Security forces are struggling to cope with the resurgence of jihadist violence in the Sahel

Since seizing power in a coup, Army Captain Ibrahim Traore has sought to reassure the people of Burkina Faso that he will bring peace to a country ravaged by a jihadist insurgency.

The 34-year-old has portrayed himself as a reluctant leader forced by worsening insecurity to oust Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who himself said the same when he ousted democratically elected President Roch Kaboré in January.

“I know I’m younger than most of you here. We didn’t want what was happening but we had no choice,” Traore said during a meeting with government officials this week.

But with this year set to see the highest death toll for jihadist violence in Burkina Faso and Mali since the crisis began a decade ago, analysts are wondering what can be done to combat jihadists linked to IS and Al-Qaeda, which have taken control of almost half of the national territory.

“Everything has been tried, but the jihadists continue to grow and occupy larger territories,” said Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, Sahel analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank.

National armies, 15,000 UN soldiers and French and European forces from Operation Barkhane have been involved in the fight against jihad throughout the region. Mali turned to Russian mercenaries for help, a move Traore did not rule out. This year alone has there been a serious escalation as the insurgents have gained ground.

French soldiers are hiding in a military base in Mali.
French soldiers are hiding in a military base in Mali. The region’s deep grievances against France stem from its colonial past and perceived interference in internal affairs © Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly 5,500 people were killed in the first half of the year by non-state armed groups, state security forces and vigilante groups in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a conflict data reporting team. That compares to 5,720 for all of 2021. ACLED says 2022 is on track to be the deadliest in Burkina Faso and Mali.

Nearly 2 million people – 10% of Burkina Faso’s population – have been displaced. The violence affected 10 of the country’s 13 administrative regions. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, nearly two-thirds of the 135 administrative regions of Mali, Burkina Faso and western Niger have witnessed violent extremist attacks this year.

Some attacks have made international headlines. In June, 89 people were killed in the northern village of Seytenga, one of the worst atrocities in Burkina Faso’s history. Last month, 35 people died when their convoy hit a roadside bomb on its way to the capital Ouagadougou.

As violence increased, so did tolerance for coups among local populations and rank-and-file military, who felt they did not have enough resources to confront the jihadists, said political analyst Ornella Moderan. and security in the Sahel.

“Security forces were not prepared to deal with such an important situation,” Moderan said.

Some in Burkina Faso have called for “new partners” in the fight against terrorism, understood as Moscow. Last weekend, young men, some draped in Russian flags, attacked the French embassy in Ouagadougou and a cultural center in Bobo-Dioulasso in the south of the country.

The new leader was cautious about Russia, saying in a French radio interview that “there are a lot of partners. France is a partner. There is no particular objective. Groups supporting the new regime have taken to social media to invite Russian mercenary group Wagner, Crisis Group’s Ibrahim said.

“Some people who support Traoré in civil society organizations are calling on Russia to intervene. Many actors may disagree, but those who call out Russia are more vocal. There is a deep grievance against France in this region,” Ibrahim said, referring to residual resentment of colonialism and perceived more recent French interference in internal affairs through elites. local areas closely linked to Paris.

France strongly condemned the violence against its diplomatic branches in Burkina Faso and urged its citizens to exercise caution there. The French Foreign Ministry declined to say if it had any contact with Traore and said it would “continue to follow the situation in Burkina Faso closely”.

Some pro-Russian groups want a more aggressive approach to jihadists. “Either you try to identify the jihadists and eliminate them individually. That’s what the French are trying to do,” Ibrahim said. “Or you could go and attack villages and kill jihadists alongside civilians to impose yourself on the ground regardless of human rights abuses and that’s the method the Russians are trying to use. But that doesn’t produced only limited results in Mali.

The situation in Mali has deteriorated since the arrival of Wagner, accused of human rights abuses, earlier this year.

After a decade of counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel, analysts are wondering if it is not time to consider a dialogue between governments and armed groups.

“The army is essential but we must accompany it with different forms of response, including a political response that includes dialogue with these groups because they are major players today,” Ibrahim said.

As the new administration seeks to establish itself, Traoré this week met with a delegation sent by the West African regional grouping Ecowas. He assured them that his regime would stick to the July 2024 civilian transition plan agreed with the Damiba administration.

But, as he clarified in later interviews: “All that matters is whether the level of security is good, that’s the fight.”

Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris

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