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Africa

Opinion: Support needed for Burkina Faso's north in fight against terror

Not for the first time, a terror attack in Ouagadougou has left many people dead. But terror is not only a problem in the capital of Burkina Faso. The threat is present throughout the country, says Thomas Mösch.

The name Burkina Faso can be translated as "Land of Upright People." It was the name chosen in 1984 when the young and charismatic Thomas Sankara seized power in a coup. He wanted to turn the former French colony Upper Volta into a self-confident and truly independent state. But in 1987 his companion in arms Blaise Compaore had Sankara killed and headed his own coup to take over power. From then on, there was little uprightness to be seen in the country's politics. But in 2014 the people of Burkina Faso recalled the true meaning of their country's name and threw out Compaore who – after 27 years at the helm – had wanted to secure another term in office for himself. The question now is: Why should a country with such a past be now be a target for Islamist terrorists?

One reason could be the fall of the autocrat Compaore. He had good contacts with armed groups in the region, including those with terrorist goals. He was involved in numerous negotiations, especially with northern neighbor Mali. Experts are convinced  that his good relations included a kind of non-interference pact. Members of militant and terrorist groups could withdraw to Burkina Faso to regroup, in return they left the country in peace.

President Roch Marc Kabore, who was elected in late 2015, has clearly positioned his country on the side of the anti-terror coalition built up in recent years by France in the Sahel zone. Burkina Faso belongs to the G5 group of states. Together with Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad it now stands up to the region's various terror groups. But at the same time Burkina Faso has increasingly found itself a target of these groups. Coming mainly from Mali, they advance into the northern border area and carry out targeted attacks. This has been happening for some time in the border region. Attacks in the capital Ougadougou are just the tip of the iceberg.   

Thomas Mösch, head of DW's Hause service

Thomas Mösch heads DW's Hause service

The light which the latest incident casts on the threats facing the country should make it clear to the international community that Burkina Faso is no longer a target for sporadic, externally-directed attacks. Terror groups which claim allegiance to international networks such as al Qaeda or so-called Islamic State (IS) have now established themselves inside Burkina Faso alongside regional groups. There are also local jihadhists, such as Ibrahim Malam Dicko, who has his base in the northern region bordering on Mali and Niger.

But how can a poor country like Burkina Faso resist the Islamist threat? As the enemy is to be found within its borders, membership of the G5 coalition does not help much. The international community can at least help reform the security forces. Following the expulsion of Blaise Compaoré and a military coup, the military and police were in a desperate state. The fast reaction to Sunday night's attack in Ougadougou has shown that the Burkinabe security forces are in a position to act. But the fact that the perpetrators were able to carry out such an attack in the capital (not for the first time) also shows that deficits remain. In wider areas, especially on the northern borders, the military and police are still weak.

The experiences of other countries in the region shows that terrorists frequently establish bases in regions whose populations feel neglected by the rest of the country. This also seems to be the case in Burkina Faso. International aid programs should also take account of this and support the government in Ougadougou in helping to provide people living in the north with a perspective for the future, free of radical promises of salvation.

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