Rising terrorist attacks are continuing to threaten the fledgling Burkinabè democracy. After Burkina Faso overthrew its authoritarian leader Blaise Compaoré in 2014 and elected Roch Marc Christian Kaboré in 2015, the country was full of hope with its first civilian head of government in fifty years. However, terrorist attacks two months after the election in Ouagadougou by the Mali-based Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Iyad Ag Ghaly’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) ushered in a new challenge and dampened the hope for a new politically liberalized Burkina Faso. Since 2015, violence has been escalating, and Burkina Faso must cope with domestic security threats and attempt to consolidate its newly-founded democratic institutions simultaneously. As challenging as these issues are, their success is crucial for the survival of the state. If Burkina Faso’s democracy continues to slip, the terrorist groups will be emboldened to expand their territory and increase instability.
Incumbent President Kaboré won reelection in Burkina Faso’s November 2020 elections with 58% of the vote, dashing his opponents’ hopes for a run-off. Despite the opposition asserting that the election was marred by fraud, irregularities, and bribery, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, and independent observers stated that the elections were the most open for years. The transparent, nonviolent elections were an important victory for Burkina Faso in their fight against terrorist groups because the failure of these elections would have given these insurgent groups a foothold.
However, while the elections were open and peaceful, they were not inclusive. 400,000 people living in the north of the country were not able to register because of unsafe conditions, and 17% of polling stations were not open on election day because of terrorist threats. On August 25, a new law changed the Burkinabè electoral code so that elections can proceed even if not everyone can register or vote because of a “force majeure”, such as violent conflict. Also, in July 2018, the national assembly altered the electoral code to prohibit the use of a consular card as voter registration documents; now a passport or national ID card is required which are much less widely possessed. Passports can cost $200 USD, and according to the Burkinabè National Identification Office, of the 980,000 Burkinabè holders of the consular card in Côte d’Ivoire, only 300,000 hold National ID cards.
Meanwhile, the terrorist threat in the country is reaching a critical point. Because groups associated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State started attacking the year after Compaoré was disposed, many people believe that he played a role in unleashing them, especially because he has a history of cooperating with jihadist groups. Since he was removed from office, more than 1 million people in the north and east have been displaced by terrorist attacks. 2,000 people have been killed in jihadist attacks this year alone. Between June 2019 and June 2020, Burkina Faso experienced 516 terrorist attacks, more than in Mali and Niger combined. 3 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, and 350,000 children have been forced to leave school this year. Jihadist groups now control a sizable territory in northeastern Burkina Faso, and the World Food Program says that the country is on the brink of famine.
President Kaboré has been criticized for his counterinsurgency measures which have mobilized ethnically-based local militias. Combined with concerns about ethnic stigmatization against Fulani people (the largest minority ethnic group) who reside in northern and eastern Burkina Faso, social cohesion is falling apart and the country is becoming increasingly divided. Burkinabè security forces in the northeast harass, target, torture, and kill Fulani people because of their ethnicity. Because northeastern people are alienated, insecure, and disenfranchised, they are being pushed to accept the rule of terrorist groups that operate in the region.
Meanwhile, instead of reducing executive power, the government of Burkina Faso has been slipping back into old patterns. In March 2019, a referendum in which the Burkinabè could have adopted term-limits was postponed indefinitely. The uprising which overthrew Compaoré was motivated by his attempt to officially remove term limits from the constitution, so Kaboré’s hesitancy to fulfill this popular demand that he had promised is concerning. Also, in the face of the rising insurgency threat, the national assembly adopted a penal code in June 2019 which prohibits the dissemination of information related to terrorist attacks and speech that “demoralizes” defense and security services.
Burkina Faso is showing clear signs of stealth authoritarianism, which Varol defines as legal, democratic mechanisms used to achieve non-democratic means. Changing electoral laws is legal, but the changes made in Burkina Faso to voter ID requirements and the number of polling places erodes competition for the incumbent.
At the same time, Burkinabè constitutional safeguards are being eroded. Huq and Ginsberg call this constitutional retrogression, which is the subtle, incremental, substantial, and simultaneous decay of competitive elections, freedom of speech and association, and equal application of the rule of law. The mechanisms of stealth authoritarianism erode competitive elections in Burkina Faso because they exclude votes for the opposition party. The 2019 law limits freedom of speech for the supposed sake of security. Additionally, the rule of law is applied unevenly in the country. Fulani people are targeted by the Burkinabè military, and the security forces enjoy impunity.
The Burkinabè government must include northern people and lower class people in elections and decision-making processes to prevent insurgency groups from continuing to gain territory and power. Marginalizing a segment of the population aids Islamist groups because because these people will accept insurgency rule if their government is not including or protecting them. There must be national unity and a powerful national effort to drive out the jihadist groups and reunite the nation. This will require military reforms, negotiations with jihadist groups, and a coalition government between the majority Mossi ethnic group and minority groups such as the Fulani. At the same time, Burkinabè politicians must resist exploiting ethnic divisions for political gain and avoid militarized right-wing authoritarian rule to address the state’s security threats.
Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review, vol. 100: pp. 1676-1718.
Huq, Aziz and Ginsberg, Tom. 2018. How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy. pp. 35-71.