On March 10, more than 1,000 teachers and students held a silent protest in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. They marched from the city center to the Ministry of National Education to stage a sit-in and demand state protection of their schools. Just a week before, a radical Islamist had shot dead a teacher in the village of Koursayel in the northern province of Soum, one of many such killings since terrorists found their way to Burkina Faso a year ago.
In January 2016, the sleepy capital of Ouagadougou was hit by a deadly terrorist attack. Armed fighters carried out a 15-hour siege on hotels and cafés in the city center, leaving 28 dead and 56 injured. In March 2017, terrorists expanded operations to the northern countryside, targeting police posts and military installments as well as educational facilities. At least two people were kidnapped and a school was burned down. Although one key jihadist was killed and others arrested, the psychological damage was done.
Over the last year, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansarul Islam (Defenders of Islam) have sought to turn the northern part of Burkina Faso into a stronghold through which they could potentially build a new alliance with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and turn parts of Burkina Faso into a sanctuary for jihadist recruitment and training following ISIS’ losses in Iraq and Syria.
The area is attractive. The tiny landlocked nation is close to the autonomous ports of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast and Lomé in Togo, which would offer indirect and discreet access to global shipping routes through which terrorist groups could traffic arms and equipment. Meanwhile, the country’s weak security forces are barely trained for counterterrorism. They are also concentrated in urban centers and are widely absent in the countryside, where the terrorists tend to operate.
Underdevelopment is another factor. The country’s north is suffering from high levels of underemployment, low productivity, and poor health care. Jihadists hope to fill that gap by providing some social services and thus channel the disadvantaged rural populations’ discontent into support for their agenda. There is indeed growing discontent within parts of the Burkinabe population for its rulers. President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, in office since December 2015, has so far failed to deliver his promises for better integration, development, and socioeconomic inclusion of rural areas, and citizens have responded with increasing skepticism against the government.
Most important, despite Burkina Faso’s remarkable national economic growth—it grew around five percent between 2015 and 2016—the international community hasn’t engaged sufficiently with the country, instead developing trade, security cooperation, and closer diplomatic ties with the Ivory Coast and larger African “lions” such as Nigeria and Ghana, which export raw materials to Europe as well as China. Although France intervened against the rise of religious extremism in neighboring Mali in 2013–14, Burkina Faso has not attracted similar attention since it is considered a marginal player within the African Union.
To curb extremism in Burkina Faso, the nation’s leaders must do a better job of administering rural areas. Right now, the federal funds invested in non-urban areas are insufficient owing to an old structural problem plaguing many African nations as the incentives for potential investors are concentrated in urban areas. Yet the country could better balance things by following Germany’s example after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Starting in the 1990s, Germany helped reunify the country by imposing a special “solidarity tax” on wealthier regions to benefit the more underdeveloped ones. That resulted in considerable growth of structurally disadvantaged areas. The tax continues to this day.
As the recent protests demonstrate, development must prioritize education. Youth literacy rates are low, at only 46.7 and 33.1 percent for males and females between 15 and 24 years of age. Secondary school participation rates hover at 19 percent. Physically protecting schools from terrorist attacks is, of course, part of that equation, but extremely costly; the government currently can’t afford it without international support. Along those lines, the country’s security forces, from the police to the military, also require international guidance on how to combat terrorism.
The international community must not mistake an ISIS defeat in Iraq and Syria for the end of the story. Violent extremism will still try to spread its ideology elsewhere, just as it did in Mali in the past and as it is doing now by crossing the border into Burkina Faso. The European Union, in particular, must consider putting together a joint intervention force, such as the one proposed by the British scholar Paul Collier in his book The Bottom Billion. Collier’s idea is to establish a special European military force that would work closely with African countries and, if possible, the African Union to intervene during crises. Such a system could be a starting point to prevent the spread of extremism from one country to another, such as from Mali to Burkina Faso, and to better stabilize the region, including in neighboring countries such as Mali.
Last but not least, international cooperation should be systemic. It should involve Burkina Faso’s neighbors, too, and the Ivory Coast, which is closely linked by history and geography, should honor its Friendship and Cooperation Treaty of 2008, which includes enhancing security cooperation and interethnic relations. (The Ivory Coast is home to three to four million Burkinabe workers who make up a considerable part of the work force in nontechnological sectors, including the Ivory Coast’s cocoa plantations, and are thus an important factor in the country’s economic success.)
All this, of course, presumes that Burkina Faso will make a good-faith effort to tackle widespread corruption. On this front, Burkina Faso has made some impressive improvement. In 2016, it was ranked 72 out of 176 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, having improved from its position at 85 in 2014. The trend points in the right direction. The international community can help Burkina Faso stay on track by continuing to implement good governance programs, in order to increase transparency, make redistribution more efficient, and improve access to developmental programs outside urban centers.
For too long, Burkina Faso has been ignored. But every day of neglect increases the jihadists’ chances to tighten their grip on the country and destabilize sub-Saharan Africa. This would be bad news for the international community, particularly at a time when it is already plagued by widespread political instability and wars in northern Africa and the Middle East.