Islamist Violence Casts Shadow Over Burkina Faso Elections

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Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kabore has spent most of his five years in office fighting an Islamist insurgency that’s forced one million people to flee their homes. He’s likely to win a second term on Sunday as the insecurity disrupts voting in opposition strongholds.

Large swathes of the West African gold producer have become ungovernable since Islamist militants based in Mali expanded their reach across the border four years ago. This year, Burkina Faso recorded an unprecedented surge in attacks, both by militants affiliated with al-Qaeda and Islamic State and rural militias. Rights groups say that abuse of civilians by security forces is also on the rise.

At least 2,500 people were killed in 2020, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. The United Nations estimates that three million people out of a population of 21 million need food aid.

Yet the government was determined to press ahead with the vote. In August, parliament approved a change to the electoral code that invokes “extraordinary circumstances,” allowing for presidential and legislative elections even if many polling stations can’t open. More than 400,000 displaced people weren’t able to get a voter card or register to vote. The electoral commission has said that security concerns barred it from registering voters in 17% of all districts and villages nationwide.

“By allowing the elections to go ahead, authorities in fact acknowledge that part of the country is out of control,” said Mahamadou Sawadogo, a security consultant who researches the Islamist insurgency.

Deadly Ambush

The attacks have also affected campaigning. Last week, Kabore, 63, temporarily halted his campaign when 14 government soldiers were killed in an ambush. A raid targeting a lawmaker rallying support in northern Burkina Faso killed the driver of his car.

Kabore is among 13 candidates vying for the presidency. His main challengers are Zephirin Diabre, a former finance minister, and Eddie Komboigo, a candidate for the former ruling party.

The change to the electoral code will probably benefit Kabore’s party, which enjoys strong support from voters in areas that aren’t affected by the violence, including the capital, Ouagadougou, the International Crisis Group said in a briefing Friday.

Still, for some Burkinabe, casting a ballot is the least of their concerns.

Boucari Dicko left the northeastern town of Djibo for the capital after militants went on a rampage in nearby villages. A 39-year-old health worker, Dicko said he didn’t manage to register in time.

“As long as there’s no peace, no stability, people will have other priorities,” Dicko said by phone.

Army in Disarray

Kabore took office in 2015 after an interim government organized elections in the wake of a popular uprising that forced regional kingpin Blaise Compaore from power. Under Compaore, who ruled for almost three decades, Burkina Faso became one of the most stable countries in West Africa. His ouster plunged the military and the intelligence service into disarray and paved the way for Islamist militants to gain a foothold in the northeast.

Less than two months after Kabore’s 2015 election victory, a high-profile attack on an upscale hotel in the Ouagadougou prompted the U.S. to increase military aid to Burkina Faso, which reached about $100 million in 2018 and 2019.

But unlike Mali, where the United Nations has 13,000 peacekeepers, the army has had to face the jihadist insurgency largely on its own. While the U.S. built a $110 million drone base in Niger, it has less than 100 troops in Burkina Faso. French special forces operate mostly from Mali and Niger.

Kabore has pledged to strengthen the army if he wins another mandate, but has also said that regional cooperation is crucial to quash the insurgency.

“We need to work together with neighboring countries to stop these groups,” he told state broadcaster RTB last week. “They’re very mobile, they move on motorbikes to attack our territory and disappear back into their hideouts. The fight against terrorists is a transnational fight.”

— With assistance by Samuel Dodge

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