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PoliticsBurkina Faso

Germany aims to confront extremism in Sahel region

Katrin Gänsler in Burkina Faso and Benin
March 3, 2024

On her visit to Burkina Faso, German Development Minister Schulze wants to demonstrate a willingness to talk to the ruling military junta. In Benin, she'll support Berlin's effort to boost confidence in state structures.

Svenja Schulze speaks with two African women
German Development Minister Svenja Schulze visited the Sahel region, specifically Mauritania and Nigeria, last AugustImage: Leon Kuegeler/photothek/picture alliance

Adama Sawadogo, who lives in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, will probably never forget the last weekend in February.

"The situation is not easy. Over the weekend, there were attacks all over the country and they happened at the same time. Both churches and mosques were targeted," said Sawadogo, who volunteers to help displaced people in his country.

According to the Catholic diocese of Dori, 15 people were killed that weekend during Sunday Mass in the village of Essakane in northeastern Burkina Faso. The Federation of Islamic Associations of Burkina Faso reported that 14 worshippers, including an imam, were killed in a mosque in the eastern town of Natiaboani.

The attacks are the worst in some time in the Sahel country of 22 million inhabitants, where terrorist acts have been spreading since 2016.

A group of people standing around a desk, looking at paperwork, outside
Around 2 million people in Burkina Faso are currently on the run from terror groupsImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

Burkina Faso will be the first of two stops on a trip to region by German Federal Development Minister Svenja Schulze on Monday. Germany currently chairs the Sahel Alliance, a key development body. According to a spokesperson for the Development Ministry, the alliance is currently investing around €28 billion ($30 billion) in the region.

"Germany and Europe are interested in good and neighborly relations with the countries of West Africa. This can only be achieved with commitment and respectful, pragmatic policies. This starts with seeing the problems and taking them seriously," the spokesperson told DW.

Terrorism, ECOWAS exit on the agenda

The consequences of terrorism are plainly visible in Burkina Faso. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, around 2 million people were displaced in March 2023.

Data compiled by the World Bank showed more than 40% of the population living below the poverty line in 2020, and UNICEF figures show almost 3.4 million people no longer have access to health care.

Sawadogo said the latest attacks had one goal: the terrorists "came to show us that they are strong." 

"But in the end, they are only weak," he told DW.

Adama Sawadogo seated at a desk
Adama Sawadogo volunteers in Ouagadougou to help internally displaced peopleImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

Indeed, as the security situation improves due to the intervention of army, some displaced people have been returning to their villages. "We know that all those who are defending us are brave. We are sure that terrorism will stop in Burkina Faso," said Sawadogo.

Burkina Faso has been under military rule following two coups in 2022, with Captain Ibrahim Traore at the helm.

In late January, the country joined Mali and Niger in announcing its decision to leave the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), an issue that's expected to be on the agenda during Schulze's visit.

ECOWAS: What next after Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso quit?

Regional extremism on the rise

Human rights groups have criticized Burkina Faso's junta.

"The Burkinabe authorities are using increasingly brutal methods to punish and silence alleged critics and opponents," said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher for Human Rights Watch.

According to her findings, at least six opposition members and activists have disappeared since late November. Last year, Burkina Faso introduced compulsory military service, meaning adults can be forced to serve in the army against their will.

After visiting Burkina Faso, Schulze will continue her trip to the northern border region of Benin, a country of 13 million inhabitants which has also seen increasing terror attacks in the last few years.

A group of women and children sit amid cooking supplies under a tent
Around 44% of people in northern Benin live in poverty, according to the World Food ProgramImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

The Clingendael Institute, an international think tank based in The Hague, has said people in Benin are among the supporters of the al-Qaeda-linked JNIM group, which originated in Mali and spreads religious messages in mosques that prohibit, for example, the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and pork.

Kamal Donko, a social science research assistant at the LASDEL Institute in Parakou, northern Benin, said young people are receptive to such messages. "There is poverty, unemployment and dissatisfaction in rural areas. This is related to government measures. This can lead to young people becoming radicalized," he told DW.

However, Donko believes something else could spill over from the Sahel region into the coastal states like Benin: the frustration felt by the younger generation with the older elites and France, the former colonial power.

"Young people in the border regions may want to copy what is happening elsewhere," he said, referring to anti-government protests. According to Germany's Development Ministry, it is working with Benin on strengthening its state structures.

Job training to counter migration, extremism

In the town of Dogbo in southwestern Benin, Jules Tohountode is involved in vocational training as president of the Education Services International.

Young people can take courses at the NGO's training center and learn how to become car mechanics, bakers or welders. For Tohountode, the advantages are obvious. "Many people with an academic education and a diploma are neither employed by the state nor by companies," he said.

Well-trained tradespeople, on the other hand, are in demand or can set up their own business.

Jules Tohountode, in a yellow patterned shirt, sits at his desk, his hands folded
For Jules Tohountode, good education goes hand in hand with internal securityImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

Tohountode said companies are specifically looking for craftsmen, and many are offering permanent contracts — meaning taxes are paid. Currently, the vast majority work in the informal sector.

For Tohountode, however, the social component is key: a paid, fulfilling job prevents migration from the countryside to the city, which strengthens rural areas.

"This also applies to terrorism. If someone is employed, that is already a barrier. They won't join extremist groups so quickly," he said.

Additional reporting by Katharina Kroll.

This article was originally written in German.