Surrounded by war, Burkinabe civilians have votes taken away

Hundreds of thousands of people in areas hit by violence may not be able to cast ballots in Burkina Faso’s upcoming presidential election.

Burkina Faso soldiers patrol aboard a pick-up truck on the road from Dori to the Goudebo refugee camp, on February 3, 2020. OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT / AFP
Burkina Faso's army has been fighting against hardline fighters in various parts of the country [File: AFP]

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso – Voters in Burkina Faso are due to head to the polls next month to select the country’s president, in the second general election since a popular uprising in 2014 overthrew longtime ruler Blaise Compaore.

But not everyone will be able to cast their ballots. Wracked by a worsening conflict pitting government forces and international troops against various armed groups linked to ISIL and al-Qaeda, the country’s government ruled it unsafe for registration to take place in 17.4 percent of its electoral communes. As a result, more than 400,000 people were unable to register for the November 22 vote.

The election has been allowed to go ahead despite the failure to register voters after the passing of a new law on August 25 stating that a “force majeure”, such as the conflict, is an acceptable reason not to hold voter registration. The vast majority of the communes excluded from the process are in areas that have suffered most from the effects of the fighting and state neglect.

Now, analysts say the law risks further disenfranchising citizens in those areas and could even drive them into the arms of armed groups.

Burkina Faso
A soldier of the Burkina Faso army poses on the top of an armoured vehicle during a patrol [File: AFP]

Hamadou Yero Dicko, who asked for his real name to be changed for fear of reprisals, is the mayor of a commune in eastern Burkina Faso where electoral registration did not take place, affecting up to 4,000 voters.

Since early 2019, his commune has effectively been under the control of armed groups. Dicko said several of its residents have been killed by the fighters and many, like him, had to flee to other towns in the region to seek safety amid the deteriorating security situation.

“They [fighters] came around 7pm and opened fire. Later, they burned the police cars,” Dicko said, recalling an attack last year before the fall of the commune. “They burned all the motorbikes they saw in the police station, as well … [Some weeks later,] they attacked the town hall and the prefecture building,” he added.

Following these attacks, the police, military and other authorities left the area and state institutions ceased to function, according to Dicko. Many of the commune’s citizens followed shortly after, with just a minority of residents staying behind.

“I am angry that we have been living without local authorities for two years. They really don’t want to address the terrorists,” Dicko said. “[The people] feel like they’ve been abandoned.”

An impoverished country of some 20 million people, Burkina Faso is one of several West African states in recent years to have been gripped by escalating violence that has spread across the western portion of the Sahel region.

Last year, clashes between government forces, bandits and armed groups linked to ISIL and al-Qaeda led to more than 2,000 deaths in Burkina Faso. More than one million Burkinabe people have been displaced by the conflict.

Burkina Faso’s National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) has said that anyone who registered to vote in the 2015 election, won by President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, will still be able to vote in the upcoming polls. Some internally displaced people (IDPs) have also been able to register in IDP camps or host communities where they are seeking refuge.

Following the end of the voter registration period on July 17, CENI said more than 2.3 million people were added to the electoral register but a total of 417,465 was left out. Some 5.5 million voters were already on the list.

It is not clear whether some of these people left out were able to register elsewhere or were already on the electoral roll. Several IDPs who spoke to Al Jazeera said they had left their electoral cards behind while fleeing and have been unable to obtain new ones. Al Jazeera made repeated requests to CENI for a list of the settlements where voter registration did not take place. It was unable to provide the information, which is supposed to be publicly available.

According to the law brought in on August 25, polling may also not be held on election day in some areas, depending on the security situation.

For those who fled the villages in Dicko’s commune, it was unclear where they were able to register to vote and, on election day, whether they will be voting for an MP in their home villages or in the city of Fada, where many are now living. Attempts by Al Jazeera to clarify these points with the government’s communications ministry were met with no response.

‘Limited options’

Despite the absence of an official list, the areas cut out of voter registration are mostly in the north and east of the country where bouts of violence have frequently broken out. The country’s military and the French forces stationed there have struggled to contain the violence, while rights groups have accused Burkinabe troops of committing human rights violations during their operations.

“I think the government could have done a lot more to avoid being in this situation in the first place,” Alex Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and an expert on the Sahel, told Al Jazeera. “Curtailing security force abuses would have helped. But, now that the insecurity is so bad, they have limited options vis-a-vis the elections.”

While analysts say the lack of registration, and likely, voting, may be merited in some areas because of the security situation, this scenario may work in favour of the incumbent government.

Opinion polls suggest most in Burkina Faso are dissatisfied with the government’s ability to maintain security – and this is likely to be at its most acute in the areas excluded from voting. “I think the government gains a political advantage by default, but I don’t think Kabore wanted this situation,” Thurston said.

Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think-tank, said that although there will likely be disillusionment among voters cut out of the democratic process, the new law on voter registration and polling was passed with the opposition’s backing.

“Burkina Faso faces a tough trade-off between democratic practices and legitimate security considerations. There is no right answer, only a question of good or bad process,” Devermont said. “In the case of Burkina Faso, the ruling party and the opposition reached a compromise on the electoral law, resulting in overwhelming support in the legislature. While some civil society have objected, the intraparty consensus is essential.”

The worry is, those objections might play into the hands of “terrorists” and other armed groups. “The absence of voting in as many as five of Burkina Faso’s 13 regions will increase the grievances of many Burkinabe in the affected areas and may provide more fodder for recruitment by extremist groups,” Devermont added.

However those in Burkina Faso react to the outcome of the election, Thurston said the international community will likely accept the result, regardless.

“The international community tends to see Sahelian elections as less consequential than elections elsewhere. Implementing an institutional framework for democracy is just not a high priority for them right now. They’re more focused on countering terror,” he said.

“Even if substantial swaths of the population can’t vote; even if the displaced can’t vote; even if there are real irregularities and issues, I think France, the United States, ECOWAS [the west African political bloc] and others will accept the result,” added Thurston. “Domestically though, it’s harder to say.”

As for Dicko, he is not only concerned by the lack of democratic process in his commune. He also fears for the lives of the people there, not just because of “terrorists”, but also the Burkina Faso Defense and Security Forces (FDS).

He claims that both “terrorists” and the FDS have killed innocent people in the commune. Al Jazeera has been unable to verify these claims, although the FDS is reported to have carried out extrajudicial killings in areas around Dicko’s commune by human rights groups.

“I want the government to change its way of managing things,” Dicko said. “What is said by politicians in the city is not done in the villages.”

Source: Al Jazeera