Violence broke out in Burkina Faso’s national capital, Ouagadougou, Sunday, as the headquarters of President Rock Kabore’s political party was burned and looted by protesters upset with his administration’s inability to thwart extremist violence that has run rampant in recent years.
Amid protests over insecurity in the country, soldiers staged revolts at barracks to demand that top military leaders be fired due to the failure to stop violence committed by extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that has led to the displacement of over 1.5 million people in recent years in the former French colony, according to France 24, Reuters and AFP.
Additionally, reports suggest that gunshots rang out at military bases. A government spokesperson denied that there was an “army takeover.”
“Information on social media would have people believe there was an army takeover,” Spokesperson Alkassoum Maiga said in a statement. “The government, while acknowledging that there was gunfire in some barracks, denies this information and calls on the public to remain calm.”
Security forces are also said to have fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters demonstrating against the government’s failure to stop the terrorists. Protesting soldiers called for “adequate resources for the battle." They want top generals replaced in addition to improved care for wounded soldiers and better support for the families of fallen troops.
Hundreds of people walked through Ouagadougou’s downtown area, calling for President Kabore to resign, according to The Associated Press.
The protests came as nearly 12,000 people were displaced in the West African nation in just two weeks in December, according to the United Nations.
“The jihadists are hitting [the country], people are dying, others are fleeing their homes,” protester Amidou Tiemtore said, according to the newswire. “We want Roch and his government to resign because their handling of the country is not good. We will never support them.”
Although Burkina Faso was once known as a relatively peaceful country, it has suffered an exponential rise in terror attacks committed by radical groups since 2016. The increase in terror in the Sahel region has coincided with a rise in Islamic State fighters fleeing from the Middle East into Africa.
The rise of extremism has caused international concern, with the U.N. vowing in 2020 to step up its response after displacement in Burkina Faso rose 1,200% in 2019. The U.S. State Department created a special envoy position to maximize U.S. diplomatic efforts to address the terror threats in the region, which have also impacted countries like Cameroon, Mali and Niger.
Burkina Faso’s national security agency appears to be preparing to negotiate with the jihadis, just as the government negotiated secret ceasefire talks with them around the 2020 presidential elections, which had subsided fighting for a few months, AP reports.
In its Persecution Trends 2022 report, Release International said, “The situation facing Christians in Burkina Faso is now similar to Nigeria,” where terror groups like Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province have killed thousands and displaced millions.
In 2021, jihadis targeted Christians in the north of Burkina Faso, forcing churches to close and meet in secret, the report pointed out. The attacks ranged from bombings, killings, kidnappings and school burnings to assaults on religious leaders and places of worship.
Pressure in the region is likely to continue in 2022, particularly following the drawdown of French troops in the area, Release International warned.
Last May, suspected jihadists ambushed a baptism ceremony and killed 15 Christians in northern Burkina Faso’s Oudalan province near the Mali border.
In June, 160 civilians, including children, were killed and 40 others wounded in a violent raid on a village in the Yagha province, marking the country’s deadliest attack in years. Extremists in the northeastern region that borders Niger reportedly assaulted and shot civilians, burned down homes and a market.
In October 2020, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report highlighting rising attacks against houses of worship and religious leaders in Burkina Faso.
USCIRF noted that Burkina Faso has “found itself at the epicenter of several global crises, which have contributed to the devolution of religious freedom conditions in the country.”
“Attacks on both Muslim and Christian houses of worship and religious leaders have spiked as jihadist and other militia groups expand their area of influence throughout the country,” USCIRF states. “The government is struggling to rein in the violence, and poor performance and misconduct by government-affiliated forces are exacerbating the situation.”
Burkina Faso witnessed decades of military coups after its 1960 independence. Blaise Compaoré remained president for 27 years from 1987 until widespread civil unrest toppled his regime in 2014. After about a year of transitional government, Kaboré won the election in 2015.
“In recent years, Burkina Faso has found itself at the epicenter of several interrelated and rapidly evolving crises that are engulfing much of West Africa,” the USCIRF report states. “These compounded security and humanitarian crises are testing the limits of Burkinabe religious tolerance and intercultural harmony as conflicts over land, jobs and scarce resources have begun to erode social cohesion and overwhelm existing mechanisms for conflict resolution.”
After visiting Burkina Faso last year, Barbara Manzi, U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator, wrote that donors and development partners should know “there is hope, despite all the terrible things that are happening.”
“I think we have a collective responsibility to make sure that this hope does not fade away,” Manazi stated.
“We need to be ready for some setbacks. It’s likely to happen, considering the situation, but this should not discourage us from continuing to focus on the people, trying to bring them to the forefront of discussions, supporting the State in what they’re doing, and ensuring that all levels of the traditional community systems are involved.”
Burkina Faso is ranked as the 32nd-worst country globally when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2022 World Watch List.
“Jihadist violence has been rapidly increasing in recent years, and extremists have exploited the government’s weakness during the COVID-19 crisis to gain control of the country’s infrastructure,” the watchdog group that monitors persecution in over 60 countries reports. “This has led to hundreds of church closures—while many Christians are among those who’ve fled their homes because of extremist attacks.”