The crisis in Burkina Faso has continued to worsen over the past year, making it one of the most violent and insecure countries in Africa. This crisis is defined by a widespread lack of resources and economic opportunities, interregional tensions, the absence of government authority, and violence stemming from criminal and armed groups within the country. (International Organization for Migration). Over 3 million Burkinabé are experiencing the effects of starvation due to the lack of food access, while another 2 million have become IDPs – in total, there are over 800,000 people living under what is effectively a militant Islamist siege (Africa Center for Strategic Studies 1). This paper will examine the impact that the militant Islamis groups are having on the population of Burkina Faso. Furthermore, it will examine the role the most prominent armed militant groups have played in exacerbating this humanitarian crisis and how this is impacting the state’s citizens, with an emphasis on their activities which overlap with the preexisting criminal enterprises in Burkina Faso as well as with each other.
This instability is driven by militant Islamist groups who have been a destructive presence in the country for over a decade and have quickly intensified the humanitarian crisis over the past four years. The impact of these organizations is in large part a result of the multiple military coups Burkina Faso experienced in 2022. In September of that year, the former military leader Lieutenant Colonel Demiba was ousted from his position by Captain Ibrahim Traoré on the grounds that the Islamist insurgency spreading across Burkina Faso was not being fought properly (BBC). The transition of power placed even more authority into the hands of the junta and was accompanied by claims that the new leader would put a more concerted effort in fighting against the Islamic militants; in reality, the coup in September of 2022 decreased the protective efforts of the military (Africa Center for Strategic Studies 3). The shifting of power in the government has led to power vacuums forming across the country, leading to an increased occurrence of conflict and increased aggression from armed militant groups. The Islamist groups in the East and Northeastern territories regularly fight the government and each other over control of the territory, with around half of the total area of Burkina Faso being outside the control of the government as of 2023 (Africa Center for Strategic Studies 1). In the twenty months since the first coup occurred, thousands of civilians have been killed, with it being estimated that 8,600 people will be dead as a result of armed conflict in 2023 (Africa Center for Strategic Studies 1).
There are a variety of militant Islamist groups operating in the country currently, with the main organizations in Burkina Faso which are responsible for this catastrophe being ISGS, JNIM, and Ansoural Islam (Council on Foreign Relations 1). ISGS, or the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, is an offshoot of Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and has been active in Burkina Faso since 2016 (CSIS). JNIM, or Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, formed in 2017 and is a product of multiple Al-Qaeda affiliated groups that are present in Mali (Global Initiative). Unlike ISGS and JNIM, Ansaroul Islam is a native organization as it originates from Burkina Faso. These three Islamist groups make up the bulk of the armed forces that are operating in the state, with JNIM being recognized as the most powerful armed group currently active in the area. The presence of these Islamist groups have been exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Northern Burkina Faso for nearly a decade. When these organizations began to flow into the North from Mali in 2015, they exacerbated the local community’s tensions and grievances they had with the government of Burkina Faso (Crisis in Group). The central government has long been in conflict with the northern regions due to years of classist behavior, governmental abuse, and ethnic divisions (Crisis in Group). These long-standing ethnic divisions have grown more severe amongst the conflict; the Fulani, for example, have become a stigmatized ethnic group in the North due to the presence of a small number of Fulani fighters among the Islamist groups (Africa Center for Strategic Studies 4). Despite the fact that the majority of the Fulani people are not affiliated with Islamic extremism, they face persecution and violence from the government and neighboring communities. It is the culmination of these factors which have worsened the humanitarian crisis in the North while also working towards the creation of Ansaroul Islam.
In order to construct a holistic view of this crisis, it is essential to understand what life is like for the Burkinabé living in areas under the control of armed Islamist groups. Given that they are the dominant Islamist militant group operating in Burkina Faso, it serves the purpose of this paper to focus on how JNIM facilitates civilian activity. There are a variety of motivating factors which drive these militant Islamist groups, but the commonality is the spread of jihadism and the establishment of a strict religious doctrine that replaces the governance of an area. These militant groups in Burkina Faso, and JNIM in particular, attempt to integrate themselves into specific areas by facilitating economic and social activity on a region-by-region, community-by-community basis (Global Initiative). The behavior of the insurgents is often subjective and depends on what approach would be best taken in order to bring towns and villages into their fold. These approaches can vary from extreme violence to economic partnership, as JNIM will often take advantage of pre-existing regional tensions to impose their will (Global Initiative). Effectively, JNIM and other militant Islamist groups attempt to incorporate new territory by exploiting the lives of the Burkinabé living there. As of fall 2023 there are 20 towns in Burkina Faso which are cut off from major supply routes and are unable to receive desperately needed resources (AP News). Insurgents across the country have enacted harsh living conditions upon citizens, seeking to control the flow of money throughout the captured lands. In towns and villages across Burkina Fasos, illicit activities and criminality have been normalized for decades and have been folded into the preexisting economic situation. As a result, JNIM works to establish its dominance over an area by fostering the illegal economies already present in regions, which curry favor for them among the local community – such illegal activities include drug trafficking and commodity smuggling (Global Initiative). Additionally, JNIM has targeted the artisanal gold mining sector in Burkina Faso and has made concerted efforts to increase the amount of money derived from the mines through facilitation(Federation of American Scientists). Regarding criminality, the militants have also focused on ransoming kidnapped individuals, vehicle theft, and extortion (Global Initiative 1). Additionally, these armed groups also frequently engage in cattle theft and the extortion of cattle herding. Jihadists engaging in the theft of cattle can accumulate tens of thousands of dollars within a single month, especially given the lack of protection rural Burkinabé have to fight back against the raiders (Voice of America). In addition to the threat of theft, cattle herders have to deal with the threat of extortion by these extremist groups (Netherlands Institute of International Relations). The insecurity is so great that they are forced to submit to their demands, no matter how steep, in order to maintain their livelihoods (Netherlands Institute of International Relations). The actions of JNIM in Burkina Faso indicate a desire to replace the existing government with an authority centered around jihad, while trying to acquire regional support in certain areas while massacring others.
The humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso shows no sign of slowing down. The presence of JNIM, as well as the multitude of other militant Islamist groups present in Burkina Faso and the Sahel region of Africa, are poised to continue their campaign of terror and bloodshed. The higher occurrence of fatalities and violent events in Burkina Faso related to militant Islamic extremism in 2023 indicate this (Africa Center for Strategic Studies 1). As neighboring states Mali and Niger continue to feel the impact of Islamic insurgency and the ongoing humanitarian crisis, the ability for improvement will continue to dim.
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