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Twists and Turns: Election Amid Insecurity and COVID-19 in Burkina Faso

Vast areas of Burkina Faso are destabilized by the violence committed by various terrorist groups. At the same time, the country is facing the Covid-19 pandemic. In the interest of national unity in the face of a mounting extremist threat, 22 opposition parties have recently signed a pact ensuring their support for one another’s candidate no matter who advances.

Burkina Faso has been dealing with an intensifying security and humanitarian crisis in the northern Sahel region since 2016. Attacks in Burkina Faso are now perpetrated by local and regional terrorist organizations, self-defence groups, criminal organizations, and rouge military units.

Efforts by local, regional, and international forces to curb the rising violence have largely failed. This year, the UNHCR said, hundreds of people have been killed in Burkina Faso in dozens of attacks on civilians. The country is now the world’s fastest-growing displacement and protection crisis with over 1 million people, more than one in every 20 inhabitants  displaced by surging violence inside the country.

Many have fled multiple times in Burkina Faso’s north and east. The armed conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic will generate further dramatic situations and displacement of populations. Human Rights Watch has documented widespread abuses by both sides, including the killing of civilians and attacks on schools by terrorist groups, and extrajudicial executions of alleged group supporters by apparent government security forces.

Increasing Violence in Burkina Faso Has Caused Major Population Displacements in the sub-region

Similarly, the conflict has spread from Burkina Faso’s north to its western breadbasket in the Boucle du Mouhoun region, pushing thousands to hunger and threatening to cut off food for millions more in the country on the edge of the Sahara Desert. The fertile land produces large amounts of rice and maize, according to the government.

Food Security Indicators for Burkina Faso

The weakness of the Burkinabé security response is, in part, due to the lack of a strong intelligence apparatus. In order to rectify this, Burkina Faso should focus on building a strong preventative intelligence network that extends to rural communities and focuses on small scale counterterrorism operations. The security crisis is starting to weigh on economic activity and has put the budget under pressure, as security spending is narrowing the fiscal space for spending in other priority areas (social, education, health and investment).

Meanwhile the COVID-19 pandemic, which is severely impacting an already precarious security situation. Humanitarian groups are concerned that the coronavirus pandemic could exacerbate an already dire situation in Burkina Faso, one of the most impoverished countries in the world.

Since COVID-19 first spread to the country in early March, Burkina Faso has increased its testing capacity and now has four laboratories in Ouagadougou testing for the virus. To speed up production of tests, he called for greater involvement by members of the African Volunteer Health Corps, a network of African public health professionals with experience managing outbreaks, including recent Ebola epidemics in West Africa and Congo. Doctors who were involved in fighting those outbreaks are currently stationed in Burkina Faso and elsewhere in West Africa.

The global COVID-19 outbreak is worsening the short-term outlook for Burkina Faso further, given the country’s limited preparedness and a weak health system. Local communities have demonstrated remarkable generosity, but cannot cope anymore. National capacities are overwhelmed. Expert says widespread denial remains the biggest obstacle to overcoming the pandemic in the country.

The multiparty presidential and legislative elections held in late 2015 ushered in a new government and laid a foundation for the continued development of democratic institutions. Despite extreme poverty, terrorism, and government attempts to curtail press freedoms, civil society and organized labour remain strong forces for democracy and for the respect of civil liberties.

The 2020 elections will be the second democratic presidential and legislative elections post-Compaoré. Reforms under the current administration have involved proposals to reduce the concentration of power in the presidency and the dissolution of the elite Presidential Guard forces that sustained Compaoré’s tenure and subsequently attempted a coup. A constitutional referendum to formalize a two-term presidential limit that was originally planned for March 2019. The slow pace of change is another point of frustration for the electorate.

President Roch Marc Christian Kabore’s two main contenders are 2015’s runner-up, veteran opposition leader Zephirin Diabre, and Eddie Komboigo, standing for the party of former President Blaise Compaore. 13 candidates competing for the presidency, including one woman.

The electoral campaign was a window for parties and candidates to clearly formulate their plans for addressing the full range of problems affecting millions in Burkina Faso. Though most of them missed the boat.

Their incapacity to tackle the complexity of the circumstances and propose holistic responses doesn’t bode well for the policy changes the country needs. Rather, it uncovers the piecemeal mindset that has supportive government’s overly securitised responses to the crisis for years – an approach that has shown its limits.

Roch Marc Christian Kaboré was elected president in 2015 in a free and fair, if imperfect, election. Now, Mr Kabore may have fallen short of his promise of a more stable country. His first term in office has been characterized by a terrorist insurgency that has advanced across the country.

There is a widespread belief among young people in Burkina Faso that the current political class lacks a credible vision that takes into account the aspirations of the nation’s youth. The only way to solve this is for young people to stand for election, and to propose new and alternative ideas for the development of the country.

In the face of criticism, the government has increasingly resorted to repression. In June 2019, it introduced legislation aimed at sanctioning acts it deems corrosive of armed forces’ morale. Authorities arrested without warrant the activist Naïm Touré for “demoralising” soldiers via social media, before releasing him two days later. The authorities have temporarily suspended (so banned from conducting any political activity for three months) the Patriotic Front for Renewal, a small opposition party not represented in the National Assembly, for calling on the government to resign for failing to “secure the nation”. These and other government actions raise concerns that its campaign against terrorist groups will serve as a pretext for clamping down on all critical voices. Meanwhile, the ruling People’s Movement for Progress has revived accusations against allies of the exiled former president, Blaise Compaoré, accusing them of plotting against the government.

Given the still nascent nature of Burkina Faso’s democracy, political parties remain relatively weak organizations with limited national networks. With little consultation, the main political parties have voted to change the electoral code so that presidential and legislative elections to be held in November 22.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, one could say that Burkina Faso’s new law merely codifies what would have been the reality anyway. Ultimately, it is insecurity and displacement, rather than this law, that will prevent people from voting and getting their votes counted. This appears as an increasingly likely scenario due to an agreement between the main political parties to not delay elections, arguing a delay would harm the credibility of the relatively new government.

While, the looming concern about the upcoming elections is the potential for the results to be legitimised based on an extremely low voter turnout. The election will be critical to the peace and stability of the country. A unified opposition is rare, which may bode well for Burkina Faso’s attempts to combat the extremist threat past the election.

The Burkinabe will cast their votes amid the twin pressures of increasing activity by both armed groups and community-based self-defence groups such as the koglweogos, the doses and the rougas.  Election-related violence could be reduced, particularly in light of the eroding capacity of the Burkinabe state and the growing political influence and social control wielded by vigilantes in the hinterlands. The Burkinabe political class should properly deal with the country’s simmering vigilante problem as it not only carries the seeds of electoral violence, but also could pose a threat to the country’s nascent democracy.

Election authorities have recognised the difficulties of planning an inclusive poll in this setting. But they haven’t set up any special standards to ease voting for the country’s over one million internally displaced people. In spite of the fact that those who are displaced are officially authorised to vote from wherever they are relocated, most lost all civil documentation while fleeing for their lives, which effectively excludes them from the process.

The few who have managed to keep their documents might be able to take part in the polls. But it’s unclear how much appetite, they would have for participating in elections after a contest that largely ignored them. The effects on local conflict dynamics also need to be monitored, especially if the votes of displaced people were to subvert the final result of parliamentary elections in particular districts.

In addition to military action against terrorism, Burkina Faso needs a long-term economic, political and social strategy  and the same holds true for its neighbouring countries, including those to the south. In Burkina Faso itself, one of the poorest countries in the world, special efforts are required to open up a future for young people. This includes expanding physical infrastructure, providing state services, especially the schools and training centres attacked by terrorist group but also promoting employment in rural areas.

Governance systems in Burkina Faso are weak, which means citizens may have limited hold over politicians after they’re elected. This is the time to demand clarity and agree on mechanisms to monitor the fulfilment of campaign promises.

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