An Initial Assessment of Burkina Faso’s Transitional Leadership

On 4 September, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba gave a speech reviewing his actions since he seized power on 24 January 2022. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Mathieu Pellerin and Rinaldo Depagne analyse this milestone.
 

The security situation is a priority for the Burkinabé authorities — has it improved since the coup?

The situation on the ground is hardly better since the 24 January coup. Jihadist violence continues daily, from attacks on civilians and the armed forces to the destruction of infrastructure. Despite President Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba’s claims that the militants are “maintaining the illusion of gaining ground”, jihadists have continued their territorial expansion since the beginning of the year. Previously safe areas are now under heavy pressure from the country’s two main armed groups: the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) and the Islamic State Sahel Province (IS Sahel). Their actions now affect ten of Burkina’s thirteen regions.

While the Centre, Centre-West and Centre-South regions remain relatively unaffected for the moment, armed groups are gaining ground in the rest of the country. In the North region, JNIM controls a large part of Loroum and Yatenga provinces and is now advancing east and south of Yatenga’s administrative centre, Ouahigouya, toward the country’s capital Ouagadougou. In the Boucle du Mouhoun region, the group has advanced into Mouhoun, Banwa and more recently Nayala provinces. The towns of Nouna, Dédougou and Solenzo are now virtually surrounded. JNIM is also gaining ground south of the Boucle du Mouhoun, in the Hauts-Bassins region, where it is advancing toward Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s second-largest city. Meanwhile, the situation has deteriorated in recent months in the Centre-North and Centre-East regions, and there has been no improvement in the East and Cascades regions.

For some months, JNIM has been trying to disrupt or even block supplies transported on the main roads leading to Ouagadougou. Certain products such as fish, which comes largely from the East region, and foodstuffs imported from Côte d’Ivoire are becoming scarce. This strategy of isolating the capital, home to over two million people, began before 24 January but has since intensified, with both JNIM and ISIS Sahel recently sabotaging a series of bridges in several regions, mainly in the Sahel and East.

Jihadist groups are also working to impose blockades on the country’s secondary cities. Dori, an important commercial crossroads in the north, which is now difficult to reach by road, is deprived of basic necessities. It frequently experiences disruptions in fuel, electricity and water supply as a result of attacks on the public companies that provide these services. President Damiba chose to give his speech in Dori to show that the state is not abandoning this piece of territory to armed groups. But Dori’s encirclement could eventually extend to Ouahigouya, the North’s main town, or to Fada N’Gourma, in the East region, where jihadist groups are slowly consolidating their hold.

How can this lack of improvement be explained?

It is no surprise: there is no miracle solution that would have allowed the ruling Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR) to do in five months what the former regime failed to do in five years. As President Damiba recalled in his speech, the MPSR inherited an extremely deteriorated military situation. Burkina Faso’s transitional government must “remobilise” a divided army, which jihadists’ ambushes and improvised explosive devices confined to its barracks. Farther afield, in countries neighbouring Burkina Faso, a decade of interventions including thousands of soldiers from international and regional forces have been unable to restore security.

The overall state of the armed forces has clearly improved since the MPSR came to power. The authorities have set up a National Operations Command to strengthen coordination in the counter-terrorism fight. Some results are already visible on the ground, despite the tensions that persist between various segments of the security forces. The sacking of Defence Minister Aimé Barthélémy Simpore on 12 September – President Damiba has replaced him and now holds both posts – illustrates these tensions. That said, the army has become more mobile and more proactive. The authorities have also set up zones of military interest, where human presence is prohibited, in the Sahel and East regions’ border areas to prevent jihadist movement. The end of the rainy season in the coming months could allow for large-scale operations to be conducted there. But such operations could cause significant civilian casualties in the populations that remain in these areas. Although the supply of new equipment that the MPSR has promised since it took power has suffered delays, the regime acquired three combat helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles in early September.

Nonetheless, structural obstacles remain. For example, there are still insufficient troops to tackle the jihadists on all fronts. As the armed groups extend their influence, more personnel will be needed to counter their advance. But besides its internal divisions, the Burkinabé army has limited manpower: between 15,000 and 20,000 soldiers (depending on the source), plus 8,000 gendarmes. Efforts have indeed been made, but they will not suffice to reconquer all the territory lost since the jihadist insurgencies appeared in late 2015.

The new government’s mixed security record is also the result of a continued weakening of the Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland (VDPs), a corps of armed civilians created in January 2020 to support the defence and security forces. Quickly thrust into front-line combat, the VDPs lost numerous fighters to the jihadists. As a result, many of them would now rather surrender their weapons or negotiate with the militants, especially in the North and East regions. In some of their strongholds, however, including the Centre-North, the VDPs have begun to remobilise, largely because the army itself is regrouping alongside them.

The VDPs’ remobilisation has unfortunately been accompanied by an increase in killings of civilians and other abuses against the local population, mainly Fulani. The latter are the second largest ethnic group in the country and for the most part are agro-pastoralists. They have almost systematically been excluded from the VDPs, which are dominated by sedentary communities, especially the Mossi, the country’s largest ethnic group, and the Fulsé, with whom the Fulani often compete for control of resources. The Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatisation of Communities (CISC), created in the aftermath of the January 2019 Yirgou massacre to condemn the violence suffered by the Fulani in particular, denounced the massacre of some 40 civilians in Tougouri in early August. Similar events have occurred since then in the Centre-North (Bam province), Centre-East and East regions, but have been ignored. Anti-Fulani hate speech, which is becoming common on social media platforms, contributes to this kind of brutality.

Killings of civilians by the army and the VDPs, which mainly affect the Fulani but are increasingly spreading to other communities, considerably worsen the security situation. The civilians targeted are often suspected of trading with jihadists. Eliminating them is meant to complicate these groups’ supply capacity, but it creates a great deal of resentment in local communities, helps jihadists gain recruits and undermines the government’s efforts at dialogue. In his speech, President Damiba implicitly acknowledged that the VDPs had damaged social cohesion by attacking civilians, saying that “some of our people’s actions have unfortunately contributed more to fanning the flames than to putting them out”. On this point, little has changed since the new government took office in January.

While strengthening its military capabilities, the MPSR also continued the dialogue efforts initiated by the previous regime. In particular, it formally established local dialogue committees for peace restoration, aimed at weakening the jihadists. The fact that the new authorities recognise the need for dialogue with the armed groups – whose members are for the most part Burkinabé citizens – offers new prospects for peace. But while the initial results of these actions are certainly “promising”, in the president’s words, they remain out of sync with the scale of the problem. Among the several thousand fighters in the country, only a few “dozens” of jihadists have laid down their arms to enter “de-radicalisation” programs in camps set up for this purpose.

The local dialogue committees not only aim for lower-ranking militants to lay down their arms, but also seek to conclude local truces among the communities, JNIM and the VDPs. These processes are not always part of a coherent approach by all authorities, whose actions can in fact render them worthless. That, for example, is what happened in Djibo on 22 April, when abuses perpetrated against civilians by the town’s military detachment and the VDPs scuttled the dialogue aiming to lift the blockade on the town.

Does the increase in the number of displaced persons threaten the country’s social cohesion?

Insecurity is pushing an increasing number of people to leave their homes. In its last count, which covered the period December 2021 to April 2022, the National Emergency Relief and Rehabilitation Council, the agency responsible for identifying and dealing with internally displaced persons (IDPs), recorded 388,000 new displaced people in the country. This figure has continued to rise since April and displacement is now affecting new areas, following the expansion of jihadist groups toward the country’s south. Although the increased presence of the army has allowed the displaced to resettle in some areas – notably in Seytenga, a commune in the Sahel region — the overall trend across the country remains negative.

One and a half to two million people (sources differ), or roughly 10 per cent of the population, are now displaced. For the time being, the displacement does not pose a major challenge to social cohesion. The Burkinabé have shown tremendous solidarity with those who have fled. Some, for instance, have arranged for host families to take displaced people in. Local administrations and associations also remain very committed to helping them. In addition, many of the displaced have remained close to their original locality, making it easier for them to integrate into a familiar social fabric. Few clashes have been reported between IDPs and host populations, although tensions have been noted in some localities.

The absorption capacity of local communities could however become saturated if the number of IDPs continues to grow, which is unfortunately likely. With competition for land strong, some local authorities are struggling to find space to establish the temporary reception sites where the majority of IDPs are housed. Their growing numbers are putting pressure on supply of other resources, especially water, and more broadly challenging the capacity of host families and municipalities, which are also affected by the economic crisis. In some localities that have become inaccessible for security reasons, the displaced are suffering from hunger and have been reduced to eating leaves. The UN agencies working in the area do not have enough airlift capacity to bring food to all these people.

Could the prospect of social and political tensions hamper the authorities’ security response? 

The executive is faced with a complicated equation: it must provide an increasingly costly security response and, at the same time, mitigate the effects of a serious economic crisis in the sub-region. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Demography, the general inflation rate in Burkina Faso rose from 7.2 per cent in January to 17.8 per cent in June. This rate is the highest among the eight countries of the West African Economic and Monetary Union. Prices of consumer goods have risen the most, making life very difficult for millions of Burkinabé. According to the Institute, prices of “food products and non-alcoholic beverages”, especially cereals, have risen by 29.8 per cent since August 2021.

During his speech on 4 September, President Damiba refrained from addressing these social issues and was very evasive on the topic of IDPs. For the moment, the transitional government is not facing much popular discontent. But if it does not respond to the Burkinabès’ material concerns in the coming months, protest movements will probably arise.

As things stand, however, no political or social force seems capable of leading a unified protest movement of the kind that has toppled three presidencies since the country’s independence in 1960. Civil society is the driving force of social movements in Burkina Faso, yet it is highly fragmented. There is a proliferation of small organisations whose strong media coverage owes more to their provocative discourse than to any real capacity for mobilisation. These groups are also more and more politicised. Burkinabé civil society’s strength used to lie in its independence from political parties or, at the very least, its ability to resist their attempts at co-optation.

At the same time, the political scene, which according to President Damiba “appears anarchic”, is undergoing a full reshuffle. The main political parties are now on the margins. They have been sidelined in the transition, with only eight representatives of the transitional legislative assembly’s 71. Following the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies and the replacement of elected officials by special delegations, they no longer have any elected local representatives, deputies or mayors. Several institutional figures have left the major parties to create their own, further fragmenting a political landscape that now includes nearly 200 parties. This new landscape suggests that the presidential election at the end of the transition period (scheduled to last 24 months from 1 July 2022) will be run by divided and weakened political forces. They will likely be short of resources and ideas, and further out of tune with voters who rejected the politicians on offer in the last presidential election in 2020, when turnout was 50 per cent.

In addition to a divided civil society and a restructuring political world, the Damiba regime must also deal with the army, which has historically been the determining factor in regime change in Burkina Faso. Unifying a still-divided army is one of the MPSR’s priorities. The authorities will have to complete this task not only to accomplish their mission of “reconquering” the territory, but also to ensure their very survival in the months to go before the presidential election.

What measures could the authorities put in place in the coming months?

In his speech, President Damiba was clear on the main challenges that the MPSR must meet to stop the spiral of violence and the spread of insecurity. He denounced the “counter-productive” nature of violence against civilians and insisted on the need to promote dialogue, the responsibility of corrupt elites and the urgency of supporting the country’s poorest, whether displaced or not. He did not, however, present any figures, specific economic measures or guidelines for political reform.

Since its rise to power, the MPSR has remained opaque regarding the program it intends to launch to break with the harmful practices of the past and meet the expectations of citizens tired of insecurity and precarious livelihoods. To improve the day-to-day lives of the Burkinabé, the authorities should clarify their objectives. In terms of security, they should ensure that civilian and military initiatives complement each other by strengthening coordination between the authorities responsible for social cohesion and those responsible for defence.

Beyond the need to pursue and improve the military response to the growing insecurity in the country, the authorities should ensure that their actions do not undermine social cohesion and national reconciliation. In particular, the mobilisation effort should be accompanied by increased support for local approaches to dialogue, promoted by the recently established local committees. These plural approaches would make it possible to curb social tensions and the rise in hate speech, which often lead to abuses against the Fulani and expose certain localities to jihadist attacks. The authorities should also support (through socio-economic reintegration projects) the VDPs’ demobilisation when local communities request it. Finally, rather than simply condemning killings of civilians, the authorities should punish the perpetrators to stop a dangerous spiral fuelling jihadist recruitment.

From an economic perspective, anto limit social unrest in a country that desperately needs unity and cohesion, President Damiba and his government should promptly announce concrete and detailed measures to support households and control the prices of select products. These should include cereals, the dietary staple for millions of Burkinabé. Moreover, the government should offer its support to cereal producers, as it is already doing for cotton growers. It should also continue consulting with professional and consumer organisations, and involve them in setting the prices of staple foodstuffs – as it did with bakers in June 2021, making it possible to keep bread affordable. These measures must be only temporary, however, so as not to add to the country’s debt, which has increased considerably since 2015.

Stabilising prices is likely insufficient to help many of the displaced, some of whom are living in areas where they depend on humanitarian aid for food. Humanitarian agencies and organisations must prepare to face an even more difficult situation than the current one. As such, they should increase their airlift capacity to allow themselves access to populations that risk being cut off as armed groups carry out their isolation strategy.

Looking ahead to the end of the transition negotiated in July with the Economic Community of West African States, the sidelining of major political parties is likely to accentuate the crisis of representation from which Burkina Faso is already suffering. These major parties invigorate and structure the country’s institutional life. It would be difficult to hold a real election in their absence, or with these parties emptied of their capacity and impetus. As such, they should be more explicit in defining the role they wish to play in the transition by drawing up a list of concrete proposals and making them public. The transitional authorities, for their part, should set aside their negative preconceptions of these parties, and instead offer them a place in a transition that concerns all Burkinabé citizens. Finally, the authorities and political parties should begin to reflect on the concrete return to constitutional order, for example by considering the organisation of municipal elections before the 2024 presidential election. These could serve as pilot initiatives while also providing the political parties with local elected officials who would serve as relays during the electoral campaign marking the end of the transition.

Among Burkina Faso’s traditional partners, the European Union (EU) is in the best position to act on several important political and economic issues, including financial support for dialogue and social cohesion. The country’s two other major partners, the United States and France, are in a singular position that prevents them from taking the lead and limits their capacity for cooperation. As required by law, the U.S. considerably reduced its budgetary aid after the 24 January coup. It is now focused on humanitarian aid. France, for its part, has faced increasingly firm anti-French sentiment, complicating its role in Burkina Faso and making it very difficult to support political processes such as dialogue. The EU, which enjoys a reputation for neutrality and effectiveness among the authorities and the population alike, is the actor best placed to guarantee that Europe and its allies maintain their influence in Burkina Faso, at a time when other powers are trying to gain sway.