Africa Watch – Death in the sanctuary

6th March 2024

Gunmen, last week, attacked the village of Essakane, northern Burkina Faso, killing at least 15 Catholic worshippers as they gathered for prayers. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion fell on jihadis known for frequent attacks on remote communities and security forces in Burkina Faso. Additionally, an attack on a mosque in Natiaboani, eastern Burkina Faso, has claimed the lives of dozens of Muslims, mostly men, AFP reported. The local and security sources said several of the victims, including a religious leader, were shot. The attackers also targeted soldiers and members of the Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland (VDP).

More than a third of Burkina Faso is currently under the control of insurgents, primarily jihadist groups associated with both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, leading to frequent attacks on religious groups and figures. The country often ranks among the countries most neglected in terms of terror attacks and security crises. Despite military seizures of power, including two coups within nine months, the violence persists. The recent coordinated attacks on a mosque and a Catholic church indicate a likely retaliatory connection.

Past incidents, such as the 2019 kidnapping of a priest in Djibo and the 2021 killing of the grand Imam, exemplify the cycle of violence and insecurity in Burkina Faso. These events contribute to the atmosphere of fear and instability, particularly in rural areas vulnerable to militant incursions. The recent Essakane attack near the Mali border highlights the challenges of maintaining border security in the region, hindering effective counterterrorism efforts. Essakane is situated in what is known as the “three borders” zone in the northeast of the country, near the common borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The porous borders could have served as an opportunity for states to seamlessly move troops and equipment, as seen in the early days of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJNTF) against Boko Haram, where Cameroonian forces liberated communities in Baga LGA of Borno under the MNJTF, a brainchild of the Lake Chad Basin Commission.

However, the jihadists seem to have the momentum for such cross-border operations. The other attack took place in Natiaboani, a rural community located 60km (37 miles) south of Fada N’Gourma in Burkina Faso’s eastern region, which has been targeted by armed groups since 2018. Its proximity to the borders with Benin, Togo and Ghana (Bawku) raises concerns in Accra. Analysts link the ongoing conflict in Bawku to the unrest in Burkina Faso’s southern region.

Burkina Faso also faces the problem of the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, which have sustained terror groups with bases in neighbouring Mali. Much of what has bedevilled the fight against armed groups comes from the poor sustenance of soldiers whom the UN has indicted for selling their guns to get food. Despite Burkina Faso’s constitution declaring it a secular state with provisions for religious freedom, ongoing attacks on religious institutions and figures persist. Religious leaders have played a significant role as mediators during the coups of January and September 2022, attempting to prevent further bloodshed. However, the continued escalation of violence suggests the limitations of such mediation efforts in addressing underlying grievances and resolving conflicts. For the situation to improve, states in the Sahel will need to gain control of their borders beyond a few military deployments and carry out programmes that deny the jihadists bases on which they carry out attacks.