International

How One of the Most Stable Nations in West Africa Descended Into Mayhem

Burkina Faso once looked like a success story for U.S. military aid. But now it’s contending with a growing insurgency, an unfolding humanitarian crisis — and a security force targeting civilians.
AP Photo/Sylvain Cherkaoui
A displaced Burkinabe woman and child prepare food, in the Pissila town camp, near Kaya, Burkina Faso.

A strange and terrible sound echoed across the badlands of swirling grit and desert scrub — the roar of a cadre of militants on motorcycles, more than a dozen of them. The growl of their engines was punctuated by the stuttering blasts of the riders’ Kalashnikovs. This was how they always arrived. There were no government troops around, no police officers, no one to stop them.

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Ami Bande was in the market in Nagraogo, a village in north-central Burkina Faso, when she heard the first gunshots. Speeding toward her were about 15 motorbikes, each carrying two men who had come to kill. Bande, who was 23, sprinted for home, arriving at the same time as one of the “motos.” The jihadist riding on the back yelled, “Stop!” As the bike skidded to a halt, he began firing his rifle. Two men were shot dead in front of Bande. After that, she ran from her town.

A total of 32 civilians, including Bande’s brother-in-law, were slain in Nagraogo on Jan. 20. Another four were killed in a nearby village, five miles away. Soldiers weren’t there to protect them and only showed up days later in Barsalogho, where Bande and other survivors had fled, to escort them home to bury the corpses, she and other survivors said.

Key Findings

  • Despite massive U.S. funding for security in Burkina Faso — one of the largest recipients of U.S. security aid in West Africa — rampant terrorist violence has rewritten what was supposed to be an American foreign-policy success story.

Bande appeared wrung-out, her eyes fixed in a far-off stare, five days after the massacre, in a sun-blasted courtyard in Barsalogho, about 100 miles north of Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. As the temperature crept above 90 degrees that day, Bande, cradling her baby and wearing a navy-blue head scarf and full-length red-and-white-patterned skirt, told her story in a crowd of more than 60 men and women who ran with little more than the clothes they were wearing and the sandals on their feet. They had arrived in this town, now bulging with blue and white tarpaulin shacks, because there was nowhere else to go. Barsalogho is the last bastion of government control on the main road north from Ouagadougou before towns become islands in a sea of jihadist insecurity. “We need support,” Bande said, her voice thick with desperation. “We need protection.”

What happened in Nagraogo is increasingly common in the hamlets north of Ouagadougou. With their faces obscured by cloth from their turbans, their eyes shielded by sunglasses, the motorbike-borne attackers thunder into villages with rifles and a set of ultimatums: that the people convert to Islam or — if they’re already Muslims — that women wear the veil. They may scold the men about drinking alcohol or burn down a village’s bars. If their demands aren’t heeded, they begin killing. Sometimes they start shooting without making any demands at all.

Key Findings

  • First-hand reporting on the ground reveals executions by Burkina Faso's U.S.-backed military. The head of the country's ruling political party admitted, on the record, that state security forces were carrying out extrajudicial killings.

The death toll has been growing. According to firsthand accounts from survivors, 12 civilians were killed in Gonoega. Three in Rafé. Six people in the first attack on Sirga, nine in the second. Fifteen in Rafoenoega. Eleven in Taba. More than 20 over the course of three months in Nawoukiiba. In every one of these enclaves, just as in Nagraogo, villagers were undefended and left to be slaughtered. Last year, alone, jihadist militant raids left 1,063 dead, according to Héni Nsaibia of the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, an American nonprofit that gathers and analyzes data about political violence and protest around the world. There has been a death toll of 982 in the first nine months of 2020.

AP Photo/Sam Mednick

A survivor who did not wish to be identified and said he was attacked by government soldiers in June, sits in a house in Fada N'gourma town in Burkina Faso Thursday, July 9, 2020.

About the reporter

Nick Turse

Nick Turse

Nick Turse is an investigative reporter, the managing editor of The Nation Institute's TomDispatch, and the co-founder of Dispatch Books.

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