The security situation in Burkina Faso in 2022 confirmed some of the trends observed in our 2021 review, while some new elements emerged. The overall trend in 2022 showed a clear deterioration of the security situation, with the number of incidents linked to terrorist groups increasing by almost 70% compared to 2021. Beyond the increase, terrorist attacks have evolved in form and geography as well.
Shifting geographies of attack
Three major geographical trends emerged in 2022. First, there was a clear shift towards the south of the country, with attacks occurring in the southern regions throughout the year. These occurred not only in some traditional hotspot areas bordering Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, but also more generally in the southern half of the country, particularly in the south-west around Bobo-Dioulasso. The area around the transborder W-Arli-Pendjari national park (Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger and to some extent Togo) has also been particularly hard hit. Militants used the park and its wilderness as a rear base and regularly infiltrated it. Given the terrain of the park, which makes it difficult for military forces to patrol and monitor, militants have largely been able to operate in this area with impunity.
In addition, there has been a certain decline in activity in the north of the country, particularly in the Sahel province. The extreme northern zone, along the border with Mali (northern Oudalan province) also called the tri-border area, recorded notably fewer incidents. However, this observation should be analysed in the light of the occupation of the territory by terrorists: as indicated in our previous monthlies, many towns in the north of the country are now under the control of terrorists, who even control towns through a blockade; as is the case in Djibo. The risks associated with road travel in this part of the country make it an extreme endeavour for the armed forces to attempt to wrestle back control, thus leaving militants to hold onto territory largely unopposed. Compared to 2021, the area has therefore benefited from a relative calm; however, this belies the very much deteriorated humanitarian situation of the local populations trapped in these areas and the growing number of refugees. This shift is best demonstrated by the fact that the most affected province in 2022 was Gourma, located in the East, while Oudalan, located in the Sahel region, occupied this position in 2021.
In addition to a marked advance southward, the third observed trend in 2022 was an increasingly clear encirclement of the capital, with terrorist presence and fighting observed in a smaller radius around the capital than in 2021. This demonstrates a certain level of boldness on the part of militants, a lack of capacity by armed forces in areas outside of the capital, and a growing intent to target Ouagadougou.
Change in attack tactics
The year also saw an evolution in the tactics of militants, who are now more than ever engaged in a war of attrition on civilians and security forces. For example, looting and intimidation, damage to infrastructure and destruction of civilian property skyrocketed from less than ¼ of total attacks in 2021 to more than 1/3 in 2022.
This increase mirrors the decrease in deadly attacks and kidnappings, which combined represented 30% of incidents in 2022, after having made up more than 40% of attacks in 2021. The increase in intimidation tactics, particularly in the East and Centre-North regions, may reflect a strategy of risking fewer numerical resources in combat, preferring to utilise actions of attrition against the population and the armed forces.
Moreover, as part of using fewer “human means”, more technical tactics seem to be on the increase. The share of IED attacks has almost doubled, with booby-trapped roads accounting for 9% of attacks in 2022 compared to 5% in 2021. The majority of IEDs are buried by militants in the ground along the country’s main and secondary roads. The tactics employed by the militants also include blocking roads by targeting infrastructure, such as bridges, with explosive devices. This technique was best illustrated in July, when the Naré (Namentenga) and Woussé (Bam) bridges were severely damaged after militants planted explosives in the night – twice targeting the Naré bridge.
Civilians and soldiers on the front line; public infrastructure and private sector increasingly targeted
Civilians continue to be the main target of attacks in 2022. However, the deadliest attacks targeted regular armed forces and Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDPs), who, combined, accounted for 58% of the casualties.
Last year saw militants keep their focus on the mining sector. As demonstrated in the graph below, 2022 saw an uptick in terrorist attacks targeting mining infrastructure (artisanal or industrial) as well as the convoys of such companies. These attacks have indiscriminately targeted the different regions of the country, with a particular concentration in the Centre-North and East. The Centre-East, which had been spared until now, experienced its first attacks in 2022.
The attack in June against one of Burkina Faso’s industrial mines, the Riverstone Karma mine (located in Yatenga province, North region), is illustrative of the militant’s intent and growing capabilities to carry out attacks on Burkina Faso’s mines. On 9 June, presumed JNIM militants attacked army and Koglweogo VDP positions at the Riverstone Karma Mine work site, near Namissiguima. One soldier and two mining company employees were killed, while 10 soldiers and 2 civilians were injured after being hit by stray bullets in a nearby village. Several vehicles were also burned at the site. The Burkinabe air force intervened and carried out airstrikes near Tougou, killing 17 militants. JNIM claimed responsibility and said it seized weapons, ammunition, and vehicles.
As several other attacks on mining infrastructure have shown, militants do not hesitate to raze villages during an attack, such as on 31 March 2022, when presumed JNIM or IS militants attacked the mining site of Kougdiguin/Pougdrin, near the village of Barga-Mossi, in Namentenga province. The militants killed more than 20 people and injured 20 others, among them women and children.
Further such attacks on mines and mining infrastructures are highly likely in 2023, notably in the East, and Centre-East.
Telecommunications antennas also remained attractive targets for militants, notably in the East, North, Centre-North and Boucle du Mouhoun regions. Terrorist groups have continued to target antennas countrywide, significantly increasing the frequency of such assaults last year when compared to 2021. Part of the goal of targeting such infrastructure is to prevent the rapid deployment of security forces through disrupted telecommunications. Similar tactics are witnessed in other conflict zones, such as by al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya.
A focus on military strategies
Several announcements related to Burkina Faso’s security arrangements were made throughout 2022 by the two heads of state who succeeded one another as the head of the country. The long-term effects of these strategies have yet to be proven, but successive governments have nevertheless carried out numerous operations on the ground. The concentration of the armed forces has however evolved and has been directed towards the areas mentioned above – the East, the South-West and the Centre-North – in an attempt to root out militants from their historically main areas of operation.
The impact on civilians and communities
The impact of the conflict on civilians was highlighted on several occasions in 2022. On 13 August notably, Collectif contre l’impunité et la stigmatisation des communautés (CISC) and l’Observatoire de la dignité humaine (ODH), two local human rights organisations, issued a statement accusing the Burkinabé army of killing more than 40 civilians in Taffogo village located in Namentenga province (Centre-Nord region), on 08 August 2022. Earlier in the month, on 03 August, the Burkinabé military issued a statement indicating that it had erroneously killed civilians during an air strike conducted in several East region localities on 01 August. Then as the year was closing off, on 30/31 December, the remains of 28 individuals, from the Fulani community, who were shot were discovered in the Nouna department. Reports on 03 January indicate that a civic society group has accused VDPs members of being behind the killings, reportedly in retaliation for a militant attack that occurred between 29 and 39 December. These allegations remain unverified, and investigations are ongoing.
Nonetheless, the development follows several incidents of collateral civilian fatalities in recent months and years, most of them targeting the Fulani community. As some Fulani community members have joined jihadist groups in Burkina Faso in the past, a link between the Fulani community and militants is regularly established, fuelling tensions between communities and rendering them a target by the armed forces. Tensions with the Fulani community have also been driven by conflict over access to resources and land in the country given the community is primarily nomadic.
Such escalating tensions were further highlighted in August 2022 by the condemnation and warning by the government of Burkina Faso against calls on social media for the murder and ethnic cleansing of the country’s Fulani minority specifically. These calls, in the form of audio recordings posted mainly on WhatsApp, invited the “indigenous” populations to attack and murder the Fulani community.
Amid these rising tensions, further attacks targeting the Fulani community are highly likely in the medium term. Such attacks are likely to be carried out by the military and neighbouring communities alike. The sustained cycle of violence is likely to only exacerbate the IDP crisis in the country and serve as a radicalisation and recruitment tool for extremists over the medium- to long-term.
Is stabilisation in sight?
In general, while the cumulative attack trend shows a deteriorating situation vis-à-vis 2021, attacks nevertheless seemed to stabilise from April 2022. Indeed, after a peak in February 2022 – following the coup d’état in January 2022, during which a military junta led by Lieutenant Paul-Henri Sandiaogo Damiba overthrew former president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré – during which more than 200 jihadist attacks were recorded, militant activity then hovered around an average of 145 incidents per month, until the end of the year.
Although these figures remain record high compared to previous years, the trend of increasing attacks month after month could indicate perhaps a slowing down in the pace of offensive attacks by militants in the country. However, even so it is unlikely that the situation in Burkina will improve in the coming months and more sustained trend analysis is required to determine if any improvement is being realised. Indeed, as discussed above, militants notably widened their geographic reach in 2022, including around the capital, which, in turn, shows enhanced capability and movement. This year is therefore likely to be characterised be a similarly high pace of attacks particularly in the Centre-North, South-West and East regions, as well as in the border areas of the Gulf of Guinea coastal states: Togo, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Benin.
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