What next for conflict-hit Burkina Faso after Kabore re-election?

Could Burkinabe president’s second term see a new approach to security or could spiraling violence trigger civil unrest?

Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Christian Kabore
Kabore won the vote despite poor approval ratings for his performance on security [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

On November 26, Roch Kabore won a second term as Burkina Faso’s president, securing a solid mandate for himself and his party in an election deemed by international observers to be mostly free and fair.

Kabore’s re-election in the conflict-hit country came despite poor approval ratings for the government’s performance on tackling spiralling violence that has caused a snowballing displacement crisis involving more than one million people and prevented hundreds of thousands of citizens from casting ballots last month.

The biggest challenge in his second five-year term will be tackling the insecurity, which hampered the ambitious development goals he set out on coming to power and continues to tear at the social fabric of the country.

So, what has defined Kabore’s security policy so far and could there be a change of direction in view of the government’s failure to halt the violence in its first term?

Security ‘bubble’

Since 2015, armed groups linked to banditry, al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) have overrun large portions of the country’s north and east. More than 2,000 people have been killed due to the conflict this year alone.

Commentators say Burkina Faso has become the epicentre of the wider war against armed groups in the western Sahel.

One of Kabore’s crucial political and military strategies has been the creation of a security “bubble” around the country’s major cities. The military has fortified Burkina Faso’s central plateau region, a natural bulwark between the capital, Ouagadougou, and the conflict raging in the north.

Abdoulaye Kabre, a taxi driver in Ouagadougou, said he was almost killed when two bullets narrowly missed him when fighters attacked a hotel in the centre of the city in early 2016.

Kabre said that although there has not been a similar attack in Ouagadougou for almost three years, he still feels the effects of the conflict.

“There is a lot of control over us now. We can’t go [to the north] and [people from the north] can’t come here either. Worse still, because of this situation, we have lost a lot of our clients. Tourists and businessmen aren’t coming anymore,” he said.

One group of new arrivals to the city he has noticed is those displaced by the fighting elsewhere.

“Just have a look at the traffic lights in Ouaga 2000 [the capital’s most affluent neighbourhood] or the Palace Hotel. There are a lot of [internally displaced people] forced to beg,” said Kabre.

Ministers talk openly about wanting to keep displaced people away from the major cities, but observers say in order for the government to address the root cause of the displacement crisis it must pull settlements in the north and east back within the security “bubble”.

In June, Kabore visited Djibo – a northern city surrounded by hostile armed groups – in an attempt to reassure citizens they had not been abandoned after a litany of attacks that have severely disrupted supply routes, among others.

A local aid worker and resident of Djibo, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said security in the city has improved somewhat in recent months. Indeed, across the whole country, the number of deaths due to conflict has been going down very slowly since March.

Asked whether he felt abandoned by the state, the aid worker replied: “More or less, as our primary needs like food and fuel are really expensive, 1000CFA (US$1.85), for one (33.8fl oz) of fuel … The government is doing a lot but they still need to improve the situation with other methods of peacekeeping … I personally think they should go for negotiation [with the armed groups].”

Soldiers from Burkina Faso patrol on the road of Gorgadji in sahel area, Burkina Faso
Soldiers from Burkina Faso patrol on the road of Gorgadji in Sahel area, Burkina Faso [File: Luc Gnago/Reuters]

Rejecting negotiations

Even though many citizens in rural areas feel disenfranchised and want to see an end to the year-long conflict, during the election campaign, Kabore said he would continue his strategy of refusing to negotiate with the fighters.

His political opponents, on the other hand, touted negotiations and, according to analysts, had even taken steps to open channels with rebel leaders.

Across the border in Mali, where some of the same armed groups have been operating for longer, the government is bringing armed group leaders to the negotiating table.

Rinaldo Depange, West Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group think-tank, said Kabore’s first term was defined by a “muscular”, confrontational approach to dealing with the armed groups.

This was in deliberate contrast to the previous government, which is believed to have prevented attacks in the country by forming a non-aggression pact with the armed groups. Deaths have increased by 8,800 percent ever since this came to an end in 2014.

“For Kabore, anything that meant negotiating [with the armed groups] would be, politically speaking, difficult to sustain and to present to his core electorate,” said Depange.

“The question now is the ability of Kabore and the government to control the vigilantes he created, especially the Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland.”

Encouraging vigilantism

In January, the government passed a law allowing it to arm and train civilians as auxiliaries to the army. Human rights groups have expressed serious concerns that this will cause more violence than it prevents.

Vigilantes have already been accused of killing citizens they suspect of “terrorism”, yet made prominent appearances at Kabore’s rallies during the election campaign.

The army and military police, have also been accused of a draconian approach to justice in dealing with terror suspects, including widely reported extrajudicial killings.

Al Jazeera has received multiple reports of people, especially ethnic Fulanis, arbitrarily detained by security forces and police on dubious “terrorism” charges. No trial for such crimes has ever taken place in the country while hundreds of suspects languish in prisons.

If Kabore fails to address these issues and tackle security in his second term, some observers said there is a strong possibility he will face protests – or even a coup.

In neighbouring Mali, growing insecurity in large parts of the country contributed to former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita being overthrown earlier this year by the army in the wake of mass anti-government demonstrations.

“We can’t exclude [a coup],” said Siaka Coullibally, a Burkinabe analyst. “Burkina is familiar with them. Since 1960, the county has seen a lot of coup d’etat and political crises.”

Source: Al Jazeera