Ouagadougou — Burkina Faso's humanitarian and security challenges are worsening as the country's junta-led government pursues an aggressive military campaign against jihadist armed groups, which have extended their control to around 40% of the national territory.
The country has faced jihadist attacks since 2015, but fatalities and humanitarian needs have hit record highs since army Captain Ibrahim Traoré seized power from a different junta last year, and then began a "total war" against the insurgents.
Humanitarian workers say their access has also shrunk as the military steers aid agencies away from operating in jihadist-controlled areas, and as the insurgents grow increasingly violent due to the pressures they are facing.
'The army is overwhelmed in this war'
Over two million people have been displaced, the vast majority since 2019, and 4.7 million out of a 22 million population require assistance, an increase of more than 1 million compared to last year. The situation is especially critical in dozens of towns that jihadists are blockading as part of their military strategy.
"No member of my family can go and cultivate in our fields located outside the city, and hunger killed the animals that we raised," said a community leader living in Kantchari, a blockaded town in eastern Burkina Faso. "Nothing comes in, nothing comes out."
Burkina Faso is one of several Sahelian countries impacted by insurgencies from groups claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. Two of its neighbours - Mali and Niger - have also experienced recent coups.
Thirty-five-year-old Traoré is the world's youngest leader, and has won local support since taking power. He has cut ties with former colonial ruler France, and nominated a supporter of Thomas Sankara, the Burkinabé revolutionary leader, as prime minister.
Still, the army captain has faced criticism for clamping down on government critics, some of whom he has sent to the front line. And his forces have carried out mass killings targeting groups wrongly stereotyped for supporting jihadists.
What's changed in Burkina Faso's jihadist conflict?
- A new military junta has launched a "total war" against jihadists.
- Previous dialogue efforts with insurgents have been discarded.
- Jihadists are increasingly using siege tactics against communities.
- Conflict fatalities and humanitarian needs have reached record levels.
- Aid agencies are facing increased challenges accessing people in need.
The government's failure to ease the conflict - which has cost over 6,000 lives this year - is causing aid groups to shift their ways of working. They are increasingly dependent on aircraft assets because of insecurity along roads, and because of the blockades.
Despite steep operational costs, Burkina Faso's humanitarian response is, like many other countries, significantly underfunded. So far this year, aid groups have received around 35% of the nearly $900 million they requested from international donors.
"Even if food arrives, it is not enough," said the community leader in Kantchari. "Most of the diseases that attack people, especially children, are caused by a lack of vitamins and a healthy diet. Some people have large sores all over their bodies."
From dialogue to 'total war'
The leaders who preceded Traoré - military officer Paul-Henri Damiba and elected president Roch Kaboré - had both encouraged efforts by authorities and local communities to launch dialogues with jihadist fighters.
These dialogue and demobilisation efforts - covered extensively by The New Humanitarian - recognised that military efforts don't address the political grievances held by homegrown jihadists, who are often from socially disadvantaged communities.
Editor's note: Important context on Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso's first homegrown jihadist group was formed in 2016 in the north. Its leader, Malam Ibrahim Dicko, was known for delivering political sermons on how the state had abandoned people, and for critiquing inequality between social classes.
However, the social and local roots of the crisis became overlooked as narratives centred on the transnational nature of jihadism, and as the government and its Western partners focused on military campaigns.
As the conflict worsened, some donors spoke of the need for better governance on top of military initiatives. But no donor nation proposed the kind of wealth transfers that might help the state build legitimacy and roll out substantial welfare programmes.
Like most colonised countries, Burkina Faso was integrated into the global economy on subordinate terms as an exporter of cheap labour and raw materials. External factors have made that legacy hard to overcome.
A pro-poor government did emerge in the 1980s under the pan-African revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara. He tried to sever the country from exploitative global capitalism but was assassinated in a coup that France is suspected to have supported.
Authoritarian coup leader Blaise Compaoré ruled for the next 27 years, usually in close concert with Western governments and international financial institutions leery of Sankara's socialist policies.
A popular uprising eventually brought Compaoré down in 2014, but the dismantling of his intelligence and security network weakened the state and partially contributed to the insurgency that followed.
However, Traoré's administration has stopped supporting dialogue initiatives, and instead focused on military efforts. This includes the recruitment of tens of thousands of civilians into a volunteer anti-jihadist fighting force that was first set up in 2020.
Jacob Yarabatioula, a Burkinabé sociologist from the capital city, Ouagadougou, said the mass mobilisation reflects a "patriotic surge among young people" but also "proof that the army is overwhelmed in this war".
Francis Kpatindé, a lecturer at the Sciences Po Paris, added: "These volunteers are sent to the front line and are not always able to distinguish between who is a terrorist, who collaborated with them, and who is simply part of the population."
In response to the military operations, jihadists have increased their use of blockade tactics, which are designed to extend their influence and punish localities they believe are colluding with soldiers and volunteer fighters.
Thirty-six towns, totalling around a million people, are now under siege, according to an internal assessment by an international NGO shared with The New Humanitarian. That number has increased from 25 earlier this year, according to the assessment.
The situation is especially acute in the northern town of Djibo, which has been under a suffocating blockade since early 2022. The city has a population of around 300,000 people, the vast majority of whom are internally displaced from other areas.
Food insecurity in the town is affecting host communities and displaced people alike, said Marine Olivesi, an advocacy manager who focuses on Burkina Faso and Niger for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
- A local resident from Djibo
"Because no one has access to their land on the outskirts of the city, nobody can cultivate, the markets are empty for everyone, and all rely on aid through the [humanitarian] aerial bridge," Olivesi said.
To cope with the blockades, people are increasing their use of urban farming techniques inside towns, according to Fidèle Koala, who works on food security issues for the Burkinabé Red Cross.
Koala said communities that were food self-sufficient before the sieges have "readapted to the situation". However, he said places that were dependent on things from outside have struggled because the "transfer of goods has now become difficult".
A local resident from Djibo said mutual aid has also increased in their city since the blockade began. "I saw people cooking and inviting their neighbours to share their dishes," they said. "We see solidarity almost everywhere and in all areas."
Aid agencies face increased challenges
The blockades and general insecurity mean aid agencies are often dependent on UN cargo helicopters to dispatch relief items. Three aircraft are currently in operation, accessing nearly two dozen towns, according to an April rotation sheet.
But according to several national and international aid workers, the cost of running the aerial bridge is high, there aren't enough flights, and the aircrafts transport far fewer goods than truck convoys otherwise would.
Travelling to more rural areas controlled by jihadists has also become harder under Traoré, said a national aid worker employed by a UN humanitarian agency, who asked not to be named citing the risk of reprisals by the government.
- UN worker
The UN worker said the junta authorities don't want humanitarian agencies working in "enemy zones", and that their hostility towards holding any dialogues with the jihadists makes it difficult for relief groups to negotiate access to the areas they control.
They said the jihadists have also become "more and more violent" as the government has taken an increasingly confrontational position on the battlefield.
"We must recognise that armed groups are increasingly threatening, [and] humanitarian access is therefore becoming increasingly difficult," the UN worker said. "Many areas where humanitarian actors could go a year or two ago have become difficult to access."
These access challenges make it hard for aid groups to get reliable estimates of people's living conditions and of the total number in need, said a second humanitarian worker who is based in Ouagadougou for an international NGO.
"This complicates the humanitarian response, as it is more difficult to obtain adequate funding without a precise evaluation of the situation," the aid worker told The New Humanitarian, again asking not to be named.
The NGO worker said the government is also often trying to impose armed escorts on organisations that do travel to places by land. This measure - which predates the Traoré period - can undermine the neutrality of relief organisations, the aid worker said.
"Sometimes, this constitutes an even bigger target for attackers," they said." If we systematise these escorts, we risk feeding into the perception that we only reach those areas where the army wants us to go."
A different approach
To improve the security situation, the Traoré government should "opt for dialogue" with jihadist groups and rethink its counterproductive military strategy, said the local leader in Kantchari.
They said the volunteer initiative has increased insecurity within communities because recruits use their positions to settle local scores, from disputes over personal relationships to retribution for theft.
Meanwhile, the military is responsible for killing people accused of supporting jihadists, the community leader added, even when the insurgents aren't causing issues for the population and are just trying to preach.
"The government needs to make people sit down in the villages and ask everyone's opinion," said the local leader. "In this way, even problems which seem to be very complicated can be solved."
Maria Gerth-Niculescu reported from Dakar. Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.
Maria Gerth-Niculescu, Freelance journalist based in Ethiopia