In a walled lot in Bigtogo, on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, 300 people live. The houses of some are made of plastic and straw, built in a few days. Others, older or sick, sleep in the old pigsty, where the children seek the shadows to do their homework. “We saved life, but we lost everything else,” says Rasmane Sawadogo, a 59-year-old trader. They are called displaced persons and in all of Burkina Faso there are about two million. 10% of its inhabitants. Every day more arrive and settle where they are left. They are fleeing from the jihadist groups that have plunged this country and Mali into a chaos of violence, massacres, hunger, cities under blockade and instability that spreads across the Sahel. Because it’s a war they’re winning.
“The terrorists arrived in Pobe Mengao and shot 14 people,” says Bourema Konfe, “the rest of us escaped to Djibo. But we do not lower our arms. We recruited a group of young men and returned to the town with our hunting rifles. The Government sent 15 soldiers to help us. Until one day, at four in the morning, those people returned. They had sophisticated weapons, they killed soldiers and civilians who tried to confront them and they destroyed everything, they set houses on fire.” Mariam Ganame, her husband and her nine children also fled. They left behind even corpses to bury.
Eight years ago the jihadist threat was just a run run that sounded in the north of the country. Far, far away from the capital. Today, ten of the thirteen regions of Burkina Faso live under the constant siege of attacks and bombings. Only major cities are considered safe and traveling between them is already risky. “The deterioration of the situation has been brutal for years, but it has intensified since November,” says the coordinator of a local NGO. That month, the Burkinabe Army issued an appeal to recruit 50,000 civilians, the so-called Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP). 90,000 signed up. “They have equipment problems but a strong desire to cooperate with the State,” adds the same source. The conflict escalates.
The numbers speak for themselves. “Half the country is under the control of the jihadists, 26% of the health services are closed as well as 22% of the schools. The State is overwhelmed and civilian volunteers are used. This is the worst crisis in the history of our country. There has been a military failure on the front, where all kinds of abuses are committed against the civilian population that are never investigated.” On New Year’s Eve 2018, terrorists attacked Yirgou, in the Center-North region, killing six people, including the village chief and his son. The following day, the Koglweogo militias, which support the Army, responded by massacring members of the Peul ethnic group, which is accused of complicity with the jihadists. “They killed about 200 people,” says Diallo. It was one of the worst massacres, not the only one.
Two terrorist groups, made up of semi-autonomous cells with the capacity to launch attacks and commit attacks at the same time, are behind this crisis. The first is the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM), linked to Al Qaeda, the most active in Burkina Faso. Born in Mali in 2017 as a coalition of jihadist groups under the leadership of the Tuareg commander Iyad Ag Ghali, its actions soon spread to the south under the seal of the Burkinabe Ansarul Islam group, led by Jafar Dicko. The second is the armed wing of the Islamic State in the Sahel, which deploys its actions above all in the area of the Three Borders, between Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, where both groups also face each other.
In Yanma Kudgo, on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, a few trees here and there offer meager shelter from the unrepentant midday sun. Dozens of houses have been occupied by displaced persons from the north and center of the country. Three years ago, Kaldu Tamboura, 62, grew sorghum, millet and maize with her children in Togomaiel, Soum province. Fear of continued attacks made him flee to the capital. Today he gets up every morning and wonders what happened to his land. “Nobody has been able to go there for two years, there isn’t even a telephone network to call,” he says. One of the jihadists’ strategies is to isolate populations, cut off all their communication with the outside world, deprive them of livelihood. Many choose to leave even before experiencing direct violence.
Those who remain are on the brink of starvation. Some 3.5 million people suffer from food insecurity and 5 million need help to survive, according to the United Nations. In Djibo and other cities under siege, the inhabitants gather leaves and wild fruits to eat. It’s a double lock. On the one hand, the armed groups loot or destroy the vehicles that try to provide supplies to the city and, on the other, the Army limits movements due to insecurity. Last September, the jihadists attacked a convoy of a hundred trucks and killed 11 soldiers who were protecting it in Gaskinde, on the way to Djibo.
France moves away, Russia approaches
This has already happened in neighboring Mali, where the rise to power of Colonel Assimi Goïta in 2021 caused a rapid deterioration in relations with France, his traditional ally in the anti-jihadist fight, which opened the door to the arrival of some 1,400 mercenaries from the company. Wagner security, linked to the Kremlin. Today it is the Russians who accompany Malian soldiers in their anti-terrorist operations, especially in central Mali, and who have occupied the military bases that the French were forced to abandon in 2022 by order of Goïta. The failure of Operation Barkhane to stop the jihadist advance helped fuel anti-French sentiment and Russian expansionism in the Sahel seized its opportunity.
The new military regime in Burkina Faso has begun to strengthen its relations with Moscow, but so far no one has seen Russian soldiers or mercenaries carrying out operations on Burkinabe soil. “Whether they come or not, we fear a deterioration of the situation. The volunteers have no training in human rights and there is a strong stigmatization of certain communities”, adds Diallo. The Burkinabe government, whose main supplier of arms, helicopters and ammunition is precisely Russia, is determined to diversify its partners. The entry into play of drones sold by Turkey, as well as the reinforcement of its air capabilities, herald a war of “reconquest”, in the words of Captain Traore himself, which will be fought town by town.
“If you’re drowning, you’ll cling to even a snake,” says Aime Appollin, a member of the M30, referring to the arrival of Russian mercenaries. “This is a revolution for our sovereignty and we have the right to choose who our friends are.” In the last demonstration held in the Burkinabe capital, flags of Russia were waved, but also of Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, the three countries with military regimes in West Africa and the new axis of anti-French sentiment in the region. All of this has made Niger the new epicenter of French and European military strategy in the western Sahel, although there, too, there are increasingly more critical voices.
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