Conflict Alerts # 390, 9 June 2021
In the news
On 7 June, BBC cited AFP and reported that at least 160 people had been killed in a spate of attacks in northern Burkina Faso on 5 June; armed men had burned the local market and homes. According to AFP, 160 bodies had been recovered from three mass graves by local communities on 6 June. Meanwhile, Aljazeera reported that the death toll included seven children.
On 7 June, a statement from the African Union Commission Chairperson read that he "expresses his indignation and condemnation at this barbarity and calls once again for a prompt and vigorous regional and international response against terrorists in Burkina Faso and throughout the Sahel region."
On 5 June, the UN Secretary-General spokesperson released a statement: "The Secretary-General is outraged by the killing, early today, of over a hundred civilians, including seven children, in an attack by unidentified assailants on a village...He strongly condemns the heinous attack and underscores the urgent need for the international community to redouble support to the member states in the fight against violent extremism and its unacceptable human toll."
Issues at large
First, the threat of violence in Burkina Faso. According to the BBC report, the latest attack comes less than a month after 30 people were killed in eastern Burkina Faso. The UNOCHA's situation report on Burkina Faso says that more than a million people have been displaced due to violence since 2019. Further, the report links violence to the presence of non-state armed groups in the northern and eastern parts of the country.
Second, the perpetrators. As of 8 June, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack. Several media reports, however, link terrorist organizations such as the al Qaeda and Islamic State to the attacks. Apart from terrorist groups, armed bandits operate in the region for multiple reasons including the need to control access to resources. In 2020, the UN outlined a growing link between the terrorists, organized crime and intercommunal forces owing to "the absence of the State in peripheral areas."
Third, the larger instability in the Sahel region. The region has been vulnerable to political instability, armed groups and Islamist militants; three neighbouring countries - Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger - are hotspots of the same. For example, the attack in Burkina Faso shares similarities with the massacre of 137 people in Niger in March when gunmen had raided three villages. On the other hand, in May, Mali witnessed its second military coup in less than 10 months. A letter written to the AU Commission chairperson by activists, writers, and regional institutions, mentions that 2440 civilians had lost their lives in 2020 alone due to the instability and violence.
Fourth, failure of regional and international response. The African Union has condemned all instances of violence and called for a stronger fight against militancy and extremism. However, no concrete plan has been followed up to address the situation. Meanwhile, France had intervened in the Sahel region in 2013 in order to address the militancy. However, in light of the latest coup in Mali, France announced the suspension of a joint military operation with the country.
First, the scale of the attack signifies that the regional security situation in the Sahel is undergoing an unprecedented deterioration. France's suspension of the joint military operation could also become a contributing factor to further instability in the region. Second, if the attacks have indeed been carried out by Islamist militants, then it signifies an expansion of extremism in the region. Therefore, the responsibility to address the root causes of the same lies with the governments of countries most affected.