The once-peaceful African country is at the centre of a gold rush and militant attacks.
It was a carefully executed attack. On November 6, a convoy of buses carrying a Canadian gold mining company’s workers in the eastern part of Burkina Faso came under fire. Armed men first blew up an armoured escort car and then ambushed the buses. The attack killed 37 and left dozens of others injured.
All those killed were locals who had for months demanded they be given adequate protection similar to what has been arranged for the expatriate workers of the Quebec-based Semafo - the Canadian staff is flown to the Boungou mine from Ouagadougou, the capital.
It still remains unclear which group carried out the attack but the west African nation of 20 million is fighting a growing insurgency of radical groups since 2016.
Outfits ranging from Ansarul Islam, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, have been active in the country’s Sahel region - a group of provinces that borders Mali.
Attacks by insurgent groups have left hundreds dead and forced at least 500,000 people to flee their homes due to the violence.
More than 500 people have been killed in the past year alone in militant attacks and counter-insurgency operations, according to the UNHCR.
“It is difficult to say what their [the insurgent groups’] objectives are but it’s clear that they have created enough insecurity to profit from the situation,” says Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) at the National Defense University.
“And they are increasingly challenging the government’s authority in the area.”
A regional fallout
Unlike other countries in the region, terrorism is a relatively new phenomenon for Burkina Faso, where Muslims and Christians, who make up 65 percent and 35 percent of the population respectively, have lived peacefully for years.
Much of the violence of the last three years can be traced to Ibrahim Malam Dicko, a resident of the Soum province, who founded Ansarul Islam. A radical preacher, he is believed to have been inspired by the Mali-based Macina Liberation Front.
But the group’s influence waned after Dicko’s death in 2017, writes Pauline Le Roux, who has extensively documented the country’s security problems.
“Furthermore, the growing presence of Burkinabe security forces in the northern provinces of the country coupled with the increased operational presence of French military forces under Operation Barkhane in Central Mali likely contributed to a more challenging operational environment for Ansaroul Islam,” she explains.
Experts say the militant groups have exploited local grievances and ethnic differences to their advantage. Burkina Faso, one of the world’s most underdeveloped countries, is home to many ethnic communities including the Fulani, Moosi and Foulse groups.
Militant attacks on villages and towns have pushed some communities to form their own militias, which have in turn been accused of attacking people of other ethnic backgrounds.
ACSS’s Eizenga, however, says ethnicity has little to do with the spread of terror groups. “The vast majority of the violent extremist groups operating in the Sahel region, do not function from any kind of ethnic base.”
For its part, the government of President Roch Marc Christian Kabore has struggled to contain extremist violence. Only three terrorist attacks were recorded in 2015. Last year there were 137, according to the ACSS.
This year dozens more have been killed as militants have targeted security checkpoints, villages and employees of gold mining companies.
A bloody gold rush
Within a decade, gold has become Burkina Faso’s main export commodity, raking in revenue of more than $1.8 billion in 2017.
Around a dozen industrial mines and hundreds of artisanal mines, which are run by locals and involve digging by hand, are spread across the country.
Armed men have frequently targeted digging sites, trying to take hostages for ransom. Some reports suggest that militant groups can exploit the gold trade to finance their operations especially as gold smuggling grows and part of the trade remains in the informal sector.
According to an OECD report, around $2 billion-worth of gold is smuggled out of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali.
“It seems they want to create enough insecurity so the government is not able to regulate the gold mines activity,” says Eizenga.
“Presumably the criminal and jihadist groups can profit from this insecurity.”