Burkina Faso is fighting for democracy. Are the terrorists winning?

Members of a Burkinabe honor guard stand at attention during a ceremony in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on March 1, 2019.


By DANIELLE PAQUETTE | The Washington Post | Published: March 23, 2019

Burkina Faso was supposed to take an important step Sunday toward democracy.

The West African nation was expected to adopt presidential term limits through a long-anticipated national vote – even as Islamist violence gripped the countryside.

But days before the polls were to open, the government has postponed that milestone indefinitely, and without explanation.

Analysts had called the constitutional referendum a bright spot during turbulent times for the Colorado-sized nation. Extremist attacks in Burkina Faso have quadrupled since 2017, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.

"The country appears to be falling apart," said Michael Shurkin, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp. "The relevance of the constitutional reforms in light of the security crisis is doubtful."

The former French colony, where 80 percent of people work in farming, once appeared to be heading toward a more peaceful future. After protesters ousted authoritarian ruler Blaise Compaoré in 2014, voter registration increased and leaders began debating political changes aimed at shaping a more representative government.

Now a spreading insurgency appears to be threatening that progress. Deaths from terrorism in West Africa spiked in 2015, and continue to pose a stubborn problem for the international community.

Until recently, the bloodshed was largely contained to Mali and Niger, where five militant Islamist groups are active, and northeastern Nigeria, which has grappled with Boko Haram and an offshoot loyal to the Islamic State.

But now Burkina Faso is no longer safe from the chaos unfolding to its north and east. Human Rights Watch estimates that 700,000 people have fled their homes since January.

"Slowly but surely, this will eat away at the whole region," said Shurkin, the Rand researcher. "And that will have ramifications for all of us eventually."

Despite the growing danger, Burkina Faso's leaders seemed to hold their focus on implementing more democratic laws – and term limits were the centerpiece. They scheduled Sunday's vote in August.

Africans tend to support term limits. About three-quarters of respondents in 34 countries surveyed by the polling firm Afrobarometer say they agree with such laws. (Afrobarometer gathers data in places where citizens feel safe to speak freely.)

Research suggests that nations with leaders who can reign for decades are less stable: A third of the 18 countries that don't have term limits are tangled in armed conflict, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, compared to only two of the 21 countries that do.

The toppling of the Compaoré regime in 2014 – rioters burned the parliament building in Ouagadougou, and Compaoré fled to neighboring Ivory Coast – sparked a burst of political engagement.

Voter registration rose by 70 percent before the 2015 election, and president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré pledged changes that would significantly weaken the power of the country's ruler.

Under the proposed constitution, presidents could serve only two five-year terms. They could appoint just two judges. And they could be impeached.

Now the vote for those updates could be delayed until the country's 2020 general election as a money-saving measure, French outlet RFI Afrique reported.

"It could be they just didn't get themselves organized," said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. "It could be politics. Or it could be tied to the insecurity."

The insecurity started in January 2016, when attackers linked to a northwestern al-Qaeda affiliate stormed a hotel in the capital, killing 30 and wounding 56.

Since then, violence has escalated throughout the country. Analysts say fighters are spilling over the border from Mali, hoping to extend their reach in the region.

Burkina Faso endured 136 attacks by Islamist militants last year, up from about a quarter of that figure in 2017. Kaboré has declared a state of emergency in six of the nation's 13 provinces.

"There's a rapid and worrying deterioration in security," said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

American military officials have voiced concern about terrorist activity in the region.

"I would tell you at this time, we are not winning," Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Marcus Hicks, head of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, told reporters on the sidelines of Flintlock, a military training exercise in Burkina Faso last month.

The threat is intensifying months after the Pentagon announced plans to reduce U.S. forces in Africa by 10 percent in coming years – largely in West Africa – as the Trump administration shifts its priority to checking Chinese and Russian influence.

The United States has about 7,200 troops and personnel on the continent.