On Friday 2 March 2018 around 10 o’clock, two coordinated of terrorist attacks took place in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The first attack involved gunmen seeking to enter the Embassy of France, exchanging fire with soldiers from Burkinabe and French special forces. Four gunmen were killed in the attack against the Embassy, and no casualties among the special forces. The second attack took place a few minutes later. A vehicle stuffed with explosives detonated at the Chief of Defence staff’s headquarters (État-major des Armées), followed by shootings between attackers and Burkinabe defence forces. Eight Burkinabe militaries were killed together with another four attackers. Moreover, there were many wounded in the headquarters. The car bomb seems to have targeted a high-level meeting of senior military staff of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The blast destroyed the room where the meeting would have taken place had it not been relocated shortly before the attacks.
In total, the attacks led to 16 deaths, including eight assaulters. The number of wounded people amounted to some 80 persons. Yet in the afternoon the same day, French media outlets held that as many as 30 people had been killed. While this information was rejected by Burkinabe public authorities, and soon turned out to be false, it did fuel rumor and speculation, fear and anxiety.
On Saturday 3 March the Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (Groupe de soutien à l’Islam et aux Musulmans, GSIM), a coalition led by the well-known Tuareg jihadist Iyad Ag Ghaly, claimed responsibility for the attacks in a message published by the private Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar. The GSIM message stated that the attacks aimed to push back the Burkinabe regime and its allied countries in the G5 Sahel, currently working to replace the French Army in combat in the Sahel. The message also stated that the attacks aimed to punish France for its operation conducted in northern Mali close to the Algerian border on 14 February 2018. Some twenty jihadists were killed or captured by French air and ground forces. In particular, the jihadist leader Mohamed Hacen Al-ançari – allegedly close to Iyad Ag Ghaly – was among the dead. The GSIM message also held that it would be better for Burkina Faso to return to the politics of the previous regime and to observe a certain neutrality vis-à-vis the GSIM combat against France and its allies.
The days following the attacks saw an upsurge of news reports, speculations, rumors, and conspiracy theories in Burkinabe public debate. On 6 March, the public persecutor narrated what had happened and what was known on a press conference. Naturally, discussions continued with a media reporting fraught with contradictions.
In this piece, I reflect upon the Burkinabe public debate in the aftermath of the attacks. Focus soon came to be on the many murky but rarely documented relations between key actors that have bearing on the security crisis in Sahel. More specifically, the relations that top leaders of the Compaoré regime allegedly upheld with various terrorist leaders, including Iyad Ag Ghaly, seemed to have become fatal. Hence, instead of looking for fragile states’ difficulties in defending themselves against terrorist attacks as some media outlets quickly pointed out, questions emerge about key actors’ (read: France and Burkina Faso under Compaoré) previous wish not to touch Iyad Ag Ghaly as an actor in the Malian peace negotiations in 2012-2014. The statement “You must talk to your enemies” that was ventured by French diplomats in 2012-13 seems to have found a lethal echo on 2 March 2018 in Ouagadougou.
The main hypothesis advanced about the ongoing attacks was that of the involvement of Burkina Faso and France in the G5 Sahel Joint Force to settle armed conflicts within the region. The G5, set up in 2014, is a joint project undertaken by the five countries of the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad). In June 2017, the UN Security Council Resolution 2359/2017, upon France’s request, approved the deployment of a counterterrorism task force consisting of 10,000 soldiers to G5 Sahel. The EU agreed to provide 50 million euros towards financing the force, and France quickly took the lead to implement the Resolution. In December 2017, an updated UN Security Resolution 2391/2017 reinforced support to the G5 Sahel Joint Force.
As the attacks evolved on Friday 2 March, “la piste G5” (‘the G5 trail’) quickly became the main and most likely hypothesis; Burkina Faso’s Chief of Defence Staff’s headquarters was one of the targets, and the Embassy of France the second. This hypothesis seemed to be confirmed when the GSIM claimed responsibility for the attacks. Yet at the same time, some facts seemed to point into the more specific socio-political context of Burkina Faso.
Therefore, a second hypothesis was that the attacks were linked to the trial of the actors of the September 2015 coup d’état that had started only three days prior to the attacks. The generals Gilbert Diendéré and Djibril Bassolé are among the 84 prosecuted by the military court. Diendéré was the leader of the self-proclaimed Conseil National pour la Démocratié that sought to take power in the coup that failed due to popular resistance and its mobilization of the regular army. As coup leader, Diendéré’s involvement is established, even though he does contest his overall responsibility of the coup. As close collaborator and right hand of ex-President Compaoré, Diendéré has allegedly been involved in all top level politico-military dossiers since the coup d’état in 1987 that killed Thomas Sankara and brought Blaise Compaoré to power. Diendéré was sometimes called “the best informed man in the country”. The case of General Djibrill Bassolé – the last Minister for Foreign Affairs of Compaoré, and 2015 presidential candidate, whose candidacy was invalidated days prior to the coup – is different. On 29 September 2015 when the coup had failed, Bassolé was arrested for having sought to mobilize foreign forces and jihadist groups in support of the coupists. A telephone conversation between Bassolé and Guillaume Soro, Speaker of the National Assembly of Côte d’Ivoire, revealed that such plans were underway. It should nevertheless be noted that the authenticity of the phone tapping is contested by Bassolé and his lawyers.
So, the trial against the coupists began on 27 February 2018. Diendéré, Bassolé, and some 80 other persons stood accused. But before even starting the trial, the defence attacked the very legality of the military court. It pledged for its incompetence, by referring to the date of publication of the legal document. It quickly became clear that the armada of lawyers called in would make the trial difficult. The defence furthermore required that the assessors of military personnel should be superior in terms of military grade to the accused. In the case of Diendéré and Bassolé that would mean that the assessors should be generals. At the same time, Diendéré’s lawyers had called all but one of the generals, thus potential assessors of the court, as witnesses. In short, the prospects of the trial were hard, and the session was soon suspended, when all lawyers of the defence left the court. Three days later the attacks took place, and the links to the trial was soon ventured as a context within which the attacks could be understood.
A third hypothesis followed from the two former ones. Several observers held that the security apparatus of Burkina Faso had been dismantled since the dissolution of ex-President Compaoré’s security forces, the notorious Régiment de Sécurité Présidentielle (RSP), led by the coupist General Diendéré. Given Diendéré’s reputation of being “the best informed man” in Burkina Faso, if not in the Sahelian region more generally, many alluded to the growing insecurity as a consequence of the RSP’s dissolution in 2015.
This hypothesis reveals a much more fundamental problem: if it is true that the Compaoré regime had a powerful security apparatus, making Burkina Faso more secure than its neighboring countries, such an apparatus would have been used to further the regime’s own agenda more than that of the country as such. Today some observers rather point to the inefficient security system of the current regime. In any case, it is likely that people in a country having just been victim to a terrorist attack question the quality and quantity of its security and military defence. How could it happen? How could a car-bomb enter the Chief of Defence Staff’s headquarters? Were there accomplices in the headquarters? And, ultimately, for whom were the attacks profitable?
On 9 March, the civil society organization Balai citoyen made a declaration stating what had been on many Burkinabe’s mind: the link between the terrorist attacks and the coup trial. “The coupists were even prepared to activate terrorist networks to counteract the resistance against the 16 September 2015 coup”, Balai citoyen added, alluding to the telephone conversion between Bassolé and Soro.
The terrorist attacks in central Ouagadougou on 2 March are the most intriguing in a series of terrorist attacks hitting the country since 2015. Two different modes of operation had so far been observed: first, localized attacks against defence and security forces in distant provinces, mobilizing community marginalization and identification against the Burkinabe state, very similar to what is taking place in central Mali; and, second, spectacular attacks in the heart of Ouagadougou where the targets have been restaurants on Avenue Kwame Nkrumah. To these two modes, we can now add the full-scale, spectacular attacks against two symbolically charged targets: the Chief of Defence Staff, and the Embassy of France.
To sum up this piece written three weeks after the terrorist attacks in Ouagadougou, it is safe to say that Burkina Faso is currently at the heart of security problems in West Africa. While, for many years, the country was hosting political opponents, including serving as a rear-guard base for Ivorian rebels fighting President Laurent Gbagbo, and a shelter for Tuareg movements from north Mali, today we see how multiple insecurities are directly targeting the Burkinabe state and its citizens, and, by extension, the Burkinabe democracy.
Several questions remain. Is the fragile security that Burkina Faso has experienced since the fall of the Compaoré regime 2014 the result of a dismantled security apparatus, including the dissolution of the presidential security forces (RSP)? Or, is it rather the inefficient security apparatus of the current regime that is to blame? Do we observe that the fatale liaisons nurtured by the previous regime are now turning against the Burkina Faso?
Before serious investigations on what really happened are available, I would like to suggest that a combined analysis of the different hypotheses discussed above may tell us something important. First, it is likely that the terrorists sought to achieve the cumulative effect of destruction and confusion provoked by the attacks. Second, the perceived multiple insecurities at national level – in the heart of the Burkinabe capital – are also experienced in provinces, not only in northern and eastern provinces but also more generally. Third, the multiple insecurities perceived by the Burkinabe and orchestrated by national and international media outlets may, at worst, constitute a dangerous gangrene to the sociopolitical transformations and democratic achievements in Burkina Faso.
The relations between key actors in the crisis in the Sahel raise further questions. The trial against the coupists Diendéré, Bassolé and the other some 80 accused started again on Wednesday 21 March 2018. Here the main question is if, how and with what outcome those responsible for the September 2015 coup will be judged. Another question pertains to Iyad Ag Ghaly, a frequent visitor to Ouagadougou under the Compaoré regime, who seems to be one of the masterminds behind the attacks. How, why and for what purpose has this key actor of the Malian crisis been allowed to establish a firm geographic and political power-base in the midst of international intervention?
Sten Hagberg is Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Uppsala University, where he is also Director of the Forum for Africa Studies. Hagberg has conducted long-term anthropological field research in Burkina Faso since 1988 and in Mali since 2008. Current research considers democracy and municipal politics, as well as, the anthropological study of opposition and protest, democracy and security. Hagberg recently co-authored the book ‘Nothing will be as before’: Anthropological perspectives on political practice and democratic culture in ‘a new Burkina Faso’.