in court on charges related to the failed countercoup of September 2015.

Blaise Compaoré
On 22 May 2019, Al-Jazeera reported: “After five years in exile, former Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré says he wants to come home, offering his help to try to broker a peace deal with armed groups.”

Of course, Compaoré’s relationship with regional Islamic terror groups is well known. [Consider this article from Nov 2012.] 

Recommended: Blowback in Africa, by Joe Penney for The Intercept, 22 Nov 2018.
“Prior to their political demise, Diendéré, Bassolé, and the Mauritanian consultant they worked with, Moustapha Limam Chafi, were key U.S. allies in Francophone West Africa.  Burkina Faso, which means ‘Land of the Upright People,’ had never experienced a terrorist attack. For instance, in 2012, Compaoré, then president, sent Diendéré on a mission north of Timbuktu, Mali, to procure the release of Swiss hostage Beatrice Stockly, who had been kidnapped just nine days earlier by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Over soft drinks and grilled lamb with one of the most wanted Al Qaeda leaders, Diendéré ensured the handover of millions of dollars in return for the Swiss missionary.

“Compaoré . . . played a key role in negotiating the release of multiple Western hostages in the region. There was a cost to this, however. Known as the pompier-pyromane (“firefighter-pyromaniac”), his efforts to negotiate peace deals with neighbors (like the talks between Tuareg rebels and the Malian government in Ouagadougou in 2012) were buffeted by reports that he had played a more nefarious role in numerous conflicts, including arming rebels in Ivory Coast and trading weapons for diamonds to former President Charles Taylor in Liberia.”

Lawyer and activist Guy Hervé Kam is the co-founder of the Balai Citoyen, one of the main groups that organised protests against Compaoré in 2014, and one of the prosecution’s lawyers in the trial against Diendéré and his co-conspirators. He is not alone is suspecting that the RSP and the former regime are at least partially the cause of the country’s growing instability. As he notes, “There is a common interest between the terrorist groups that operate in West Africa and the Burkinabé political camp that is no longer in power.”

Today, it seems many inside and outside Burkina Faso are wishfully thinking, “If Compaoré could broker deals and control jihadists/terrorists prior to his ousting in October 2014, maybe he could broker deals and control them again today.”

Then again, maybe that is exactly what he has been doing all along; brokering deals and controlling jihadists, militants and criminals to advance his own agenda and serve his own ends.

Burkina Faso’s next elections are slated for October 2020.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).