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Burkina Faso's election overshadowed by terrorism

Katrin Gänsler
November 20, 2020

Burkina Faso goes to the polls on Sunday. The threat of extremist violence could prevent people from casting their votes on the day of the election as the country's security situation declines dramatically.

Burkinabe gendarmes sitting on their vehicle in the city of Ouhigouya in the north of Burkina Faso
Image: Getty Images/AFP/I. Sanogo

As night falls on Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, Sore Ouesseni sits on a wooden bench, relaxing with some friends in front of his store in the Ouidi district. 

Ouesseni sells spare parts for plumbing and sanitation products. But they're hard to see at the moment because his small shop is devoted to posters and pictures of President Roch Kabore and his MPP party. Everything is painted orange, the MPP's party colors. 

Ouesseni is convinced that the majority of Burkinabe will vote for 63-year-old Kabore, who is seeking a second five-year term in Sunday's election. 

"We will go to the polls en masse to vote for President Kabore. He has to win," Ouesseni said. "We like him because ... he's down-to-earth and a hard worker. 

Kabore was voted in after a popular uprising in 2014 overthrew former president Blaise Compaore, who ruled Burkina Faso for 27 years.

Sore Ousseni points to a poster adorning the walls of his store
With his store painted in MPP colors, Ousseni's support for President Kabore is obviousImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

Dampened election campaign 

Ouesseni's enthusiasm for the election is hard to find elsewhere in the capital. The loud music that traditionally blasts out of loudspeakers before elections is missing from the front of MPP headquarters.

Also absent: traditional scenes of groups of supporters spontaneously coming together to fire up their candidate. 

The few people dressed in party colors are primarily pro-Kabore. Supporters of the other 12 candidates running in Sunday's elections are hardly visible on the streets of Ouagadougou.

Kabore's main challengers are the 61-year-old UPC party candidate and 2015 runner-up, Zephirin Diabre, and Eddie Komboigo, who is running for the CDP party for former President Compaore.

Presidential candidate Zephirin Diabre stands on a podium and waves at the crowd
Zephirin Diabre (centre right) is one of Kabore's main challengers, winning 30% of the vote in the 2015 electionsImage: Olympia de Maismont/AFP/Getty Images

The Apidon Academy, a higher-education institute in Ouagadougou, projects that Diabre and Komboigo could win 10% to 11% of the vote, with Kabore wining more than 42%. 

Escalating security situation

The main reason for the humdrum political campaigning is the country's volatile security situation. 

The insecurity in the western Sahel region is spilling into Burkina Faso. Various terror groups, including the militant Islamist JNIM from neighboring Mali and so-called Islamic State, have launched attacks in the country in recent years.

Read more: Africa's Sahel seeks new ways to fight terrorism

The regime of former president Compaore had maintained close ties to terror group leaders operating outside of Burkina Faso's borders. Since his ousting, however, terrorist attacks have become more frequent within the country. 

According to the nongovernmental organization ACLED, 2,730 people have been killed in attacks, unrest and violence against civilians in the past 12 months alone — especially in country's north and east.

Mural showing people standing in line in front of a polling station
This mural in Ouahigouya in northern Burkina Faso advocates for fair elections. But some doubt this will be possible if many are unable to cast their votesImage: Godong/UIG/imago images

Polling stations closed

The security situation is affecting the election. One thousand three hundred and thirty-four of the country's nearly 22,000 polling stations won't be able to open Sunday, said Issaga Kampo, an election advisor to the Burkinabe Electoral Commission (CENI). 

Kampo said he did not believe that this won't have a great impact on the final result.

It is also not clear how many of the country's more than 1 million internally displaced people will be able to vote. CENI couldn't carry out voter registration in 17% of the country because of the security situation. In addition, people who fled without identification papers won't be able to cast a vote. 

Keeping voters safe

The greatest challenge authorities face is ensuring voters' security on Election Day. In addition to the police, gendarmerie and army, there's talk of allowing regional defense groups to secure the elections. 
Such groups, formed to fight against the armed militias and organized criminals terrorizing their communities, had become more common even before the fall of Compaore. 

But Kabore took the step of legitimizing these local armed groups when his government called for volunteers to fight terrorists under a law called the Defense of the Homeland Act — which passed in parliament in January.

Sandrine Nama sits at her desk in front of her laptop
Sandrine Nama is the project coordinator for Justice and SecurityImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

"They are offering to help securing polling stations where they already cooperate with security forces. We will see whether the offer is accepted," said Sandrine Nama, program coordinator of the Burkinabe nongovernmental organization Justice and Security Dialogue. 

But their possible participation in the election process would attract criticism, she said, with rights organizations accusing some vigilante groups of human rights abuses in recent years.

Talking to terrorists?

The crucial question in the election campaign is how to put an end the militia violence. 

A growing number of opposition figures have spoken in favor of starting a dialogue with the terrorists. Kabore has so far rejected — officially at least — such deals. 

And military offensives haven't proved effective so far.

A soldier patrols in Burkina Faso
A soldier patrols in Burkina Faso Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. De Maismont

With so many families affected by the violence, said Nama, people are willing to exhaust all possibilities to stop the attacks. But, she said, it is unclear under what terms negotiations could be carried out with the terrorists — and who could conduct such negotiations. 

Even Ouesseni, the seller of spare plumbing parts, isn't averse to talks with the extremists. 

"If it succeeds in negotiating peace with terrorists, why not?" he said. "We absolutely want peace."

This article has been adapted from German by Kate Hairsine. 

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