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.
This is a major problem with weak Democracies throughout the third world. Once they dispose of authoritarian leaders. Ethnic, Religious, or Racial groups that are marginalized ends up deteriorating the security apparatus because of the ancient hatreds that were created. Ancient hatreds are the biggest motivation in Africa that starts an ethnic war. The government that once promised freedom and equity is faced with major challenges created by their predecessor and are prone to use the same working tactics that the previous authoritarian leader used in his term to gain stability, but it does come at a cost of bringing peoples freedoms and depriving of resources. The political elite wants to divide the country so that the population is distracted by the terrorist attacks so that they gain more power and erode the Democracy. Other political elites wants to focus on security before democracy and are willing to take rights of people in order to get there. You can see that when they make it hard for the people in the north east to vote and hire people from their ethnic group to fight a minority ethnic group. You are correct that the leadership in Burkina Faso needs to be more inclusive so that the people in the North East wouldn’t be so prone to join ISIS or Al Qaeda at all in order to have some social mobility in their life. A national push for unity and representation may hurt the political elite but it can unite the country. What I ponder from reading this article is this. Will the political elite give up power for unity and democracy or will they become another authoritarian leader? If not, then will the new government become just the same as the old. Last how many of the people in the current government were with the last authoritarian government?
This is a really well written and clear analysis of the transition of government and issues facing Burkina Faso. I also come away from this article with similar questions as Armin, who commented previously. Is this new government just as bad, if not worse than the old? It seems that the promises made to the people of the country for more democratic norms to be in place prior to their assumption of office were not kept. Additionally, while considered democratically elected, it seems that there were many disenfranchised people in the country who were not given the opportunity to vote. Those who could not afford to meet the new security ID standards for voting as well as those in the Northeast of the country who did not physically have access to places to vote could not have their voices heard and seek representation in the election. This causes significant questions of the claimed democracy. I would go even further than Armin and ask, Is this new leader, President Kaboré, worse for Burkina Faso? It seems from the information presented in this article (I have not studied the region or country myself so I don’t have other information to go on) that this new administration has not changed any of the laws to strengthen democracy, has used the same authoritarian tactics that the previous administrations used (which were also undemocratic), and has lost control of the Jihadist groups in the region creating an even more unstable country with resulting increase in displacement and chaos from terrorism. It seems to me that the country is actually in a worse place than before. This may just be what is necessary to take the first steps towards democracy, but it does beg the question of if the election of the new president has actually caused more harm than good in Burkina Faso. Thank you again for writing this really interesting article.
I found your post to be extremely interesting, especially since I know so little about Burkina Faso. As I was reading your post, I could not help but mentally make a comparison between the voter suppression in Burkina Faso and the voter suppression in the United States. For example, you stated that 400,000 people living in the north of Burkina Faso were unable to register to vote because they it was very unsafe. I am sure that many Americans felt as though it were unsafe to go to polling places during our most recent election, given the spike in COVID-19 cases we have been experiencing. Also, you mentioned that, in Burkina Faso, voters can only use a passport or national ID card to go to the poles, even though a passport can cost $200 USD. I think this is similar to some states in the US (Hawaii, specifically, comes to mind) that had mail-in only voting this election. This meant that many people were unable to register to vote because they were homeless, or they had no form of ID or official mailing address. You also talk about how there is stigmatization and even violence by Burkinabe security forces in the north and east of Burkina Faso against the Fulani people. I thought that this was similar to the police violence against Black and African Americans and how it was a very important issue in our most recent election.
I did have one clarification question: you mention that the country is becoming increasingly divided, but it was not clear to me over what issue exactly it is divided. Are they divided on support for President Kaboré? Or are they divided over solutions for the terrorist attacks? Or is the issue the voter laws and voter suppression?
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed your post! Great job!
Not only is this post well written, but it highlights a common phenomenon that occurs in African governments when it comes to authoritarianism. As a West African myself (Ghana) this is a common kind of issue when it comes to how many countries in Africa run, I know that in Ghana tribalism in the political environment is almost expected, although we have tried to make things fairer by having presidents and vice presidents come from completely different tribes and religious backgrounds, it still does not change the deep rooted historical tension between tribes and regions in some African countries, particularly between Christians and Muslims. The terrorism being demonstrated in the Burkinabè is not only a clear symptom of democratic erosion in the country due to marginalized groups like the Fulani people being targeted and killed, but it truly demonstrates the oldest sickness in African governments that continue to poison their political system and social structure, tribalism and hatred, again, great read.
Hello, Olivia! This is such an interesting case. One a side note, if you are interested in terrorism, there is a great course about it taught by Dr. Murdie over the summer. It really helped me understand the mental breakdown of why terrorist act the way they do. A lot of times, terror organizations can mirror themselves as a government authority; they provide security, a military, and at times, public services like education and health care. I fear that the people of Burkina will seek stability under these terror organizations because they have a strong power compared to the state’s government. Do you know what kind of unsafe conditions kept people from going to register to vote? It would be interesting to see if it was deliberate attacks on areas where the vote would favor one candidate over another. Also, do you know how much a national ID would cost? It’s very interesting to me how you have to either have an ID or a passport which is the more expensive option.
It’s interesting to me that all of this is occurring in Africa where most of the terror attacks we hear of come from Asia and the Middle East. I was reading in an article from The Telegraph that these insurgency groups are one of the fastest growing in the world right now. So, the fact we don’t hear about it on the news is shocking. I wonder if these terror organizations are taking over this state for alternative gains. If someone else if funding them to create stability for a larger cause. Either way, I think the best thing for this country would be to reach out to neighboring countries for monetary and military aid. The people of Burkina Faso must band together to counter these insurgency groups to save what is left of their broken democracy. I hope in the future, these problems can be resolved.
Hi Olivia! I thought this was an incredibly insightful post, especially because I know very little about Burkina Faso. Your post was concise and thorough, which I found to be very helpful in introducing such a heavy reality for the people of Burkina Faso. It is alarming, firstly, how many people were unable to vote in this past election, despite it being considered credible. From the 400,000 people in the North who could not register to vote due to safety hazard, and the many who were unable to meet ID requirements (passport or national ID, which can be expensive and difficult for those who have trouble navigating beaurocracy), it is difficult to consider a democracy healthy when such a large chunk of the population is not able to have a say in who governs them. In addition, I found it alarming that President Kabore has lost so much control over the Jihadist groups. It is known that people join terror groups under unstable governments to find a sense of security and purpose. In addition, terror groups may even become political parties and gain power through democratic elections (such as with Hamas in Gaza). I would be interested in seeing the trajectory of the Jihadist groups in Burkina Faso and how they are handled by the current government. Altogether, it would seem as though perhaps Burkina Faso is in less democratic standing today than it was before its transition, which is quite disappointing for all those that elected the new government in hopes of a different country.
I really enjoyed reading your post. It is so strange that an election was considered credible when only so little people voted, due to threatening conditions. It is also very interesting that after the current president won reelection, terrorism increased. When democracy is upheld it is usually more difficult for terrorist organizations to establish strongholds and grow within a country, but it seems as if Burkina Faso has has problems with terrorist groups looking appealing to warring ethnic groups for a while.
Thank you for writing this post, it offers a really good insight into terrorism in western Africa!
Excellent article outlining the issues in the recent Burkinabé transition of power. This and other blog posts on similar situations across West Africa have increasingly drawn my attention to the fact that a new leader with a new outlook does not equal a new country with new problems, and it seems that even (outwardly) well-meaning leaders of these young democracies struggle to uphold their ideals after filling the shoes of their authoritarian predecessors. I wonder if the fixation on extending/abolishing term limits is always coming from a place of lust for power, or if it is closer to Dambisa Moyo’s hypothesis about longstanding benevolent dictatorships (as opposed to rotating democratic leadership) being a potential answer to the stack of problems facing African governments. I was hesitant about that idea when I initially read about it and still am, but as others’ comments have already alluded to, it seems difficult for breakout leaders to simultaneously establish security and democracy in such a short time when their rise to power involves such political upheaval.
Lastly, I came away from this article with a similar question as others have mentioned, being: How much of the old government is actually changing when a civilian champion like Kaboré rises to overthrow authoritarian leaders? Regardless, thanks for a clear, concise and informative read.