Why the Burkina Faso Attacks Came at Exactly the Wrong Time

The capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, fell victim to an unfortunately all too familiar pattern of violence – a hotel in a capital, a place frequented primarily by Westerners, brazenly attacked by a group of some terrorist persuasion. The effects of the attack, which left more than 30 dead and for which al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) is claiming responsibility, are devastating. In addition to the senseless loss of life, it exposes critical security fault lines in Burkina Faso just as the country marked an important milestone in its transition to democracy.

Following a year-long transition after the ouster of a strongman, Blaise Compaore, who lead the country for nearly thirty years, the outlook for Burkina Faso was trending positive. But the deadly attack in the heart of the capital is a reminder to the brand new government that more than good intentions will be needed if the country is to grow and prosper to meet the aspirations of its people.

With many of its victims visiting foreigners, the attacks in Ouagadougou resonated across the world, particularly given the very recent similar attack in Bamako, Paris or Beirut, and were a stark reminder for the Burkinabe people of their country’s vulnerability in the post-Compaore era.

A Fragile Democracy

The newly-elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, was part of Compaore’s inner circle for years. General Diendere, from the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) – a key part of Compaore’s regime – led an ultimately unsuccessful coup against the transitional government in September. The recent revelation that high-level Ivoirian officials were supporting Diendere’s coup attempt further complicates the picture. Just a few days ago, a pre-dawn raid on an armory outside the capital was attributed to members of the now supposedly disbanded RSP, raising new security fears for the government.

Over the course of the last year, the country has been an intense political battleground between modern, popular forces and an old, antiquated regime and its corrupt power structures. While successful elections and a well-managed transition seem to have helped Burkina Faso shed some of the weight of the Compaore years, tensions which run deep within its power-wielding groups have threatened the country’s stability. The same process also weakened the local and regional power alliances which Compaore had brokered over his many years in power, and the shifting geopolitical landscape is less stable – a perfect environment for jihadist and terrorist groups to thrive.

Cynthia Ohayon, from the International Crisis Group, said that these attacks will force the newly-minted government to place security at the top of its agenda. Burkina Faso shares a long border with Mali, where the jihadist threat has been metastasizing for years. Terrorist factions have been taking advantage of local feuds and power struggles in the Sahel region – indeed, these groups profit from chaos and insecurity, and have incentive to continue to destabilize the region.

The new Burkinabe government, meanwhile, has been touting ambitious projects, such as doubling electrification rates by 2020 or making access to water a right. In a show of good faith towards the promise of a new era in Burkina Faso, deputies in the National Assembly agreed to a 19% pay cut. The terrorist attack in Ouagadougou will force the government to focus its attention on security. As the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog points out, a key challenge will be “to balance the securitization or militarization reflex with the need to ensure a viable and legitimate political order.

Indeed, the recent events and its necessary security and defense implications could easily lead down a destructive path of restricted freedoms and continued neglect of issues that affect the daily well-being of Burkinabe people. But the government must toe a careful line – disgregarding these security issues, and allowing rebellious or terrorist groups to take hold, would also stall – if not reverse – the country’s progress.