President Roch Kabore is under heavy pressure to contain the devastating violence and end the humanitarian crisis that has seen around 1.5 million people flee their homes.
Frustrated by growing bloodshed, thousands gathered in Burkina Faso on Saturday to demand a tougher government response to worsening violence in the country after a tragic massacre last month killed more than 130 people.
In the capital Ouagadougou, the opposition-led protest saw thousands who chanted “No to populations being abandoned”; “No to endless attacks” and “Is there still a president in Burkina Faso?”
“We had to show our dissatisfaction, show the distress of citizens who are crying out for security and peace,” said opposition supporter Alpha Yago during the protest.
Since 2015, people in Burkina Faso are bearing the brunt of devastating violence unleashed by groups linked to Al Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS). Split from neighbouring Mali into the north and east parts of Burkina Faso, the insurgency has triggered a humanitarian crisis.
Around 1,500 killed and almost 1.5 million have been forced to flee their homes, as armed groups launch attacks on the army posts and civilians despite the presence of thousands of French troops as well as international and local forces across the Sahel region.
“There is a huge amount of anger among the civilian population about what people perceive as the government’s failure to adequately protect civilian populations, and to deal with this insurgency,” Andrew Lebovich, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations told TRT World.
Among the protesters was a group that had travelled nearly 400 kilometres from the eastern town of Madjoari, which has seen thousands of residents flee from insurgents.
The situation is so dire that deputy mayor Djergou Kouare lashed out at the government saying it’s unfathomable to see people suffering “day after day for over a month with no reaction from the government”.
“It is deplorable,” Kouare added.
The situation is ‘extremely worrying’, according to Djakaridia Siribie, an Ouagadougou-based journalist who focuses on terrorism.
“Attacks, kidnappings, executions, looting continue. Some localities are under the control of armed groups who apply [strict] laws, levy taxes, prohibit agricultural activities,” Siribie told TRT World.
Public anger has been rising since the night of June 4, when the deadliest attack in the six-year insurgency took place in the village of Solhan in the country’s Yagha province.
Armed men including young people aged 12 to 14, according to the authorities, killed at least 132 people. Locals disputed the official death toll and said160 people were shot dead including 20 children.
No group has claimed responsibility so far but the public prosecutor said two suspected militants including a local commander have been detained.
After the attack, the Balai Citoyen, a citizens’ advocacy group filed a complaint against the government for “non-assistance to persons in danger” during the Solhan attack.
The group said, during the four-hour-long attack which took about four hours, the military post which was just 15 km away from the village, did not confront the attackers, showing that the people can’t rely on the military to protect themselves.
The group claimed that the Solhan massacre “constitutes the symbol of the notorious incapacity, even the recklessness of the government to protect the populations against the terrorist threat.”
Lebovich said the large swatches of Burkina Faso are outside of government control.
“Civilian populations have been forced to either choose between different armed groups or make their own arrangements with them particularly in northern and eastern Burkina Faso,” Lebovich said.
Feeling the heat
President Roch Marc Christian Kabore is under heavy pressure from the public which demands the resignation of his government.
To ease off the pressure and cool down the heat on the streets, President Kabore last week took the role of defence minister from Cheriff Sy and appointed Maxime Kone as security minister in place of Ousseni Compaore.
The impact of the cabinet reshuffle on the fighting militants remains to be seen, but Siribie said the Burkina Faso military needs more structural changes.
“The intelligence system which has been broken during the  transition, must be restored. The country also needs an elite counterterrorism unit with better-trained, supervised and well-equipped volunteers who know the field more than the regular army,” Siribie said.
Lebovich said, prioritising the needs of the public, the government officials should take more concrete steps to protect civilians.
“They need to stop subcontracting security and really make sure that civilians do not continue to get pulled into the cycles of violence and that there can be actual protection for civilians from armed groups,” Lebovic added.
A similar pattern of violence
According to the locals, before attacking civilians, the assailants struck a group of the Volunteers for the Defense of the Motherland (VDP), a local civilian defence group established by the government to assist the country’s faltering troops.
However, as has also been the case in Mali where the government has unofficially backed several militia groups, the increasing activity of the VDP has led to jihadists taking out brutal retribution on civilians.
Civilians are often caught in the middle of the conflict, being targeted by the VDP or the military over suspicions they support the armed groups, who in turn accuse civilians of siding with the authorities.
Corrine Dufka, the Human Rights Watch’s West Africa director, said the Solhan attack is a part of a similar pattern that has been seen in the region over the years.
“The dynamic is the [armed groups] come in, they overpower the civil defence post and engage in collective punishment against the rest of the village. It’s a pattern we’ve seen everywhere this year,” Dufka said.
Numbers show that the attacks in the region have significantly risen.
The attacks have become more and more deadly. But the Sahel states who are among the poorest in the world are unable to contain the violence due to their poorly-equipped armed forces and a long history of political volatility.
Figures from the Armed Conflict and Event Data Project shows that since 2014 following a push-back of militants by French forces, the death toll in Sahel countries -Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, combined, rose from 456 in 2014 to 6,276 in 2020 with 1,376 percent increase.