OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — The mutinous soldiers who ousted Burkina Faso's democratically elected president early this year vowed they would do a better job at stopping the jihadi violence rocking the country. Five months later, however, attacks are increasing and patience with the junta appears to be waning.
Many in Burkina Faso supported the military takeover in January, frustrated with the previous government's inability to stem Islamic extremist violence that has killed thousands and displaced at least 2 million. Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who led the coup and was later installed as interim president, vowed to restore security.
But violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State increased nearly 7% during the junta's first three months of rule compared with the three months prior, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
“Beyond the immeasurable suffering, the effects of the violence and conflict — which show no signs of abating — are likely to lead to renewed popular discontent,” said Heni Nsaibia, senior researcher at ACLED.
Nearly 5,000 people have died in the last two years in Burkina Faso and conflict experts say there will be far-reaching consequences if the violence continues to worsen.
“The decline in Burkina Faso will absolutely fuel the spread of jihadist activity in the Gulf of Guinea states — Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo — where there already is jihadist recruitment and violence," said Michael Shurkin, director of global programs at 14 North Strategies, a consultancy based in Dakar, Senegal.
Damiba has asked citizens to give him until September to see improvement. He's promoted younger officers with field experience and created a central coordination unit for military operations. His government also has supported local dialogues with jihadis to try to convince the fighters to put down their arms and return to their homes.
Yet violence is intensifying. Since April at least 30 security forces have been killed and two foreigners kidnapped: an American nun and a Polish citizen. Last week, 11 gendarmes were killed by jihadis in Seno province in the Sahel, said the army in a statement.
The government is losing control of swaths of land, particularly in the Center North and Sahel regions, as jihadis have increased their use of roadside bombs and use more sophisticated weapons.
Government soldiers say they lack equipment and must resort to stealing guns and ammunition from jihadis they kill. Seeing so many of their colleagues die also has taken its toll, the soldiers say.
“Our situation is very difficult. Sometimes the enemy kills us because we’re regularly exhausted,” said a soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to speak to journalists.
Jihadis are changing strategy. They are targeting water sources, destroying 32 facilities this year which has reduced access to nearly 300,000 people, said a group of aid organizations operating in the country.
“The conflict is now putting at risk the very thing no one can live without: clean water,” said Rebecca Bouchet-Petersen, country director for Solidarity International in Burkina Faso.
Most of the destruction of water sources has been around Djibo in the arid Sahel region, which hosts the largest number of displaced people in the country and has been under siege for months. Last month local leaders in Djibo tried to negotiate an end to the blockade with the top jihadi in the country, Jafar Dicko, according to government officials.
It was the first time the government gave logistical support for local dialogues, which have been ongoing for years. While the talks partially succeeded in allowing freer movement in and out of Djibo, community leaders say it’s a small improvement.
”I think it’s when the government negotiates that we’ll see more significant results,” said Boubacari Dicko, the Emir of Djibo who led the talks.
But it’s unclear if Damiba's government is prepared to take that step. The previous government was publicly against such negotiations, although it did hold some in secret around the November 2020 presidential election.
There’s also growing discontent about Damiba's crackdown on civic freedoms. The junta has restricted political demonstrations that could “disturb public order or mobilize security forces who will be more useful for combat."
Yet locals in hard-hit parts of Burkina Faso see few alternatives to the junta and say they’re willing to give it a little more time. In August last year, 45-year-old Awa Komi tried to return to her village to farm because her family had no food, but fled when jihadis started killing people, she said.
In a makeshift displacement camp in the northern town of Ouahigouya where she now lives, she’s hoping Damiba will restore security so she can go home.
“He said things would change in five months,” the outspoken mother of 11 said, pumping her fist for emphasis. “If it’s not better in five months, we, the women, will kick him out.”