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Thursday, July 18, 2024


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Burkina Faso : making sense of an attack in Ouagadougou

Eighteen dead, a nation and its capital once again in shock and a lingering sense of menace in its aftermath. And one certainty: there is no easy solution to this – supposedly jihadist – problem.

The Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, Ouagadougou’s central street that caters to the high end of the local consumer market, had just begun to look normal again. After the January 2016 terrorist attack that claimed 30 lives, the open air Taxi Brousse bar quickly re-started business. The Splendid Hotel opposite underwent major repairs that removed the fire and smoke damage it had sustained during the attack. Finally, the Cappuccino coffee bar where most of the victims fell, including members of the owner’s family, reopened last month.

True, security has been reinforced in many places throughout the city. Major supermarkets check your bags before you enter, as do upmarket hotels and restaurants. But on the whole, the city and especially its centre, had assumed an air of normality, with busy traffic, late night visitors on the terraces outside and the army of vendors trying to attract the attention of the wealthy having their food and drinks.

Until last Sunday evening, when at around 11pm, gunmen entered the popular Aziz Istanbul restaurant, only a few hundred metres from the site of the previous attack, and shot dead sixteen people who had come for dinner. A hostage situation ensued, which was ended by Burkina Faso’s special forces and gendarmes in the early hours of Monday morning. Two attackers were shot dead.

Why Burkina Faso ?

Many have been asking: ‘But why Burkina Faso? It’s such a nice place!’ While this is true, it is the wrong question to ask. The attacks in Ouagadougou must be seen in a wider regional context, both geo-military and in social-economic terms.

Geo-military first. This low-intensity conflict that started in the North of Mali in 2012 has been steadily travelling south. State absence and the slow but steady proliferation of arms have made for an extremely insecure environment, from Douentza in Mali to Djibo in Burkina Faso. In the meantime, there has been a turf war among the various self-styled jihadist groups, be they Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), Al Mourabitoune or the Front for the Liberation of Macina (FLM). The merger of these three into Jama’atNusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimeen’ (Support group for Islam and Muslims or JNIM) marks both a marriage of convenience and an end, at least for the time being, of the turf wars among these groups. There is worry and bewilderment in Burkina Faso about the fact that no-one has yet claimed this latest attack. What does that mean? There is, as yet, no answer.

And something else is happening: localisation. Former Tuareg rebel turned Islamic fanatic Iyad ag Ghaly has become the leader of JMIN. No longer are these groups remote controlled by distant North Africans like Mohktar Belmokhtar or Abdelmalek Droukdel; they are run by Malians. Locally, this localisation process was already happening. A Peul preacher, Adama Koufa, set up the FLM in a bid to re-create the 19th Century theocracy in Central Mali that disappeared with attacks from the neighbouring Muslim emperor El Hadj Oumar Tall and French colonisation. And just across the border in northern Burkina Faso, another preaching fanatic, Dicko Malam, had managed to set up his own jihadi-style organisation that attacked schools, local authorities and traditional leaders, including moderate imams.

Attacks only make headlines when they hit spectacular targets like the Radisson Blu in Bamako or a Turkish restaurant in Ouagadougou – or indeed children on a beach in Côte d’Ivoire (Grand Bassam, March 2016). But the process of spreading low-intensity conflict under the guise of genuine or pretend jihadism has been going on for at least two years.

A rich recruitment ground

Burkina Faso’s human rights activist Chrysogone Zougmoré provides the link between this geo-military aspect and the socio-economic one. He told this reporter: ‘Go to a large villa in Ouagadougou. A minister is living there. You will find it is protected by a dozen members of security forces and police. A village in the north of this country, with ten thousand people in it, has to make do with less.’

A five-country investigation by the Amsterdam-based ZAM collective was carried out in Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Somalia and Kenya in 2016. It found that the root causes for the violence tend to be surprisingly similar. They spring from a lethal combination: deprivation, social, economic and political marginalisation and the sense that nobody can do anything about this lack of perspective. Add to this the absence of justice: the army and other security forces often commit human rights atrocities (massacres, torture, targeted killings, arson and looting) with absolute impunity and this foments deep seated anger and resentment. As one Kenyan youth remarks in the report: ‘we (Muslim youth) are slain in Kenya without any form of trial. If you do that to us, don’t complain if we do it back.’

Some of the jihadist leaders, like Koufa and the late Dicko (he was reportedly killed in Mali) appear to be genuine in their faith. Others, like ag Ghaly and Belmokhtar, who started their careers are a rebel and a smuggler respectively, may be more opportunistic in the approach. However, both types of leader are able to tap into a large pool of youth, mostly young men, who can find it in themselves to come to a city and kill unsuspecting citizens and expect to die because they have nothing to lose. The kind of destructive nihilism they display is matched by the superficiality of their supposedly deeply held convictions. They can be recruited because they are recruit-able. And in that sense Burkina Faso is far from unique. There, as in neighbouring states, ruling elites in tandem with their foreign backers in business and development run their nations for their own benefit and that of their patronage systems. They, and their foreign partners, are in the crosshairs of those Kalashnikovs in the hands of these young boys as they take aim. Religion is the perfect cover – but it only very partially explains why these murderers do what they do.

Please leave

No foreign intervention will have a deep and lasting impact. Zougmoré recalls: ‘When the French troops based here in Burkina Faso were sent to Bamako to help end the siege of the Radisson Blu, we said to ourselves: this is very bad news. Now they will follow the French back into our country.’ He was, of course, correct.

Instead of pushing terrorists back, goes the argument, foreign military presence French, USA, United Nations) attracts them. In Burkina Faso the message is very pertinent: ‘Please leave. We have the courage to take these enemies on. All we’re asking of you is the tools to do the job.’ Unfortunately, neither the French nor the Americans nor the failing UN mission in Mali will heed that call. The reluctance on the part of key UN Security Council members to provide funds for the new regional G5 force (Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania are taking part) only serves to illustrate the point: they are not prepared to let Africans take the lead in solving this problem. As the big powers intervening in West Africa continue to block African solutions to what are essentially African problems (even though they have an international impact), one outcome is certain: more attacks.

Bram Posthumus