Burkina Faso: The Linchpin of West Africa

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By: Jadalyn Eagens

Burkina Faso is a small, West African country about the size of Colorado with a population of about 19 million people. The country has largely managed to avoid the terrorist activity which has plagued neighboring countries Mali and Niger. In the past year or two, however, Islamic militants have been moving across the Malian border in an attempt to gain a foothold in the Sahel region of West Africa. According to a recent article in Foreign Policy, there have been over 200 terror strikes in Burkina Faso since January 2016. The International Crisis Group stated that the rise of attacks is due to the nation’s deterioration after the overthrow of its president of 27 years, Blaise Compaoré. It is known that the longstanding president made deals with many militant groups to not attack the country, and many speculate that after he was overthrown those deals became null and void.

There are three main terrorist organizations causing trouble in Burkina Faso. A militant group known as Ansarul Islam is attacking the government in the north. Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), an al-Qaeda affiliate, is attacking Ouagadougou, the nation’s capital. JNIM was also responsible for an attack on the French Embassy in March 2018 and has also attacked Burkina’s armed forces headquarters. Then, there is the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) which has been making its way across the country heading for the south. The ISGS has been getting support from the local communities in Burkina. This due to the fact that there is broad social discontent among the citizens who are unhappy with the government’s inability to fix the issue of poverty in the country. Forty percent of the country currently lives below the poverty line, a fact ISGS is able to exploit by promising poor citizens a “better life” if they join the cause.  

Burkina Faso holds an important position in the region which allows it to stop the spread of terrorism to the rest of West Africa, especially to its southern neighbors. According to James Blake, a terror expert and writer for Foreign Policy, the countries of Ghana, Benin, and Togo hold a high concentration of Muslims in their northern regions. This is worrisome because it puts these countries at a greater risk of radicalization and increases the likelihood of terrorism taking root in West Africa, which would be an international crisis.

President Donald Trump recently decided to pull out a quarter of troops from West Africa to focus on the threats presented to the United States from Russia and China, such as cyber attacks, possible nuclear attacks and disputes in the South China Sea. This decision effectively shut down seven of the eight counter terrorism units in the region. While the United States still provides training and intelligence to Burkina Faso’s military, they are no longer actively engaged in ground operations. Though the United States has began to back away, there still exists a group called the Joint G5 Sahel Force made up of troops from Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina who have agreed to cooperate on joint operations in order to keep their borders secure. France has provided 4,500 troops to support G5 operations. But, according to the International Crisis Group, the G5 have shown no effectiveness. In 2018 Burkina Faso faced many insurgent attacks along their border areas but the G5 did not carry out a single mission.

This leaves Burkina Faso in the difficult position of having to defend themselves. From terrorism experts and Pentagon officials to the International Crisis Group, this has been a recurring theme. They have been saying that the nation is in need of major support from the international community, whether it be from the United Nations, the European Union, or the United States. While Burkina Faso might be able to fight off individual militants for a time, surrounding nations don’t stand a chance against the spread of terrorism if the international community does not intervene.  

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