How has Burkina Faso changed since the ‘insurrection’?

On October 30, 2014, Serge Bambara, better known as Smockey, a popular Burkinabe hip-hop artist, stood and watched as the country’s national assembly building was burned and looted by protesters.

The demonstrators, who had for days taken to the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, were angry at longtime President Blaise Compaore’s attempt to extend his 27-year rule by amending the constitution.

A leading figure in the uprising, Bambara had pleaded with the crowd not to set fire to public buildings. Nonetheless, as the flames engulfed Parliament, it marked a turning point in Burkina Faso’s history and the end of Compaore’s authoritarian rule.

Bambara said protesters’ demands included presidents to stand down after two terms, freedom of expression and better living conditions, as well as justice for the murders of former president and national hero Thomas Sankara in 1987 and of investigative journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998, two of the best known cases associated with Compaore’s rule.

Six years on, Bambara says Burkina Faso’s democratically elected government, led by President Roch Marc Kabore, “has been left behind by the expectations of the people … We really had the right to expect better.”

As Burkinabes go to the polls on Sunday, potentially to elect Kabore for a second term, the country stands at a crossroads.

It is battling a spiralling conflict, humanitarian disaster, COVID-19 and perennially poor living standards.

But, what has led to so many of the aspirations of the uprising, or “the insurrection” as many Burkinabes refer to it, going unfulfilled?

Escalating conflict

In power since 1987, Compaore was only the last in a long line of autocrats to run Burkina Faso. Before him, the last democratically elected leader of the country was Maurice Yameogo, who oversaw independence from France in 1960 and was removed by another uprising six years later.

Five years ago, the return of democracy after an almost half-century hiatus brought with it a sense of hope and optimism for many, especially young, Burkinabes in a country of 20 million, where the average age is 17.6 years.

After an interim government led the transition to democracy in the wake of the insurrection and saw off a military coup which sought to reverse the move to popular rule, Burkina Faso on November 29, 2015 held an election that saw Kabore sweeping to power with 53.5 percent of the vote.

In its early stages, Kabore’s presidency looked set to be defined by ambitious development goals, freedom of expression and a departure from military governance.

Instead, Burkina Faso’s fate has been steered by a conflict that has killed approximately 5,000 people, created one of the world’s fastest growing humanitarian crises and exacerbated many of the societal problems Kabore was seeking to solve.

Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a consultancy which gathers information on conflict globally, shows that in the five years before Kabore came to power, Burkina Faso saw just 55 fatalities related to conflict. In the five years since, there have been 4,939, an increase of 8,880 percent.The conflict struck right to the heart of the nation in January 2016 when al-Qaeda-linked fighters attacked the Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino restaurant in Ouagadougou, killing 28 and wounding 56, including many foreign nationals.

 

Catching many Burkinabes and outside observers off-guard, this was a wake-up call for many that decades of peace were at an end in a country which had been known in the region for stability and tolerance.

“What began as an insurgency in an isolated corner of the northern Soum province has grown ever since and swept large swaths of territory,” Heni Nsaibia, an analyst for ACLED, told Al Jazeera.

By 2019, violence had spread from its origins in the north of the country to the east, as well. Burkina Faso has never had a civil war, but Nsaibia says the current conflict has many of the key characteristics of one.

The fighting has its origins in neighbouring Mali where armed groups such as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL respectively, took over large parts of that country from 2012 onwards.

Flown out of the country by a French intelligence service helicopter into exile in neighbouring Ivory Coast, the departure of Compaore after the insurrection was the triggering event which allowed the conflict to spill over the border into Burkina Faso.

Discontent in the remote provinces where rebels now roam free, had been simmering for years, however. Compaore was long suspected of having a pact with Malian rebels whereby he allowed them safe haven in Burkina Faso in exchange for non-aggression – but that came to an end when he left power.

Aside from the Malian groups, Malam Ibrahim Dicko, a Muslim preacher and radio host, founded Burkina Faso’s own homegrown rebel group, Ansar ul Islam, in late 2016.

Together, these groups have shaken the social fabric of Burkina Faso to its core, influencing many aspects of public behaviour, government policy and tearing lives apart.

“In the last two years, [Burkina Faso has] replaced Mali as the epicentre of armed attacks attributed to jihadi militant groups,” Nsaibia says.

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