November 2016

Burkina Faso’s Terror Aftermath

A Security Profile

Photo of Wolfgang Pusztai

By Wolfgang Pusztai, Security & Policy Analyst

Wolfgang Pusztai is a Senior Associate at Perim Associates and former Austrian Defense Attaché in Libya, Tunisia and several other countries. He is a graduate of the National War College in Washington, D.C.

On 3 November 2014, Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré was forced into exile after violent protests swept through the cities. The immediate cause of tension was popular anger against Compaoré’s attempt to alter the constitution to legitimize an additional mandate. An interim government subsequently prepared for elections whilst Compaoré fled to Ivory Coast.

Nearly a year later, on September 16 2015, the Presidential Security Guard attempted a coup, which failed in a matter of days.  Elections were held on November 29 2015 delivering a solid win for Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, who played an instrumental role in ending Compaoré’s 17 years in power.

On January 15 2016, at least six individuals affiliated with al-Murabitun, an affiliate of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), attacked a café and a 4-star hotel in the center of the capital, Ouagadougou, both popular with Western businessmen and other foreigners. The militants took some 180 hostages before Burkinbabé and French special forces ended the siege, which left 30 dead and at least 56 others wounded. Four of the attackers were killed and at least two more escaped. Although this attack took many outside the country by surprise, it was not wholly unexpected by locals, and those with an understanding of Burkina Faso’s dynamics. The following is a summary of factors affecting Burkina Faso’s stability.


Since Compaoré’s ouster, the governance sector has seen some positive changes. Last November’s elections were widely considered free and fair, apart from the exclusion of candidates who were close to Compaoré.  The new incumbent, President Kaboré, is widely regarded as a legitimate and capable leader.  At the same time, reports suggest that Burkina Faso’s government has always been saddled by an inefficient bureaucracy, inadequate infrastructure and wasteful spending. 1 However, the degree of corruption is considered slightly better than the average African standards, according to a 2015 “Corruption Perceptions Index” by Transparency International that ranks Burkina Faso 76th out of 168 countries. 2

Freedom of media, expression and religion is generally respected, yet on the flipside, human rights are shaky, particularly when considering security’s use of excessive force, modern slavery, 3 weak women’s rights and child labor. A 2014 UNICEF report 4 claimed that almost 20,000 children, most of whom had never been to school, were working in artisanal gold mines, highlighting Burkina Faso’s lacking emphasis on institutional education and career development. A broad-based civil society is influential, and has played a key role in the stabilization of the country since 2014, focusing efforts on incidence of human rights abuse. Future developments in the governance sector depend upon President Kaboré’s ability to reconcile with followers of the former president, neutralize corruption, improve government efficiency and jumpstart economic development.

International Relations & Demography

Burkina Faso maintains strong ties with its former colonial power, France, whose financial aid remains crucial. Relations with the United States are cordial, facilitated by the nation’s strategic position vis-à-vis the fight against terrorism on the African continent.  Apart from the1985 Agacher Strip War with Mali, Burkina Faso has experienced only minor conflicts with bordering nations, and any regional interference into domestic affairs is highly unlikely.

More than two million people will enter the labor market in the next five years, while only 200,000 will exit. Over 60 different ethnic groups live harmoniously in Burkina Faso, speaking different languages and dialects. The Mossi people constitute more than 40% of the population and the Fulani, one of the most widely dispersed people in Africa, around 8%.  Ethnic and tribal tensions are low, however, they could erupt with the progressing environmental degradation.

Burkina Faso is often praised as an example of religious tolerance, despite its being at the forefront of Africa’s Muslim-Christian divide. Muslims are in the majority (61.6%), with most following a moderate interpretation of Sunni Islam. About 29.9% of the Burkinabé are Christians, and the local Catholic church plays a leading religious role throughout the Sahel. Religious tensions are not visible, although there is extremist activity in the region from groups like AQIM, al-Murabitun and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.


The country’s economy depends on agriculture and gold mining. Recent GDP growth has been driven by the increasing exploitation of new gold mines, and the development of improved cotton varieties in combination with high global market prices.

Unemployment is significantly low at 3.1% due to the agricultural sector’s reliance on family labor and self-employment. This sector, which accounts for 90% of the country’s labor force, will maintain its important role in the future, but will only absorb a limited number of additional workers due to increasing environmental degradation and water scarcity.

Foreign aid remains crucial to Burkina Faso’s development. No Burkinabé government is sustainable without foreign aid from nations like France, the rest of the European Union more broadly, the United States, and international financial institutions. Despite a mildly encouraging mid to long-term economic outlook, the current system’s fragility means the country is vulnerable to anything  – including terrorism – that might impede international assistance or trade.

Social Standards

The government intends to raise social standards by reducing poverty and improving public utilities, electricity and water supplies in particular. Standards of living in Ouagadougou and the second-largest city Bobo-Dioulasso are high, when compared to rural regions. Food self-sufficiency was reached in 1986, but since then Burkina Faso has experienced severe food deficits, largely due to climatic conditions and locust infestations.

Apart from the occasional international aid to cover recurring shortfalls, the nation’s food supply is adequate. Nevertheless, increased international support is needed in the mid-term to sustain a fast-growing population.

Burkina Faso’s healthcare system is in dire need of improvement.  Life expectancy at birth is 55.12 years, which is one of the lowest in the world.  The government has said it will invest proceeds from the mineral industry in the health system, but additional international aid is vital, as a higher life expectancy will ultimately have a positive impact on the country’s demographic profile.


The Forces Armées Nationales (National Armed Forces, or FAN) comprise 9,100 troops (excluding 40,000 reserves): Army (5,000), Air Force (600), and a National Gendarmerie (3,500), collectively forming the backbone of Burkina Faso’s internal security.  FAN ensures the country’s internal and external defense, supporting the work of the other national security forces, participating in United Nations and African Union peace operations, and furthering socio-economic development. Useful combat experience has been developed through participation in international interventions in Mali and other African countries. There are currently around 1,700 Burkinbabé soldiers deployed to the UN operation MINUSMA in Mali, where Burkina Faso has a leading role in the Western Sector.

Burkina Faso’s prominent regional engagement is also a major reason for the January terrorist attack, which was seen by many observers as “punishment” for Burkina Faso’s prominent role in supporting stabilization efforts across its border. The Air Force has limited attack capabilities: two Russian Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters, three Brazilian Super Tucano turboprop light attack aircrafts, a few surveillance and transport aircraft, and several helicopters. The police are relatively well organized, but are incapable of dealing with major public disorder, as was demonstrated in 2014 and the succeeding events.

Border control responsibilities are shared between the gendarmerie, police, army, and air force. Although there is surveillance and reconnaissance support from US and French special forces based in Burkina Faso, vast open borders offer easy access for militants and organized crime groups from neighboring volatile nations like Niger and Mali.

Violent crime, including armed robbery, is on the increase in some parts of the greater capital area, the central south and northern regions of Burkina Faso; but what is of more concern is the nation’s position as a source, transit, and destination for the trafficking of women and children across Africa, many of whom enter forced labor or prostitution.


Violent Islamist groups face difficulties in establishing a base due to a basic lack of supportive networks and sympathizers. Available data suggests that only a few Burkinabés have joined regional jihadist organizations abroad, such as AQIM and Boko Haram.

While a larger wave of terrorism is unlikely, as the January 2016 attacks demonstrated, the potential for isolated actions remains present, and the northern border with Mali will remain a high-risk area.

This risk was underlined several times in 2016, when terrorist elements from Mali raided targets on the Burkinabé side of the border. In June, three policemen were killed in a police station. Early in September, a customs officer and a civilian were murdered. Most recently, on October 12 heavily armed terrorists attacked a military position and killed three soldiers and two civilians, again close to the northern border.

Furthermore, any sustained development challenges will heighten the risk of disenchanted youth becoming prey to radical ideologies, as has happened in Libya, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria. Political progress has encouraged investment, although this relies on the competence of President Kaboré, and his ability not to alienate the vast numbers of Compaoré sympathizers across Burkina Faso.

1. “Government Effectiveness Index,”,
2. “Corruption by Country/Territory – Burkina Faso,” Transparency International,
3. “The 2014 Global Slavery Index,”
4. “In Burkina Faso, getting children out of the gold mines,” UNICEF, (written by Guy Hubbard), June 12, 2014,, and “Burkina Faso – The CIA World Factbook.,”