Surge in armed group attacks on schools in recent years deprives some 350,000 students of access to education, HRW says.
Voters in Burkina Faso will head to the polls on Sunday, in the country’s second general election since a popular uprising in 2014 overthrew longtime ruler Blaise Compaore.
Insecurity, caused by a devastating war in the western portion of Africa’s Sahel region that has also spread in Burkina Faso, has defined the first term of President Roch Kabore, who won the 2015 vote and is now seeking another five years in power.
Although there is a strong trend for incumbents in the region to win re-election, Burkinabe analysts said the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.
Kabore faces 12 other challengers, with Eddie Komboigo, the candidate for the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) party started by Compaore, who is now in exile, seen as one of his two main rivals.
The other is Zephirin Diabre, the candidate of the Union for Progress and Reform (UPC) party and a former finance minister under Compaore. A source inside the campaign of Kabore’s People’s Movement for Progress (MPP) party, however, told Al Jazeera Diabre is already in negotiations to secure a cabinet position in the event of an MPP victory.
On Wednesday, Kabore and a caravan of MPP members arrived at a campaign rally in the city of Kaya to the rapture of cheering and dancing supporters dressed in orange and white.
Located in Burkina Faso’s centre-north, Kaya has become accustomed to convoys of internally displaced people (IDPs) reaching the city limits, but less so politicians. The population of the city has more than doubled in the last two year as IDPs have fled to safety from fighting in the country’s north. Much of the pro-MPP crowd at the rally was made up of IDPs.
Al Jazeera spoke to voters driven from their homes by conflict as to why they would back Kabore in the face of escalating violence by armed groups across the country, as well as human rights abuses by the military and diminishing social cohesion.
When asked if she thought the MPP had done a good job in its first term, one IDP at the rally, Rasmata Sawadogo, said, “Yes. We got schools. We also got some hospitals, as well as roads … [The government] tried to fight [terrorism], but it’s not easy. That’s why I am in Kaya now. The terrorists came three times to our village.”
Last year, the conflict led to more than 2,000 deaths in Burkina Faso and has also drawn in troops from France and the United States in the effort to defeat armed groups, including some with links to the ISIL (ISIS) group and al-Qaeda. More than one million Burkinabe people have been displaced by the fighting.
Boukari Sawadogo, another IDP and Kabore supporter, said, “The terrorism is not [Kabore’s] fault. We pray that he wins again and he takes care of us.”
But like at least 400,000 other IDPs, Sawadogo was unable to register to vote in the election. The independent electoral commission said it could not carry out voter registration in more than 17 percent of the country due to an acute lack of security – or “force majeure”, as stated in the law allowing the election to go ahead that was passed in August – especially in the north and east. Earlier this month, the commission said it will not be holding polling in those areas, either.
Analysts agreed this will work in favour of the governing MPP, but could also lead to an atmosphere of illegitimacy – whoever wins the election.
COVID-19 restrictions also put a stop to voter registration between March 30 and May 25 throughout Burkina Faso.
Further disruption to the electoral process came on Friday when major presidential candidates, including Kabore, announced the suspension of campaigns for 48 hours, a gesture of mourning after 14 members of the security forces were killed in an ambush by armed groups two days earlier. The attack was later claimed by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara group.
According to Burkinabe analyst Siaka Coulibaly, the campaign of the CDP’s Komboigo appears to be well funded this year in a country where campaign financing generally favours the incumbents.
“The possibility that the former president, Blaise Compaore, is bringing financial support to the party is real,” he told Al Jazeera. “The massive vote for Kabore is not certain for the moment. The mobilisation during the [MPP] rallies is due to the fact that he is the president in office and because of the money that gives him. It is not certain that this translates into votes.”
The war in the western Sahel only spread to Burkina Faso after the departure of Compaore after mass protests six years ago. In power for 27 years, Compaore maintained a pact with fighters operating across the border in neighbouring Mali, allowing them safe haven in Burkina Faso in exchange for non-aggression.
Kabore has no such agreement and distanced himself from the traditional security apparatus upon coming to power – for example, by selecting a former journalist, as the minister of defence.
Opinion polls carried out this year by Afrobarometer, an NGO which conducts surveys on political opinion across the continent, said that most people in Burkina Faso believed the government has performed poorly on security and their sense of insecurity is increasing.
Coulibaly said, “If the CDP gains power, the general approach on security will be less confrontational,” implying that there could be a return to negotiations with the armed groups operating in the country should Komboigo, a former accountant, win.
Asked how the rule of the MPP had compared to that of the CDP under Compaore, Oumarou Sawadogo, an IDP in the capital, Ouagadougou, said: “I can’t even compare that. It was better than now because we were able to address our needs.”
Sawadogo fled from the village of Silgadji in the country’s north and said he now just wished to return. “The issue is that the current government is doing nothing to help us,” he added. “I am really tired and it is very difficult for me at the moment that is why I will vote CDP for a change.”
Last month, Kabore said in an interview with French radio station RFI that he would not be averse to Compaore returning from exile to Burkina Faso from neighbouring Ivory Coast to live out retirement. This, some said, may have been a ploy to draw voters to the MPP from the CDP, from whom Compaore still enjoys support.
Aside from security, the issue of fraying social cohesion will play a part in the election. Burkina Faso was once well known in the region for tolerance, but armed groups have been driving a wedge between ethnic groups in an attempt to recruit fighters and sow instability.
The military has also been accused of multiple atrocities against civilians, particularly from the Fulani ethnic group.
“To reinforce social cohesion, all stakeholders have to play their role,” Marine Yabre, a Burkinabe analyst with the African Union for Development NGOs, told Al Jazeera. “The only issue is that candidates will not be able to campaign everywhere due to the security issue and this is really not good. The people in those areas are our brothers and sisters.”
Polls by Afrobarometer also suggested Burkinabes thought the government has done a poor job of alleviating poverty. Analysts said this is one of the key drivers of disenfranchisement for those in less developed parts of the country.
Despite poor approval ratings for Kabore, the chances of an MPP victory are increased by a split opposition.
In the last election, results were not announced until two days after polling, but this year, the results are expected to come sooner, according to experts.
Coulibaly pointed out there is at least some chance of civil unrest after the results.
“Post-electoral conflicts in Burkina Faso can arise immediately after the announcement of the results, but could come later if the security and socioeconomic situation in the country does not change,” he said.