Burkina Faso is currently experiencing one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world. The country has emerged as the latest epicenter of conflict in Africa’s troubled Sahel region. Once known for its harmony and unity across ethnic, religious, and linguistic lines, Burkina’s civilian population is increasingly caught in the crossfire as armed groups plunge the country into violence. Intercommunal tensions are on the rise, and the country now is grappling with its first major humanitarian crisis in recent history.
In recent years, a motley assortment of armed groups has wreaked havoc across the Sahel. Some have links to transnational jihadism, whereas others are criminal in nature or rooted in ethnic or communal identity. Together, they are exploiting the weakness of state authority, local grievances, and porous borders.
Most recently, these groups have spread into Burkina Faso, especially in the Central-North, Sahel, and East regions of the country, which border Mali and Niger. However, the roots of the crisis have been growing for years.
The 2014 ousting of former President Blaise Compaoré created a power vacuum that allowed armed groups from Mali to enter Burkina Faso. Burkinabé jihadi and other insurgent groups have since formed and are taking control of large swaths of territory.
The violence has spread across communities at an alarming speed. Over the course of 2019, fighting forced more than half a million people to flee their lands.
People have been cut off from their livelihoods, and food insecurity is rapidly worsening. Aid groups are now warning that 900,000 people could be internally displaced by April 2020.
For its part, the government of Burkina Faso is struggling to meet the needs of its population. The minister for humanitarian affairs is in charge of the government’s response to the crisis. Response efforts require more effective inter-ministerial coordination, however, and many senior officials lack the necessary understanding and acceptance of the principles that guide the work of humanitarian organizations.
In certain instances, the resulting friction between humanitarian groups and the government has delayed or restricted aid provision.
Meanwhile, aid groups were initially caught off guard by the crisis. The UN has subsequently managed to establish key humanitarian coordination mechanisms, but more must be done to bolster the response.
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) currently estimates that $295 million will be required in 2020 to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need. Donors will need to quickly ramp up funding.
With donor support, the UN should move quickly to enlarge its humanitarian footprint, deploying additional qualified staff and strengthening key tools such as the Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM), which creates a shared alert and response plan for aid groups. In addition, international aid agencies should deepen their collaboration with local groups that have the trust and knowledge of their communities.
Burkina’s military continues to struggle to stop the spread of insecurity. As a result, communities have formed “self-defense” groups.
Theselocal militia now regularly clash with insurgents and criminal elements, fueling cycles of retaliatory violence. In a troubling move, the government changed the national penal code to prohibit criticism of the military and block any contact with armed groups.
The new law, whose provisions on contact are too broad, has prevented human rights organizations from verifying the numerous claims of abuses committed by Burkinabé forces and forbids humanitarian organizations from negotiating with armed groups to secure access to populations in need.
Prospects for peace in Burkina will depend heavily on the course of the broader conflict across the Sahel region. The government of Burkina should be applauded for responding to the crisis. However, it also must be encouraged to adopt a holistic approach that addresses the roots of the conflict and meets the basic needs of its population.