Burkina Faso could be on the way to becoming the next Nigeria – a battleground for competing jihadist groups cutting a swathe across Africa. So fears a partner of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, writes Andrew Boyd.
Picture a jihad, and where in the world do you see? Twenty years ago, your thoughts might have gone to Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, where the hunt was on for Osama Bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora.
Thirteen years later, perhaps you would imagine Iraq, and the advance of Islamic State around Mosul.
More recently, your thoughts might turn to Africa's most populous nation, Nigeria, where Boko Haram has vowed to create an Islamic caliphate.
What began in the Middle East is spreading. Today Africa has become the prize for violent jihadists set to impose their firebrand version of Islam on the world.
The Global Terrorism Index confirms that the jihadist centre of gravity is shifting from the Middle East to Africa. The number of killings by IS terrorists in sub-Saharan Africa rose by 67 per cent in a year.
According to The Washington Post, at least 1,000 soldiers, militants and civilians died in attacks in the first quarter of 2021, with Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Mali the worst affected countries.
Says the Washington-based Center for National Interest: "While Afghanistan was the hub for jihadism in 2001... the epicenter has moved westward to places like Syria and into the African Sahel just south of the Sahara Desert. Various jihadist factions have set Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Somalia and Mozambique ablaze."
Many of the world's poorest countries are in the Sahel. The poorest of these poor are the refugees, and many refugees from impoverished Mali have been heading south to neighbouring Burkina Faso, which is poorer still, to escape the advance of the Islamists.
Until 1960, landlocked Burkina Faso was the French colony Upper Volta. More than 60 per cent of the population is Muslim. Almost a quarter are Roman Catholic, while Protestants make up 6.5 per cent, some say less. Other Burkinabés observe traditional or animist religions. Sixty-five per cent of the population is under the age of 25. Two-thirds are illiterate and unemployment is widespread.
Poverty, joblessness and a lack of education – conditions that are ripe for unrest. According to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) seven of the ten countries with the largest increase in terrorism in 2020 were in sub-Saharan Africa. Burkina Faso is now ranked 12th on that list, just behind neighbouring Mali.
But before 2015 that would have seemed unthinkable. Until then, despite the oppressive poverty, Muslims, Christians and animists lived together in peace in Burkina Faso, whose name means 'Land of incorruptible people'.
The rot set in in 2015, when jihadists from Mali headed south. Groups affiliated to Al Qaeda and Islamic State stepped up their assaults the following year. According to news agency AFP, the country has endured almost daily attacks. And by 2020 militants had killed almost 4,000 Burkinabés.
The scale of the violence has been such that UNHCR has recorded more than a million refugees. These are mainly women and children, fleeing 'attacks by armed groups against security forces, and the kidnappings and killings of civilians and religious representatives'.
Aid agencies warn of a humanitarian crisis and Save the Children say a third of all children under five in Burkina Faso are now malnourished.
In parts of the north, it is Christians who are the primary targets.
According to the US State Department, jihadist attacks range from bombings, killings, kidnappings, school burnings to assaults on places of worship and religious leaders.
In a single three-month period, Islamists killed 14 at a Catholic church and burned a Protestant church, killing a further 24 worshippers, including a pastor.
In another raid over that period, militants killed five members of a church in Sebba, including the pastor, his son and two nephews. They spared only the pastor's two daughters.
Partners of UK-based Release International say the jihadists have been deliberately targeting pastors and priests, forcing churches in many areas to close their doors and meet in secret.
During their attacks, they would stop villagers and demand to know their religion. Those who said they were Christian would be killed immediately, while those of other faiths would be allowed to return home unharmed.
But Christians are not the only target. What drives the jihadists is the desire to purge Islam of compromise and to rid the land of infidels. This thinking, taken to extremes, sets Sunni against Shia, radical against moderate, tribe against tribe and Muslim against other faiths.
In Burkina Faso, the militants are also attacking Muslim imams who oppose their beliefs. And in areas under their control in Mali they have imposed a harsh version of sharia (Islamic law).
As goes Nigeria, so goes Burkina Faso?
In Burkina Faso, just as in Nigeria, the jihadists have ready access to weapons from Libya. The country is awash with arms following the fall of strongman Colonel Gaddafi, and spilling over with mercenaries from Syria and Sudan.
As in Nigeria, the ideological battle over the nature of jihad – religious struggle – is dividing its proponents into rival groups, making the security situation even more precarious.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram (a nickname, which means, roughly, Western Education is Forbidden) has split into pro-al-Qaeda and pro-Islamic State factions. Broadly the same has happened in Burkina Faso, where the jihadists have divided into three main groups.
According to the Global Terrorism Index, the faction responsible for most of the killings is Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Following in the footsteps of its counterpart in Iraq, this is the group that has been targeting Christians.
But it would be mistaken to imagine some overarching governance over these jihadist groups. These are movements, rather than monoliths, cellular rather than corporate.
Killing Bin Laden did not destroy Al-Qaeda, which is now considered to be playing an advisory role to affiliated jihadists, rather than leading the charge. Other groups and leaders have stepped into the breech. Among them Islamic State, which functions somewhat like a brand or franchise that associates buy into. You can kill a leader, but it is altogether harder to eliminate an ideology.
However, there is one encouraging sign: in the past year the number of attacks has decreased and the death rate has fallen to below its level in 2018. But why?
Observers are divided as to the reason:
- Some put this down to government negotiations with the terror groups, which the government hotly denies
- Others to vicious infighting between rival factions – they are too busy killing each other to kill outsiders
- While some suggest the presence of 5,000 French troops and voluntary self-defence groups is helping keep down the violence
Yet others make the case that these soldiers and vigilante groups are abusing civilians, heightening insecurity and divisions in Burkina Faso.
According to the International Crisis Group: "The country is locked in a perilous downward spiral." The fear is that others may go down with it.
In the words of risk consultancy GlobalStrat: "Africa is going to be the battleground of jihad for the next 20 years, and it's going to replace the Middle East."
'Susanna' is a partner of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world. Her work as a project manager has taken her to Burkina Faso many times over the past 14 years.
In recent years, she has witnessed the rapid deterioration of the country and the impact it is having on Christians there.
"Burkina Faso was beautiful and peaceful," she says, "but now everything is lost.
"Christians, animists and Muslims were living in relative peace, but the situation started to change with the rise of Islamist militants linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda."
To begin with, she says, the growing insecurity affected everyone equally. "Then in April 2019, the jihadists announced they would focus on Christians."
The majority of Burkina Faso's Christians live in the south, but the minority in the north soon found themselves targeted by the jihadists heading their way from Mali.
Susanna says: "They want to kick out the Christians. Christians are on the blacklist. The jihadists come looking for Christians to kidnap or kill them."
As a result, many have fled, swelling the numbers of refugees.
Susanna can see the country going the same way as Nigeria, where attacks against Christians in the north and Middle Belts are a daily occurrence. She says, "The situation facing Christians in Burkina Faso is now similar to Nigeria."
Just as in Nigeria, the jihadists have attacked schools to try to purge the western influence from their culture. They have burned down schools and forced 2,000 to close, denying 300,000 pupils an education.
"Children have seen their teachers beaten and killed," says Susanna. "I can't imagine what it must be like to be a small child and to witness such horrific things."
The day they killed his father
One who witnessed something even worse is 10-year-old 'Philip'.
Philip was snatched to safety by his mother and father when they saw the jihadists heading towards their village. His mother 'Halima' and father 'Daniel', a pastor, rounded up their six children and fled to another village.
But Daniel soon realised there was not enough food there for his family. He decided to risk going home to get supplies. He returned with 10-year-old Philip, in the hope the jihadists would have moved on. But he was wrong.
Says Susanna: 'When they came closer they realised the jihadists were still there and they had seen them. When Pastor Daniel saw there was no possibility of sneaking away he told his son, 'Go away and tell your mother that I am going to meet Jesus today.'"
Philip was able to make his escape, but not before seeing the group of 40 jihadists surround his father, stab him and then shoot him.
Partners of Release International have been providing food for the family. Daniel's widow, Halima, says: "Please pray for me and my children so we may continue to believe and have strength."
Prayer is an excellent place to start, but practical help is also urgently needed.
Where large numbers of people are displaced, the population of a village can double or even treble, putting an intolerable strain on food and water supplies.
So food distribution has played an important part in helping displaced Christians to survive, along with drilling wells for drinking water.
Survival is one thing. To thrive is quite another. If children are to thrive, they must be educated, which the militants are determined to stop.
Now a widow, Halima could no longer afford school fees for her children. And there were many others like them. Some have been driven out of their schools by conflict and Covid for up to three years.
Release International's partners have been supporting orphans and the children of widows who lost their husbands in terror attacks, and have paid for school fees and school kits for 440 children of Christians displaced by conflict.
It's a start. "We need your prayers," says Susanna. "There is so much do. We need wisdom to help those who are suffering.
"In Burkina Faso we now have a million displaced people, and all of them have nothing, yet there is hardly any news about the situation in the mainstream media.
"Please pray for those who have lost loved ones, and for the Christians of Burkina Faso to be a light to others in this horrific situation and to work to bring change."
Andrew Boyd is a consultant with Release International, which is working in Burkina Faso through its partner, Voice of the Martyrs Poland.